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Man of many hats fondly remembered
Dick Hill was Inuvik's first mayor, a scientist, entrepreneur and businessman

Sarah Ladik
Northern News Services
Thursday, August 4, 2016

Jessie Hill doesn't remember coming to Inuvik as an infant. She does remember growing up in the community, not realizing until much later just how unique an experience that was.

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Dick Hill was the first mayor of Inuvik, as well a scientist, entrepreneur and businessman, among other things. He passed away July 21 in Collingwood, Ont. - photo courtesy of Jessie Hill

"It was very isolated, but it was the centre of the world," she said. "People, important people, would go there when they would never go to another small town like that. It was the model Arctic town for Canada."

If Inuvik was the centre of the world, Dick Hill was at the centre of Inuvik.

The man who was Inuvik's first mayor, the founder of the Inuvik Research Laboratory, and former prominent member of the Chamber of Commerce, among many other things, passed away in his sleep in the early hours of July 21, according to a statement from his family. He was residing at Campbell House Hospice in Collingwood, Ontario.

"There was so much he got involved in, it was hard to keep track of all of it all," said Hill. "That's what I thought everyone did, that kind of civic engagement... I certainly grew up thinking that was normal."

Born in 1930 in Lamont, Alta., he grew up in London, Ont. He went to school there and completed his education in Boston, Massachusetts. He moved with his young family to the North in November 1963 and stayed until 1995, when he went back to Ontario with his second wife, Brigitte Hill.

"My father was joking with my mother one day, he had seen an ad in the Globe and Mail for a position at the new research lab in the Arctic," Hill said. "They thought it would be a good adventure, that they would be here for a few years, but then they just didn't leave. They just bonded with the place. There was no place else in the world where you could have had a life like that."

That is certainly borne out in the stories Inuvik residents tell of Hill. Tom Zubko, owner of New North Networks, got a job at Hill's lab - which eventually became the Aurora Research Institute - doing small research tasks at the age of 12.

"Dick was a fairly entrepreneurial kind of guy," he said, acknowledging that while they approached things differently - Zubko wasn't a government man like Hill - he fundamentally respected Hill's work.

Zubko said Hill started Inuvik TV and made the community one of the first three in Canada to have satellite television. He eventually sold the company to Zubko, and it is now New North Networks.

"He was always introducing me to people," Zubko said. "He was very generous in that manner, of understanding what your interests were and steering people your way."

Hill always had his eye on the next thing, the latest development, when it came to science and technology, but in some ways, he also clung to the past.

"His house was full of bookshelves everywhere," said Zubko. "Everywhere you turned, there were books."

A literary legacy

Those books are perhaps the most substantive legacy Inuvik has of Hill. When he left in 1995, he donated them -- all of them -- as a collection to the Inuvik Centennial Library.

With hundreds of books and documents ranging from technical scientific PhD theses to children's fiction, the Dick Hill collection is a rare resource in the region.

"People came in specifically looking for it," said Deb Karst, who was the librarian when the collection was donated.

"Local people had heard about it and wanted to see it, and for people who didn't always have a lot of books in the home, it was an opportunity for them to come and see and read things about people they knew. That was quite powerful for some people."

Karst said getting the collection in the first place was something of a coup, although there was some negotiation involved. The set, about 10 per cent of which remains in storage and uncatalogued at the library, had to stay together, and originally, Hill hadn't wanted any of it to go into circulation. Now, common books from the collection can be checked out, others consulted in the library, and still others live in glass cases to protect their delicate pages.

The only thing that binds it all together is that it all has something to do with the North, either through authorship or content.

"Other libraries, maybe research libraries, were certainly bigger and might have been a better fit," she said. "But he wanted it to stay here, in the North."

After more than 20 years, people still come into the Inuvik Centennial Library looking for the Dick Hill collection. Sometimes they knew him, sometimes they know of him through friends and family, and some use it purely for research.

Karst had no hesitation in saying how Hill would have reacted to those visitors.

"He'd have been thrilled, and he'd have been there chatting with them," she said. "He loved talking about anything to do with the North, and of course, he was incredibly knowledgeable."


While Hill did not stay along with his books, Mayor Jim McDonald recalls Hill's influence from long after he had moved away. His many-times-over predecessor came back to Inuvik for the community's 50th anniversary celebrations.

"He had already left, but he was still pretty excited about it," McDonald said, adding that he still has an e-mail from Hill in which he lobbied for Inuvik to be included on a list of best towns in Canada in a popular publication. "That was just a year or two ago. He really was a part of the community; he has a very broad range of friends."

His daughter would love to bring her own family back to the Delta, to see once again the setting of her own idyllic childhood, but lamented the high cost of getting here.

In some ways, Inuvik is even more isolated now than it was in her father's time, despite increasingly easy communication with the outside world. With airfare at a premium and little industry driving improved infrastructure, fewer people are heading North than in the golden years of the 1960s and 70s.

In Ontario, Hill found other interests to investigate, including his own family lineage of Loyalists. Still, Jessie said a part of him was always far away, in a small Arctic town.

"He was all-in for anything Inuvik," she said.

"He never disconnected. He really stayed in touch with people, activities, and issues in the community."

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