After 63 long years, Willie Adams meets his father
Senator Willie Adams’ life has come full circle. After 63 years, he’s finally met the man who fathered him.
Special to Nunatsiaq News
FREDRICTON, New Brunswick — When Senator Willie Adams stepped off a plane in Fredericton last month, there waiting for him was local businessman Nelson Adams.
It was a highly charged encounter. The handsome 63-year-old Inuit senator was about to greet his father for the very first time and the father was about to meet the son, of whose existence he had only recently become aware.
It was a celebratory occasion for the principals and their families. At first there was a certain tentative reticence, a slight awkwardness while they took each other’s measure. But the reserve dissipated like fog on a sunny morning and the meeting took the shape of an ordinary family reunion.
It was not ordinary, of course. Far from it. The twists and turns that brought this father and son together would be rejected by a fiction writer as much too contrived.
But they happened. And the erstwhile childless Nelson Adams was digesting the reality of his paterfamilias state; not only a father of one, but grandfather of nine and a great-grandfather. As for the Senator, he had assumed his father long deceased, and given his own age, 63, it was a reasonable assumption.
But his father was very much alive, and on both sides, there was much to assimilate. Willie Adams discovered that his father has for the past two years been deeply engrossed in a new business venture: farming sea urchins and marketing their roe internationally, mainly in Japan, and is a Canadian Navy veteran, businessman, lumberman, and entrepreneur.
Nelson Adams’ wife, Verna Peterson, was a chief court reporter with the Department of Justice until her retirement.
A life marked by drama
For the Senator, this stay in Fredericton was but the latest chapter in a life marked by drama, beginning with his birth in Fort Chimo — as Kuujjuaq was then called — in the summer of 1934 to an Inuk mother and the father he had just recently met.
He was educated in northern Quebec at mission schools. An electrician by trade, he unknowingly followed in his father’s entrepreneurial footsteps. His businesses include Kudlik Electric Ltd., Kudlik Construction Ltd., the Nanuq Inn in Rankin Inlet and Umingmak Expediting Ltd., in Ottawa. As well, he’s the president of Polar Bear Cave Investments Ltd. in Rankin Inlet.
Adams was a member of the NWT Territorial Council — now called the NWT Legislative Assembly — from 1970 to 1974. He served two terms as chairman of the hamlet council in Rankin Inlet.
But it was in the spring of 1977 that his life took a dramatic turn that he could never have anticipated. Pierre Trudeau, then the prime minister of Canada decided that Inuit should be represented in the Senate by an Inuk. Northern Affairs Minister Warren Allmand was despatched on a mission to screen three or four potential candidates.
Senator Adams remembers that interview with great clarity and describes it with dry wit:
“Why me? I asked. I was surprised to learn I was even being considered. I had served two terms as chairman of the hamlet Council, but I gave it up. Not very much money in politics. Electrical contracting provided a better living, but still, I was curious.
“What does the Senate do, I asked. Not much, he said. What does it pay? I asked. He told me. I’ll take it, I said.”
First Inuit Senator
So the 44-year-old became Canada’s first Inuit senator and guaranteed himself a place in Canada’s history.
It was not as simple as it sounds. Willie Adams had to leave his home in Rankin Inlet, his wife and eight children, and his electrical contracting business.
He was forced to change his diet, clothing styles and recreational activities, but he was prepared to do that. He had never really lost his interest in politics and here was a chance to serve the people in the north.
“But I knew nothing about being a senator,” he says now. “It took me about a year to learn the ropes. It’s been a real challenge, though. I have to keep informed on national and regional issues because we review legislation passed in the Commons. And I have to relate the concerns of my constituents to the government cabinet ministers and colleagues.”
His subsequent history indicates Pierre Trudeau and Warren Allmand made a good choice. He has racked up an impressive record in his Senate years and they’re far from over.
Given his concern for the future of the North, he has served on the Senate standing committees on energy, the environment and natural resources, aboriginal affairs and fisheries.
When the Senate proposed to establish a task force on the Meech Lake Accord and the Yukon and Northwest Territories, he was asked to become an ex officio member and traveled throughout the North with the task force.
He was an avid supporter of the Nunavut land claim agreement and before it was introduced in the Senate, he hosted a briefing session for Senators so that any concerns might be addressed by officials of Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, He has taken an active role in the process involving the creation of Nunavut in 1999.
He has traveled widely to promote Inuit art and has attended official openings of exhibitions, where he has delivered speeches outlining the history of the Inuit and Inuit culture.
His continuing interest in his Inuit constituents compensates somewhat for the lifestyle he has been forced to forego. “I still get a little lonely for the North sometimes,” he admits, but he spends enough time in Rankin Inlet to take the edge off the loneliness.
His personal life in Ottawa has been greatly enhanced by the presence of his wife, Mary, with whom he has an 18-year-old son, Isaac. They first met when she came to the North to work as a home economist, and in their 20 years together she has been an invaluable partner in all his enterprises.
On their momentous visit to Fredericton, Willie Adams and his family are accompanied by the Senator’s granddaughter, 14-year-old Stephanie, who has ambitions to become an actress and has already laid out the path her studies will take.
Once through high school, Stephanie says, she’ll be off to Saskatoon for study and training. She deserves a special mention because, quite unwittingly, she played a significant role in bringing about the meeting that took place this day in Fredericton.
Here is the story as the two branches of the Adams family tell it:
First the historical view from Nelson:
“In those early days the Hudson’s Bay Company employed only Scotsmen. The Canadian government finally took exception to that and suggested they hire some Canadians. Canadians would not be able to stand the isolation, said the company, but they compromised. They hired five Newfoundlanders. I was one of them.
I went to the North in 1931 and I stayed five years. I developed a great respect for the Inuit. This was a civilization that had thrived in that barren land for 10,000 years. They are intelligent, understand conservation and know it is the key to survival. They kill only what they need to fill their needs.
“I’m not sure we brought them much by way of progress, but we could learn a lot from them.
“Much as I liked it up there, I have never been back, though I have never lost my interest. In 1977, when I read about the appointment to the Senate, I was intrigued by the name Willie Adams. I had been called Willie when I was up there. It seemed an unlikely coincidence, so I began an investigation, checking vital statistics, records. It was not long before I was convinced Willie was my son, but I didn’t do anything about it. He has his own life, I thought. There is no place for me at this late date.”
That was the Senator’s reaction when it was suggested to him that the father he had long assumed dead was alive and well and living in Fredericton.
“I had no interest in getting in touch with him. He has his own life.”
Women bring family together
But they discounted the women in their respective lives. This is where Mary takes up the story, and where Stephanie makes her vital appearance:
“Nelson had talked to his niece, Gayle Edwards, about his suspicions and finally his certainty, but even at her urging he was reluctant to make an advance or try to make contact.
“There the matter stood until Stephanie came down from Rankin Inlet to stay with us for the winter and go to school. We live in a community called Plantaganet outside Ottawa.
“Gayle lives there too. Her daughter, Katherine, came home one day and told her mother of a new girl in her class from Rankin Inlet named Adams. She learned that Stephanie was the senator’s granddaughter. Gayle made the first tentative phone call to our home and reached me.
“After that there were many phone calls and finally Gayle and her family came to our house to dinner. It was our first meeting face to face. Neither of us knew what to expect, but we hit it off from the first minute.”
The four women were of one mind, but there was still the senator’s reticence to overcome. He was most reluctant to take the next step. Finally, last Father’s Day, at the urging of the distaff side, Senator Willie Adams picked up the phone and called Nelson Adams in Fredericton with the news that, this Father’s Day, they had something special to celebrate.
“One minute, I was childless, with no immediate family of my own. The next minute, I had a son and nine grandchildren. It was quite an experience,” Nelson said of that first telephone call.
Catching up after 63 years
The plans they made that night and in many subsequent telephone calls came to fruition when that plane touched down in Fredericton and these two handsome and accomplished men, father and son, greeted each other and bridged a gap that spanned well over 63 years.
The story that began with that young boy’s odyssey to the North so many years ago had come full circle.
This story would be rejected were it fiction for lacking credibility — far too contrived. But sometimes truth is much stranger than fiction.
As you read these lines, plans are afoot for the summer. Nelson will take Willie fishing and show him off to New Brunswick, and in turn, show New Brunswick off to his son.
Nelson will brush up on his Inuktitut. It’s gotten rusty, but a lot of it is coming back. There is a new spring to Nelson’s step; a brighter sparkle to Willie’ eyes, his place in the firmament even more firmly fixed than ever
Jacqueline Webster, a journalist who lives in Fredricton, New Brunswick, is a columnist for the St. John Telegraph Journal.