Whit Fraser: A Versatile Man Under the Midnight Sun

In Yellowknife, at the 2019 Northwords Writers Festival, I ran into our good friend, former CBC journalist, Whit Fraser. He led the CBC coverage of the historic Berger Inquiry into the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline. Some argue that hearing defined the North and had the potential to alter northern life as we knew it. Whit and I had just finished a long day of sucking up to publishers. We were buzzing from the coffee and bullshit, and were ready to get down to get to the meat of the matter—a damned good story. I must interject here that the aforementioned buzz may have inadvertently caused me to amend this story I am about to retell. A good storyteller always covers his ass. At any rate, the Inquiry was covered in all the Native languages of the Northwest Territories. Jim Edwards Sittichinli was the Loucheux (a word that was outlawed years later when the people redefined themselves as Gwich’in) interpreter. He is hereinafter referred to as Jim Edwards. After a long day of emotional testimony in Old Crow, Yukon, the CBC crew was ready to call it a day. They had no sooner packed up their gear when Charlie Peter Charlie walked into the community hall with his fiddle and a guitar player hot on his tail. One thing about the North, you don’t come into town with a posse and expect to sneak out without a good square dance. So after a quick cigarette and a stretch, back into the community hall it was. All the town folk knew the routine and returned carrying their moose-hide slippers in Hudson Bay plastic bags, along with a bag of cornmeal to wax the dance floor. Charlie Peter played a couple of slow waltzes to soften everyone up, then went straight into Big John McNeil, the signal that he was ready to take eight couples on with a square dance. One by one, seven able-bodied men shuffled up to the dance floor. They needed one more man. After a quick glance around the room to identify a partner, Jim Edwards stepped up from his chair. The men nodded and eight beautiful ladies took their spots beside the men. Every community has their own “caller,” someone who calls out the square dances. Old Crow’s caller was either out of town that night, or out of commission from possibly a pot of homebrew, which was not that uncommon. At any rate, they didn’t have a caller. Jim Edwards, who was not that big of a man, but imposing nonetheless, cleared his throat and bellowed with authority, “partners all!” They now had a caller. After a few lively square dances and a red river jig, people put their slippers back in their Hudson Bay plastic bags and waddled home along the dusty dirt road, their spirits restored from Charlie Peter Charlie’s fiddle. Never one to let a good opportunity slip by, Stephen Frost invited the CBC crew back to his place for a friendly game of cards, just for the hell of it. The excitement of the square dance and the blazing midnight sun put a little bounce back in everyone’s step and they readily accepted the invite. Not only was Jim Edwards a good square dance caller, but apparently he was a bit of a card shark. After a dozen hands of straight poker and a gutsy bluff, Jim Edwards was in sole possession of pretty much the bulk of currency in Old Crow, Yukon. Stephen’s wife, Ethel, fed the crew a hearty meal of caribou stew and bannock, then sent them on their way. As they walked back to their sleeping quarters at the local school, a passing Elder sternly reminded them, without looking up or breaking stride, that they were all expected in church the next morning. From that Elder’s tone, they knew damned well they bloody well better show up. After a couple hours of much-needed sleep, they crawled out of their sleeping bags and splashed cold water on their faces, trying to shake the sleep from their groggy heads. Oddly, Jim Edwards’ empty sleeping bag was neatly laid out and he was nowhere to be seen. Nonetheless, they ambled over to the little log church and squeezed through the tiny wooden door. Stephen Frost winked at them as they passed him on their way to the only empty pew up front. After they swept the dust from their seats, they noticed the vacant pulpit and wondered aloud if the minister might have gotten into the brew pot himself, along with the caller. A kid closed the door and the last mosquito landed on someone’s cheek, only to be squished with a loud slap. After a few moments, the minister appeared from behind a shaggy curtain. And who should it be, but none other than Jim Edwards Sittichinli. Frock and all! A hush fell over the room as is the custom when a man of God enters the room. “Please stand,” Jim instructed. He then proceeded to conduct one of the most well-executed and convincing Loucheux services ever witnessed by Mr. Fraser. Some 44 years later, Whit still shakes his head at the memory. “He was the most versatile guy I ever met,” he quipped with the same wonderment he must have felt that Sunday morning. If you find the time to read this after hobnobbing around the globe with Canada’s only Indigenous Governor General and your wife, Mary Simon, I hope you don’t mind me taking the liberty to recount this story, Whit. I may have, as we say, put a little salt on it. Please retort if you must.

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