Musician, director, and filmmaker Alex Czarnecki, who spent decades at the centre of Yellowknife’s artistic community, has passed away at the age of 72.

Alex was the first executive director of the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre, known for the dozens of theatrical works he produced and directed alongside his influence as a musician and teacher.

Remembering Alex online, residents recalled an influential, visionary man and educator.

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“Alex was my first teacher when I arrived in Yellowknife – his first year in Yellowknife, too,” wrote Elaine Keenan-Bengts. “His enthusiasm was so contagious.”

“He was a unique and incredibly talented man,” posted Bonnie Dickie, “always chasing yet another creative possibility.”

Joann Laserich called Alex “one of my favourite human beings,” adding: “His influence in my teens was paramount and I always thought I would have the opportunity to thank him and tell him what a wonderful person I thought him to be.”

‘A colourful place’

Alex Czarnecki moved to Yellowknife in 1971, having already made a name as a saxophonist in Montreal bands – including one hired by Pierre Trudeau to accompany him during a political campaign – before taking to teaching.

“I had juvenile delinquents as students and the place was mayhem, with motorcycle gangs and fights and all of them had been failing all of their lives,” he remembered of an early appointment in Montreal during a 2006 interview with Pat Braden’s Musicians of the Midnight Sun project, which profiles NWT music-makers.

“That first year I introduced them to music, I introduced them to theatre, art, and by Christmas these sort of Fonzies from ‘Happy Days’ were dressed up as little elves and put on their own Christmas play with music for the entire neighbourhood.

“Then the opportunity to come to Yellowknife finally arose. I applied to the school board here and, lo and behold, they sent me a letter.”

Cash-strapped in the 1980s, Alex ended up selling his saxophone to buy Christmas gifts for his children – but not before finding Yellowknife “a really colourful, vibrant, fun place to be working again in music.”

Alex then threw himself into drama – at times, he conceded in the same interview, a little too enthusiastically.

“One year I was crazy enough to do a musical for the ‘Singing North’ called Canterbury Tales,” he recalled, “while at the same time doing a production with the St Pat’s group at the school, at the same time doing a film, at the same time teaching – trying to teach.

“I came close to cracking up that year. That was nuts. Stupid.”

Posting online, the NWT Archives – which shared an image of Alex behind a film camera in 1980 – called Alex “a friend and mentor to many in the NWT, [who] helped to showcase northern people, stories and talent. He will be sorely missed.”

NACC says it is searching through its archives in the hope of producing some form of tribute to his contribution to the arts in the NWT.

Alex passed away on January 9, 2019, in Edmonton, with family and friends at his side. A celebration of life is to be arranged at a later date.