The essence of Red
Former cabinet minister recalls years in the North

Karen Lander
Northern News Services

NNSL (Mar 08/99) - When Red Pedersen came to Canada from Denmark in 1951, he was just a young man of 16 years of age.

Denmark, Pedersen recalls, was not a very nice place to live, especially after the Second World War.

"There were great shortages of food, and seeing people dying made you mature in years even though you were just a child," says the former cabinet minister.

"As a 16-year-old, I wanted to go to a country which had better opportunities for a young man like myself.... I was very much a young adult because of the way we grew up during the war, but I certainly don't regret it."

When Pedersen first came to Canada, he lived for a time in Halifax, N.S. He then moved to Toronto and spent a year-and-a-half there. His first job in the city was washing dishes. He then got into construction, working on Toronto's subway system. After the construction work, he landed a job in a mailing room.

On July 10, 1953, Pedersen made his way to Kugluktuk (Coppermine), to work for the Hudson's Bay Company as a fur trader.

"They used to call us the Bay boys," Pedersen says of when he first arrived the North.

The Hudson's Bay Company that Pedersen worked for in Coppermine had trading posts.

"We used to take inventory, make orders and travel by dog teams to make deliveries," he says. "The store wasn't heated at the time because no one went to the store unless they were going to make a fur exchange."

Pedersen recalls an incident that took place at Perry River and Sherman Inlet, on the mainland south and east of Cambridge Bay.

"It was a 500-mile round trip. It usually took us five days, but we had to walk 150 miles because our dogs died," Pedersen says. "We didn't get to the trading post until the next day. Then, when we got there, my boss asked me, 'how come you're a day late?' I told him that the dogs died and we had to walk 150 miles."

Another trip Pedersen remembers is when he travelled from Spence Bay to Gjoa Haven. "Back in those days, the HBC used to run a transport ship to make deliveries that they transferred from Tuktoyaktuk to Spence Bay every summer," he says. "It was really interesting. We stopped at every one of the communities."

Pedersen did this for seven years, getting to know people in many of the communities along the way.

"During those times, there were no RCMP, no medical services, no vital statistics, no dentists," he says. "I don't know how many teeth I pulled or how many pokes of penicillin I gave."

Pedersen also operated a radio station for a time.

"We'd send and receive messages for people, we were the telegraph people. There were no phones in those days, so if we had to send something to Winnipeg, we'd use the Morse code."

Around February of 1955, the DEW line was being developed near Cambridge Bay and people began flying in to work on it.

"The reason I remember the date so clearly is because that's when we first started seeing airplanes."

Pedersen remembers when Don Ayalik was the "talk of the North," as a hero trying to rescue his foster father, Patsy Klengenberg.

"I remember the days when everyone was still talking about it," Pedersen says. "Those were the snow house and dog team days."

In about 1960, Pedersen says, government personnel began moving into the communities. It was around this time it started building schools, nursing stations and other facilities.

"Also at that time, snowmobiles started replacing dog teams," Pedersen adds.

In 1962 or 1963, the first housing programs were under construction. These, Pedersen says, would replace the old matchbox houses. He adds that it was around this time that people's lifestyles in the Northern communities began to change.

"In 1970, we started the first settlement council," Pedersen says, lighting up with a smile. "And now, not even 30 years later, we have Nunavut."

"It has developed very quickly," he adds. "We went from no government structure at all, now we have it as a provincial structure.... It's pretty amazing how it happens that fast."

Pedersen lived in Cape Dorset from 1960 to 1964, working with the co-op. After this, he started working with the federal government as an area administrator.

When Pedersen eventually returned to Coppermine, he opened up his own hotel business, the Igloo Inn, which was the first on the Arctic coast. Pedersen also started a taxi service and an arcade named the Funhouse. The name was chosen by adult education students. Although the arcade has since changed ownership, Pedersen says it is still going strong.

In 1970, Pedersen became involved with local politics when the settlement council developed. The settlement council later became the hamlet council. Then, in 1983, Pedersen was elected as a MLA in the legislative assembly. Two years later, he was appointed to cabinet minister. In Pedersen's last term, he served as Speaker of legislative assembly. He retired as a politician in 1991.

"I just thought that....someone younger than me should run," said Pedersen.

Pedersen says he has remained in the North because he has many close friends there.

"I can go to at least half a dozen people's homes and have a coffee and feel welcome. Most of my friends, we've been friends since we were teenagers," Pedersen says, adding, "We've known each other for so many years."

Pedersen says his mother, who is 89 years old, lives in Toronto and he visits her at least once a year. He has five children -- Vera Panaktak, who was born in Cambridge Bay, Naja and Hans who were born in Cape Dorset, Freddy, who was born in Greenland when his wife went there for holidays, and Baba who was born in Yellowknife.

Pedersen has a cabin about 200 kilometres east of Kugluktuk and plans to spend some time there this April. He has no plans to leave Kugluktuk.

"It's home, where I belong," he says. "I'll probably spend the rest of my life up here."