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Iqaluit politician Bryan Pearson had ‘quite a life’ and quite a few jobs

Bryan Pearson in 1984, during his last term as mayor of Iqaluit, at the IODE hall in Apex, Nunavut, which he was proposing to renovate and reuse as a community centre.

Jim Bell/Nunatsiaq News

To inhabitants of Frobisher Bay (later Iqaluit, Nunavut), the oddball with the Liverpool accent was known as Sedluk – or Salluk – the skinny one. Elected as mayor and later an MLA, the self-proclaimed loudmouth was a devoted advocate who battled to improve the quality of life in the North, until his political career ended with a scandal. During his six decades in the North, Bryan Pearson, who died last month, was a jack-of-all-trades, working as a gravedigger, dishwasher, mortician, theatre operator, radio host, shopkeeper, entertainer and taxicab owner, as well as being a public servant.

Mr. Pearson was born on May 30, 1934, in Liverpool, England, to Edith Tanton, a housewife and Robin Fielding Pearson, a journeyman plumber. By the age of 15, he was finished with school and began working as a dishwasher on ships sailing between Britain and Australia.

In a short documentary about his life, titled Sedluk: Quite A Life, Mr. Pearson recounted how he jumped ship in Australia in 1949 or 1950 and stayed there for five years, earning his keep as a merchant seaman. "When I returned to England to visit my mother, the military came looking for me. So a few days later I disappeared [to escape conscription]. I booked a ticket to Canada, and I arrived in Montreal in 1956 where I was offered a job as a gravedigger at the Mount Royal Cemetery for 98 cents an hour."

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A fellow gravedigger told him about the construction of the Distant Early Warning Line (also known as the DEW Line) in the North. This system of radar stations – stretching across Canada's northern Arctic region as well as the North Coast and Aleutian Islands of Alaska, the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Iceland – was designed to detect a nuclear attack.

Sensing an opportunity, Mr. Pearson arrived penniless on Baffin Island that same year and began to wash dishes at the DEW Line station on Padloping Island. He soon relocated to the newly constructed satellite community of Apex, near Frobisher Bay, where he worked as a cook at the rehabilitation centre that served the Inuit returning to the Arctic following tuberculosis treatment at hospitals in southern Canada.

Mr. Pearson's entrepreneurial spirit allowed him see business opportunities where others didn't. His tenure as the town's mortician is a case in point. In the documentary, Mr. Pearson described how prisoners at the Baffin Correctional Centre had to dig graves and construct plywood coffins, prompting complaints from the inmates' family members.

"So I asked to do the funerals for the community. … I went to Montreal, found a used hearse and had it sent up on a ship." Mr. Pearson also purchased a couple of coffins that he filled with wine in hopes of deterring the prying eyes of dock workers whom he feared might plunder his stock. "So I got my wine unmolested past the stevedores, who would never look inside a coffin."

The long list of work contracts he had over the years included one that he secured to refuel planes for Nordair. The job led to a meeting with John Rae, now an executive with Power Corp., who was then a student labourer on garbage detail for the Department of Transportation.

"[Mr. Pearson] said his helpers were on vacation and was looking for someone to drive the oil truck which accompanies the gas truck. I volunteered," Mr. Rae told The Globe and Mail. "He asked if I knew how to drive an oil truck and then before I could answer said, 'The hell with it. We'll find out soon enough.'"

Mr. Rae made a mistake during the refuelling and got a taste of Mr. Pearson's colourful vocabulary and creative use of the F-word. In addition to using it as a noun, verb and adverb, Mr. Rae said the expletive also punctuated his sentences like a comma, period or question mark.

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But Mr. Rae made it clear that despite his salty language, Mr. Pearson was a compassionate and generous human being. "He believed in the people of Iqaluit and poured his heart into community."

In the documentary, Mr. Pearson recalled how his foray into politics began with a blaze in 1964. Mr. Pearson watched in disbelief one evening when firefighters were unable to douse a house fire in Apex, Nunavut, because the pump was frozen and some of the volunteer firefighters were intoxicated.

"I said to the spectators who were watching the fire that this is ridiculous and we can't allow this to continue in our community. Let's meet at my house and we'll have a discussion about forming a municipal government."

Mr. Pearson helped to organize Frobisher Bay's first community council and acted as its chair, a position equivalent to mayor. He served in the position on and off until the 1980s.

Embracing the culture of his new home, in 1965, Mr. Pearson founded Toonik Tyme, a traditional Inuit music and dance festival that celebrates the arrival of spring.

A few years later, he opened his landmark store, Arctic Ventures, which sold food and a range of other goods. He sold the store in 1985, but locals continue to refer to the establishment as Salluminiq, which roughly translates to "the place once owned by Salluk."

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In 1970, Mr. Pearson was elected to represent the Eastern Arctic in the Territorial Council of the Northwest Territories. He was re-elected in 1975 as territorial councillor for South Baffin. At the seat of government in Yellowknife, NWT, Mr. Pearson drew attention to territorial government neglect, especially the shocking housing conditions throughout the Eastern Arctic.

He subsequently recruited the up-and-coming architect Moshe Safdie to design homes in Iqaluit. At the time, Mr. Safdie had just made a splash at Expo 67 with his Habitat 67 community and housing complex. According to Ole Gjerstad, the filmmaker who shot the biographical documentary, Mr. Pearson was instrumental in landing the architect a commission in 1974 to build 81 octagonal housing units in Frobisher Bay. To Mr. Pearson's chagrin, however, the project was cancelled after the government approved another design to build 30 units that cost $42,000 more a home than Mr. Safdie's design.

Mr. Pearson suffered a defeat at the municipal level in 1985 when Andy Theriault, a popular regional director at the Indian and Northern Affairs office in Iqaluit won the election by a landslide.

A scandal over ballot box stuffing in that election resulted in the conviction of Mr. Pearson's secretary-manager at the time, Joe Rizotto. He was sentenced to a year in jail for replacing votes for Mr. Theriault with doctored tickets marked for Mr. Pearson.

Mr. Pearson was cleared by the RCMP after he passed a lie detector test. The scandal dogged him, though, and he never sought elected office again.

In 1999 he told Richard Gleeson of the Northern News Services that he was proud of his record as mayor and MLA, but he also revealed a deep cynicism about the political process. "Being a politician is not based upon what you can do," he said. It depends on who you can suck up to "and who you can con."

After his political life was over, he drew on his performance skills in his new incarnation as a nightclub entertainer.

"If there was a constant in his life, it was his love of music and ability to entertain," Mr. Rae said. He recalled Sedluk's supper-show performances at Iqaluit's East Coast Lounge on Sunday evenings, noting that he loved to open the show with a joke: "The East Coast Lounge is a wonderful place to eat: 10,000 flies can't be wrong."

"[Mr. Pearson] succeeded not only because he was the only show in town, but because he was creative and energetic and had the courage required to go on stage."

This ability to captivate an audience led him to his role as a CBC broadcaster, which allowed him to share his love for and knowledge of music.

His quest to provide the community with lighthearted diversions also led him to open Iqaluit's first cinema, in 1996. When callers dialled the Astro movie theatre for updates on feature films and times, they would get a taste of Sedluk's sense of humour. "It's Tuesday, and it's probably bloody raining, so what else are you going to do: Go to the movies! … The message went on to disparage a competitor, using colourful language.

While Mr. Pearson was seeking treatment for liver cancer at the McGill University Health Centre, Mr. Rae was awed by his friend's capacity to headline a show. "When a local singer arrived at the hospital to sing and play the piano for the cancer patients, Bryan was like his old self, joining the woman at the piano, singing along and encouraging the other patients to join in."

Mr. Pearson died of liver cancer in his home in Iqaluit on Oct. 12. He never married and leaves his brother, Robert.

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