Running Oscar's Empire

Taissumani: 2009-01-30

By Kenn Harper

It was mid-morning on a day in the early 1980s. I was living in Arctic Bay.

There was a knock at the door. It was Levi Kalluk, mayor of the community. "A white man wants to talk with you on the radio," he said.

"What white man, and what radio?" I asked.

"The white man that's out in Admiralty Inlet hunting polar bears. He wants to speak to somebody who can talk English on the Hunters and Trappers radio," replied Levi, who spoke no English.

I was intrigued. Who was this mysterious white man? I went with Levi to his house to find out.

The radio was a two-way radio on which only one party could speak at a time. A transmission generally ended with the word "over" and then the other party would respond.

I took the radio and, not knowing who would be on the other end, addressed myself to "the polar bear sports hunter in Admiralty Inlet."

The response was from a man with a Texas drawl. He identified himself as Oscar Wyatt. He asked me who I was, and then he proceeded.

He had left his private jet in Resolute and chartered in to Admiralty Inlet on a Twin Otter, where he had met guides from Arctic Bay. He had thought that he would be able to reach his private pilot by radio in Resolute but unfortunately he had been unable to raise him.

And, he explained, he had important business to do. That's where I came in.

"Now listen here, boy," he said.

I bristled – nobody had ever called me "boy" before. "I'm going to give you a phone number to call in Texas. The person who answers will be my private secretary. Tell her you have Oscar Wyatt on the radio from the polar bear camp. As soon as you mention my name, she'll do any goddamned thing you tell her. Let me know when you get her on the line. Over."

I called the number and got the lady on the line. I had to explain to her why she couldn't speak to Oscar herself, and that I would have to be the go-between, relaying the conversation from radio to phone.

With the telephone in one hand and the radio in the other, I radioed back to Oscar and told him that his secretary was on the line.

Then began one of the weirdest half hours of my life. Oscar named companies and asked me to find out their current stock prices. I passed on the questions to the secretary who responded with instant stock quotations.

Taking barely time to hear the quotes, let alone think about them, Oscar fired back with a series of buy and sell orders of a magnitude that I found hard to understand.

Buy 100,000 shares of this, sell 50,000 shares of that, short 100,000 shares of something else. I passed on the orders to the secretary, for whom this was likely everyday business.

But Oscar wasn't finished. There were questions on the status of oil supplies and refineries in places like Iraq and Libya, places where Oscar had investments. I passed on each question, and reported the secretary's answer.

For a nano-second – still smarting from being called "boy" – I considered passing on an order to the secretary to transfer a few million dollars to my personal bank account.

On the scale that I was doing business for Oscar that day, I figured he wouldn't miss it. But it would have been a bad mistake. For I later learned that Oscar was a rough customer with nasty friends.

He also had a loose regard for business ethics. In the early 1970s, as natural gas prices rose, Oscar had sold off all his natural gas reserves for huge gains. The problem was, he had a contract to supply natural gas to Austin, San Antonio, and much of south Texas.

But with no more gas, he reneged on the contract and one-third of Texas was without gas. Schools and other institutions had to close until gas was bought on the spot market, which almost doubled utility costs.

Oscar was prosecuted and ordered to forfeit a refinery and some other assets. Small change for him, considering the profits he had made.

Oscar was also a close friend of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Saddam Hussein. In 2005 criminal charges were laid against Oscar for his participation in the United Nations "Oil for Food" program.

In late 2007 he was sentenced to one year and one day in prison and was released three months ago for good behaviour. Two months ago he suffered a stroke.

Some say that Oscar Wyatt was the inspiration for J. R. Ewing on the old "Dallas" television series – but "older, rounder, and nastier."

For all his wealth and power, on a day in the 1980s, he was powerless and at my mercy at the end of two-way radio in an isolated polar bear hunting camp in the Canadian Arctic. For a half hour or so, I ran Oscar's empire. I like to think that I made him a few million dollars that day.

And all I got was a "Thank you, boy."

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to

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