North

Long-time Nunavut editor and award-winning writer Jim Bell dies in Ottawa

James Henry Bell, long-time journalist, editor and opinion writer at Nunatsiaq News, died on Aug. 24 at age 69, after speaking truth to power for nearly four decades from Iqaluit during a period of profound political, economic and environmental change.

Reporter and Nunatsiaq News editor spoke truth to power for nearly 4 decades

Jim Bell in one of his favourite situations: reading a newspaper on his Iqaluit deck. The long-time journalist, editor and opinion writer at Nunatsiaq News, died on Aug. 24 at age 69, after speaking truth to power for nearly four decades. (Jane George)

Some people poke holes in things because they take pleasure in seeing them fall. Jim Bell poked holes because he wanted everyone to see the weaknesses. So they could be fixed.

James Henry Bell, long-time journalist, editor and opinion writer at Nunatsiaq News, died on Aug. 24 at age 69, after speaking truth to power for nearly four decades from Iqaluit during a period of profound political, economic and environmental change in the Canadian Arctic and the circumpolar world.

Tributes poured in this week from Inuit and non-Inuit leaders, current and former colleagues, Arctic residents, scientists, bureaucrats and academics for a man who had been called Encyclopedia Bell, a legend of Canadian media and the Conscience of Nunavut.

"Jim Bell was an authentic and genuine journalist and editor. His pieces were researched, passionate and always authentically him," said Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq. 

"Jim was fiercely dedicated to Nunavut and the North and fought hard to create a strong media presence for our territory … I admired his dedication to his profession."

A self-taught journalist who seemed to fear nothing and no one, Bell could be cranky and gruff but he was gentle and generous to those on the outskirts of power and wealth, perhaps because he'd lived there himself.

He kept few friends, cautious to avoid conflicts of interest in a small place, and spent half his life ensuring that northern leaders were held accountable, and that northerners understood how their homelands were changing. 

"I felt I was just telling the truth," Bell said recently, from a hospital bed. "What's the point of being a journalist if you don't tell the truth?"

Scottish, Ontario roots

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, and raised in Ontario by parents who were both nurses, Bell will be remembered as one of the best opinion writers in Canada. His editorials — concise, sharpened to a knife-edge and often draped in searing humour — won dozens of regional and national awards. 

He moved to Frobisher Bay in the late 1970s, "for adventure," and worked as a bouncer at the Frobisher Inn bar before landing a reporter job at Nunatsiaq News. When Nortext bought the paper in 1985, Bell became editor, only to be fired two years later for penning a cheeky editorial that criticized his bosses for perceived under funding.

Bell taught journalism at Nunavut Arctic College for a couple years before Nortext rehired him to edit Arctic Circle magazine and contribute to Nunatsiaq. In 1997, Bell was reappointed newspaper editor and he remained at the paper until early 2021.

Jim Bell in Iqaluit in 2005. Bell 'was an authentic and genuine journalist and editor. His pieces were researched, passionate and always authentically him,' said Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq. (Jane George)

Bell learned how to be a journalist pre-Internet in one of the busiest and least-served news environments in Canada. Young Inuit leaders, traumatized by residential school, were negotiating the terms of Canada's largest ever Indigenous land claim settlement and a new territory for the eastern Arctic. The economy was diversifying, crime was rising and Inuit were struggling to cope with colonial change.

An outsider, Bell was determined to be informed and believed, travelling widely, learning Inuktitut, consuming facts and figures like a machine and honing a remarkable talent for summarizing complex legal, financial and policy documents into plain-language stories. For decades, he mentored a revolving door of novice reporters, teaching them how to ask tough questions, communicate clearly and always consider Inuit readers first. 

"I believe Jim was driven by a public-spirited duty to speak out, in measured, credible tones, about sensitive subjects that needed to be considered thoughtfully and reasonably in sometimes highly charged emotive situations," said Senator Dennis Patterson.

"He was the epitome of what one would most respect in an editor of a newspaper: independent, connected, thoughtful, committed and credible."

An informal ambassador

Over the years, Bell also schooled countless visiting reporters, magazine writers, filmmakers and television producers about contemporary and historical life in the North. In a farewell message to Bell, veteran Canadian Press reporter Bob Weber expressed his gratitude.

"What I've never said is how much I've admired your fierce and fearless journalism," Weber said. 

"I think you're one of the best editorialists I've ever read, not only because of your clean and lucid prose but also because of your determination to say what needs to be said. It's not easy to be a critic in a small place. You have been. In so doing, you have done great service to both Nunavummiut and all Canadians, and you make me proud to be a journalist."

Bell could lambaste a politician or organization one day and then applaud them the next, because it wasn't personal: it was work. Questioning everything and everyone, including yourself, was the cornerstone of journalism.

In 2012, Bell received the Governor General's Diamond Jubilee medal honouring significant contributions and achievements by Canadians.

Author, Inuit rights advocate and Nobel Prize nominee Siila Watt-Cloutier says she will always remember Bell's courage to tell unpopular truths.

"You have contributed much to our Inuit homelands through your writings and, although not all of those writings were always well received, you truly remained steadfast in your search for the truth," she wrote. "I have appreciated your directness and attempting to call like it is. Not everyone has the guts to put themselves out there with their opinions as you did."

Jim Bell is survived by his younger brother Iain, sister-in-law Margaret, niece Madeleine and countless journalism colleagues across the country.

A longer version of this story was originally published in Nunatsiaq News.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lisa Gregoire

Freelance writer

Lisa Gregoire is a National Magazine Award-winning writer of fiction and faction. She lives in Ottawa with her husband and twin teen daughters. Gregoire worked for Nunatsiaq News in Iqaluit from 1992 to 1995 and then again, as managing editor, from 2013 to 2019.

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