‘Fierce and fearless’ journalist, Bell believed in ‘just telling the truth’
The longtime Nunatsiaq News editor will be remembered as one of the best opinion writers in Canada and a homegrown opposition party to northern governments and Inuit organizations
Jim Bell is hunched over the keyboard of an old Macintosh computer, the office thick with cigarette smoke, a stained mug of coffee cooling beside an ashtray full of butts. It’s 1993. Then-editor of Nunatsiaq News Todd Phillips is pacing, gently prodding Bell to finish an editorial so we can put the paper to bed.
Bell could not be rushed — not when he was writing, interviewing someone, telling you a story or reading a 126-page Inuit impact and benefits agreement. Because truth is deep and wide and takes time to explore.
After an hour or so of keyboard stabbing and swearing, Bell would submit a scathing, impeccably argued critique of whatever northern boondoggle was currently unfolding North of 60. Then he would pull on his parka and Pangnirtung tuque and walk home in Iqaluit’s cold and dark, totally buzzed on words.
James Henry Bell, a writer and editor at Nunatsiaq News for 34 years, passed away on Aug. 24 in Ottawa, at the age of 69. It turns out cancer was the only thing powerful enough to silence him.
Bell was a self-taught journalist who feared nothing and no one — or if he did, he didn’t tell. He could be cranky and gruff but he had a huge, soft heart he didn’t often show. He kept few friends, cautious to avoid conflicts of interest in a small town, and spent much of his adult life ensuring northern leaders were held accountable for their actions, and ensuring northerners understood the profound social, economic, environmental and institutional changes unfolding across the new Nunavut territory and around the circumpolar world.
“I felt I was just telling the truth,” he told me recently, from a hospital bed. When asked why truth was so important, he gave that withering look for which he was famous. “Why else are we here?” he said. “What’s the point of being a journalist if you don’t tell the truth?”
Bell had been praised and quoted by lawyers, scientists and university professors. He’d been called Encyclopedia Bell, a legend of Canadian media and the conscience of Nunavut. Joe Savikataaq, Nunavut’s premier, expressed his admiration.
“Jim Bell was an authentic and genuine journalist and editor. His pieces were researched, passionate and always authentically him. Jim was fiercely dedicated to Nunavut and the North and fought hard to create a strong media presence for our territory,” Savikataaq wrote in an email. “He will be missed. I admired his dedication to his profession.”
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, and raised in Ontario from a young age by parents who were both nurses, Bell will be remembered as one of the best opinion writers in Canada and a homegrown opposition party to northern municipal, territorial and federal governments as well as Inuit organizations. Bell’s editorials — concise, sharpened to a knife-edge and often draped in searing humour — won dozens of regional and national awards.
At the time of his death, he knew more about Nunavut, and the Arctic, than any journalist in Canada. He would have deleted that previous sentence. Never use absolutes, he’d say. But this one stands.
Bell moved to Frobisher Bay in the late 1970s, “for adventure,” and worked as a bouncer at the Frobisher Inn bar — now the Store House pub. Known as “The Zoo,” it was a boozy dive where drunkenness and violence reigned. But Bell dreamed of being a writer and soon landed a job at Nunatsiaq News, first as a “print and ad man” and later as reporter. Monica Connolly, who owned the paper then, said despite having no journalism schooling or experience, Bell was easy to train.
“Jim was smart, hard-working, responsible. And literate,” she said in an email. “The only trouble I ever had with Jim was that we were both proud and stubborn so every now and then we’d have a flaming row about some minor disagreement.”
When Nortext bought the paper in 1985, Bell became editor. Two years later, he was fired for penning a cheeky editorial that criticized his bosses for perceived understaffing and underfunding, a misstep that forced the company to reprint that week’s edition with the offending piece removed.
Reflecting on that time in a 2005 Ryerson Review of Journalism profile, he admitted, “I was 35 years old … I should have known better.” He then said his greatest fear was being cocky and making mistakes. “I usually get into trouble,” he told the magazine, “when I become overconfident about an editorial position and don’t ask enough questions.”
Bell taught journalism at Nunavut Arctic College for a couple years before Nortext rehired him to edit Arctic Circle, a magazine published from 1990 to 1994. After Phillips left Nunatsiaq News in 1997, Bell was reappointed editor and he remained there, in various editing capacities, until early 2021, having lived his final years in Ottawa.
Bell cut his teeth pre-internet in one of the busiest and least-served news environments in Canada. Young Inuit residential school survivors — many of them traumatized by abuse, struggling with addictions and wrestling their demons in public — were thrust into leadership roles, some negotiating the terms of what would become Canada’s largest-ever Indigenous land claim settlement, and a new territory for the eastern Arctic.
The economy was evolving. Mining companies were sniffing about and political transients, drug dealers and other southern shysters were exploiting financial opportunities. Inuit, especially in smaller communities, were struggling with the onslaught of change.
An outsider, Bell was determined to be informed and believed. He travelled whenever possible and learned Inuktitut. He consumed facts and figures like a machine, honing what would become a remarkable talent for summarizing complex legal judgments, CRTC gobbledegook, scientific papers, government budgets and annual reports into plain-language stories.
Writing simply is anything but simple and in a cross-cultural environment, with citizens feeling estranged in their own land by southern nurses, teachers, cops, priests, and politicians, communicating clearly was, and remains, essential. Bell became a master, and then began his master class.
For decades, Bell taught and mentored a revolving door of novice reporters, myself included, who were alternately awed by, and fearful of, his vast institutional memory and skill with a pen. Bell’s many protégés now work across the country in media, government and Indigenous organizations. In 2012, he received the Governor General’s Diamond Jubilee medal honouring significant contributions and achievements by Canadians.
“I believe Jim was driven by a public-spirited duty to speak out, in measured credible tones, about sensitive subjects that needed to be considered thoughtfully and reasonably in sometimes highly charged emotive situations,” Senator Dennis Patterson wrote in a message.
“He was the epitome of a what one would most respect in an editor of a newspaper: independent, connected, thoughtful, committed and credible.”
And while those outside federal and Inuit circles may not know his name, many have still benefited from his knowledge. Over the years, Bell schooled countless visiting reporters, magazine writers, foreign and domestic filmmakers, television producers, radio talk-show hosts and political panelists, about modern and historical life in the North. Some even deigned to buy him an overpriced northern meal and a glass of wine in exchange for a course in Arctic 101.
In a farewell message to Bell, long-time Canadian Press reporter Bob Weber expressed gratitude for Bell’s wisdom and insights.
“What I’ve never said is how much I’ve admired your fierce and fearless journalism,” Weber wrote.
“I think you’re one of the best editorialists I’ve ever read, not only because of your clean and lucid prose but also because of your determination to say what needs to be said. It’s not easy to be a critic in a small place. You have been. In so doing, you have done great service to both Nunavummiut and all Canadians, and you make me proud to be a journalist.”
Bell was a passionate, defiant, occasionally indignant and foul-mouthed meat-and-potatoes Scot who generously gave time and money to people on the outskirts of power and wealth, perhaps because he’d lived there himself. He loved jazz, politics, cats, the news, history and books. He adored a good story, especially if it involved a scandal or cover-up.
He hated typos, errors, lazy journalists and “God-awful” boring stories that were too long (like this one, which he would have cut in half). As Phillips recalled in a video message, Bell implored writers to “please consider the long-suffering reader.”
He could lambaste a politician or organization one day and then applaud them the next. Because it wasn’t personal: it was work. Questioning everything and everyone, including yourself, was the cornerstone of journalism.
Author, Inuit rights advocate and Nobel Prize nominee Siila Watt-Cloutier says she will always remember Bell’s courage to tell unpopular truths.
“You have contributed much to our Inuit homelands through your writings and, although not all of those writings were always well received, you truly remained steadfast in your search for the truth,” she wrote. “I have appreciated your directness and attempting to call it like it is. Not everyone has the guts to put themselves out there with their opinions as you did.”
Before he passed away, we sat in a quiet garden and reminisced about the roaring ’90s in Iqaluit. Until then, the only time I’d ever seen him in tears was at the end of a long belly laugh, usually over some “howler” — a political blunder, say, or embarrassing mistake in a news story.
As we sat, he said he missed the camaraderie of the newsroom. He wished he’d lived a “better life,” one where he’d been more kind and generous. I said he’d given his life to the North and that was generous enough. I shared the videos and messages people had sent.
“Tell them I love them,” he said. “What else is there to say? That’s all that’s left.”
“I will,” I said.
“I’m not ready,” he said, wiping tears.
“Of course not, who is?”
“I wish I hadn’t been such a prick.”
“Jim, you made a real difference in this world and that’s more than most people can say.”
“Nakurmiik,” he said.
Jim Bell is survived by his younger brother Iain, sister-in-law Margaret, niece Madeleine and countless journalism colleagues across the country.