Jim Bell was a boots-on-the-ground, pen-in-hand chronicler of Nunavut

Longtime editor died Tuesday in Ottawa

Jim Bell’s byline appeared in Nunatsiaq News for decades. The longtime editor of the paper, who chronicled a key period of Nunavut’s history, died in Ottawa Tuesday at the age of 69. (Photo by Corey Larocque)

By Corey Larocque

Jim Bell’s ink-stained fingerprints are not just all over Nunatsiaq News, they’re all over the North.

On the walls and shelves of our Iqaluit office, preserved for posterity, are plaque-mounted award-winning newspaper articles and editorials that Jim wrote — many of them more than 30 years old.

His byline appeared on news articles that are accompanied by photos of Brian Mulroney and Paul Quassa, as they negotiated the agreement that created Nunavut.

The longtime former editor of this paper died Tuesday after a stellar career in journalism. He made his mark on Nunavut before there even was a Nunavut. He was arguably the leading chronicler of the new territory.

As the managing editor of Nunatsiaq News, I feel like I’m walking in Jim’s footsteps, knowing that I will never understand a fraction of what he knew about the North.

He did it the old-fashioned way — with boots on the ground and pen in hand.

About half of the current Nunatsiaq News staff never actually had the pleasure of meeting Jim face to face. It’s one of the sad realities working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March, Jim broke the news to us that he had cancer. He continued working while going through treatment. When that became too difficult, he took a leave, hopeful he would come back to work once he recovered. But over the summer, he came to terms with the fact he would never be well enough to come back to work.

In his final weeks, he was graciously supported by former colleagues, Lisa Grégoire (a former editor of the paper) and Jane George (herself a stalwart chronicler of the North). That they were at his side speaks volumes about the rapport Jim built with his co-workers and about the kind of dedication and love that’s forged among journalists who spend years together in the trenches.

Jim was a legend not only in the North, but in journalism. As a young journalist myself, I occasionally saw job postings at Nunatsiaq News. They said send your application to managing editor Jim Bell. Whenever I would see them, three things stuck in my mind: what’s it like to be a reporter in the North? How does a newspaper dedicated to Nunavut and Nunavik make a go of it in an industry that has suffered so many cuts? And finally, who is this Jim Bell guy who has been knocking around the North for so long?

After relinquishing the helm of the paper that was an immense part of his being, Jim continued to work as a contributing editor. He was our eminence grise, the guy to turn to for his encyclopedic knowledge of the Arctic.

Jim’s death leaves a huge hole in our newsroom and it is an irreplaceable loss of institutional knowledge.

As we learned Wednesday of his passing, we were laying out this week’s e-edition. At the top of the front page are three “teaser” pictures. One is of a rare lightning strike in Iqaluit; the other is of a program to teach Inuit to build qaijait. Their selection seems fitting for the issue in which we say goodbye to Jim. Covering things that rarely happen — lightning in Iqaluit — is the heart of good journalism, which Jim loved. And stories that document life in the North and Inuit traditions were at the heart of how Jim Bell did journalism.

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