‘Go private:’ How a friend’s advice led to creation of Nunatsiaq News

Privately owned newspaper emerged after Monica Connolly bought Inukshuk newsletter in 1976

Nunatsiaq News former owner and publisher Monica Connolly, left, and staff members Mary Cummings and Udlu Pishuktie in the paper’s office in Iqaluit in the 1970s. Connolly became the owner of Nunatsiaq News in 1976 when she created a company called Frobisher Press Ltd., and bought the Inukshuk newsletter from a non-profit society that started publishing it in 1973. (Photo courtesy of Monica Connolly)

By Corey Larocque

A good friend’s advice to “take it private” led Monica Connolly to found Nunatsiaq News in 1976.

Connolly, who was editor-publisher of the Inukshuk newsletter at the time, got that recommendation after a dispute with the non-profit, community-led board running it.

She had been working as editor-publisher for Inukshuk for about a year when the board suddenly demanded to have a financial statement in time for its next meeting — the following Wednesday.

“I said, ‘You’ve got a choice. You can have a statement or you can have a newspaper for next Wednesday. But you’re not getting both. It’s not possible,’” Connolly said in a phone interview from her home in Oshawa, Ont., an hour east of Toronto.

Connolly’s company Frobisher Press Ltd. became the first owner of Nunatsiaq News after buying the Inukshuk newsletter, which is considered the precursor to this newspaper.

Inukshuk was created in February 1973 — 50 years ago — by Ann Hanson and a non-profit organization in Frobisher Bay who wanted the paper to help people in the growing community to get to know each other.

When the board asked Connolly for the financial statements on short notice, she was “furious,” she recalled.

After learning about the demand for financial statements, she went to cover a government hearing. There, she bumped into a friend, Jim Tooley, then the CEO of Nordair airline.

“Jim and I had been becoming friends over the last while,” Connolly recalled.

He asked her what was wrong.

“He says, ‘You should go private,’” Connolly said, recalling the advice that launched her into the newspaper ownership business.

“He suggested I go private and he told me how to do it, what I had to do.”

Connolly created Frobisher Press Ltd. and asked Inukshuk’s board to sell its three-year-old paper to her.

“We convinced the board to sell to us. I had to raise money. ‘Us’ being me and anybody I could sell shares to,” she said.

One of the conditions of the sale was that the new privately owned paper would not use the same Inukshuk name the non-profit board had used.

The June 30, 1976, issue of the Inukshuk newsletter, held by Library and Archives Canada, announces the transition to Nunatsiaq News. (Photo by Corey Larocque)

Nunatsiaq News was born.

Connolly, now 78, grew up in Oshawa in the same house where she lives today. But she never felt the city, then famous for its General Motors plant, was home.

Her father, a Scot and an outdoorsman, introduced her to northern Ontario’s “Shield Country.” He admired the First Nations people he met there, so Connolly grew up oriented toward the north and with a respect for Indigenous peoples.

After becoming a teacher, she moved to Frobisher Bay (now Iqaluit) to take a government job at an experimental residence for young women. But the job, she said, “just wasn’t working out for anyone.”

After the residence closed, she spent three months doing social services research for the government. In the meantime, someone asked her to be Inukshuk’s court reporter under then-editor Nerda Greenway, who had replaced founding editor Hanson.

“I enjoyed it. They enjoyed me,” she said.

In time, Connolly took over as Inukshuk’s editor-publisher. Not long after that, she was running the newspaper herself.

Operating a newspaper in Frobisher Bay in the mid-1970s was “crazy but it was fun,” Connolly said, comparing it to the image portrayed in western movies of the guy in a one-horse town who churned out the paper.

Nunatsiaq upgraded from the Gestetner copy machine Inukshuk had used and began using an offset printing press. There was no technician in the North, so Connolly had to troubleshoot mechanical breakdowns over the phone with a repairman in Montreal.

“When you were a publisher, you were a publisher,” she said.

The paper was fiercely independent, Connolly said — “capable of taking on a fight with just about anybody.”

Former Nunatsiaq News owner Monica Connolly in a photo from 2018. (Photo courtesy of Monica Connolly)

But working in the North came with compromises, such as taking a ride “with anyone who was flying a plane” without risking the perception they were “being corrupted” into being “an arm of the government,” she said.

Nunatsiaq News had about seven full-time staff plus “independent” translators. They worked in a building near the legion. The mostly white news staff tended to socialize with the community’s Inuit population more than other southerners.

One of the people who worked for Connolly was Jim Bell, who would become the paper’s longtime, highly regarded editor. He worked for Nunatsiaq News for more than 30 years until his death in 2021.

Bell was first hired to work the printing press. He got his start as a writer by filling in when another writer had to leave.

“We didn’t agree all the time about the politics and that was OK,” Connolly said of Bell. “He enjoyed the job more than he was interested in getting paid.”

Connolly recalled her time running Nunatsiaq as “a really exciting time” to be covering the news.

“There were so many problems — which you’ve still got,” she said, citing the territory’s housing shortage and persistent tuberculosis problems.

It was the period when discussions about land claims for Inuit had begun and Nunatsiaq staff were regularly in touch with newsmakers like Paul Quassa, Tagak Curley, Piita Irniq and John Amagoalik.

It came with challenges, too, in holding on to staff, especially Inuit. As soon as Nunatsiaq News trained bright, young Inuit workers, they left the paper for a government job that offered housing.

Connolly started backing away from Nunatsiaq News in the early 1980s because she suffered what was eventually diagnosed as depression and a fear of flying.

She described having what she called a “nervous breakdown” in the early 1980s. At the time, few people knew about depression and how to treat it.

“It looked like laziness because you lost your energy. I was accomplishing less and less by the early ’80s,” she said.

By 1985, Frobisher Press sold Nunatsiaq News to Nunatext Publishing, a partnership involving Nunasi Corp., and the Roberts brothers — Michael, David and Steven. The Roberts family has owned the paper since then.

“They were quite successful at business, I understand,” Connolly said.

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(3) Comments:

  1. Posted by Lynda Gunn on

    I remember running prints of “Inukshuk” newspaper in Rose Jackson’s 8 storey apartment in 1971, so I think that the start date of the society who owned it and started the paper might be wrong. In 1973 I was living and attending high school in Ottawa.

  2. Posted by Tooma on

    It is great that they created newly papers. As they are apart Inuit, today we can remember and read about the pass even before younger generations werent even born. But now we can see today.

  3. Posted by Taqialuk Peter on

    My first paying job, $2.95 per hour. Myself and a whole bunch of kids went back and forth and collated from front to back.

    Hope to retire soon from the workforce. 🙂

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