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Obituaries

Bob MacQuarrie, former Yellowknife MLA, passes away aged 86

Last modified: October 21, 2021 at 10:13am


Former Yellowknife MLA Bob MacQuarrie, known for his teaching and lyrics as much as his eight years in NWT politics, has passed away at the age of 86, his daughter confirmed.

Catherine MacQuarrie said Bob passed away on Wednesday morning after a long illness. She remembered her father as “a vibrant, caring, outgoing man who absolutely loved the North, loved life, and loved people.”

Bill Gilday, who performed alongside Bob in Yellowknife musical act The Gumboots, paid tribute to Bob as “a really kind man who just loved people.”

Born in Edson, Alberta, in 1935, Bob taught in Baker Lake in the 1960s before moving to Yellowknife’s Sir John Franklin High School. By 1979 he had become the MLA for Yellowknife Centre, a position he held for two terms.

He was briefly Speaker of the House, though Catherine said he found the position poorly suited him.

“He was a very eloquent speaker,” she said. “Some of his former colleagues would probably argue he went on too long, often. He spoke very passionately for the North and the development of the North.

“He discovered that being the Speaker of the House was a lot of pomp and ceremony, which he was never one for, at all. He wanted to be on the floor, in the debate, in the action.”

Bob served as an MLA during a pivotal era of Northwest Territories politics, playing a central role in early efforts that would ultimately lead to the creation of Nunavut.

“He believed in cohesiveness but he absolutely supported the right of the Inuit to have their own government,” said Catherine.

Yet she felt Bob’s Yellowknife legacy would be felt most in his impact as a teacher and musician.

“We suffered the embarrassment of the fact that he was absolutely adored as a high school teacher,” she recalled of life growing up in the city.

“He was very proud of what he could contribute to the North but, in many respects, his legacy was music – the stories about people of the North that he wrote in the lyrics that Bill Gilday put music to.”

Philosopher and lyricist

Bob met Bill in the late 1980s as he was stepping away from politics. Gilday and friends had already created The Gumboots, who started out performing traditional Canadian folk songs in three-part harmony.

Bob brought to the group a keen interest in history and his ability to write lyrics. He transformed a CBC news report about a man whose snowmobile ran out of gas outside Kugluktuk into the song The Resurrection of Billy Adamache, to which Gilday set music. (Read the lyrics at the foot of this article.)

“It became a hit. And I thought, well, why stop there?” Gilday recalled. “So Bob and I started writing songs together. We probably wrote about 40 songs, mostly to do with northern history, characters, tragedies, and triumphs.

“We met every week. He treasured those times – he even wrote a song about it, called Good Times Remembered.”

Bob MacQuarrie, front centre, with The Gumboots in the early 1990s
Bob MacQuarrie, front centre, with The Gumboots in the early 1990s. Bill Gilday is front left. YK Photo/NWT Archives

Teaching and music turned Bob into a larger-than-life character of Yellowknife in the late 20th century. Privately, though, he treasured reading, writing, and family.

“Bob was a philosopher,” said Gilday. “He read all the great works of philosophy, from Plato to the present, and took it upon himself to write his own book of philosophy.

“He felt none of the philosophers had answered all the questions of life. He figured out that he had a philosophy that did, and he called his philosophy secular humanism. He wrote three or four short treatises, which I have somewhere, and he lived his philosophy. He was a wonderful example of how to live life.”

“He really imbued in all of us kids that curiosity about life, the world, people, and the environment,” said Catherine. “He was a brilliant man.”

Bob’s partner, Irene Johnson, passed away in 2018, as did his former wife, Jo MacQuarrie, in 2019. He is survived by daughter Catherine, sons Donald, Kenneth, and Douglas, five grandchildren, stepdaughters Kate Powless and Karen Wasicuna, and stepson Kirk Johnson.


The Resurrection of Billy Adamache
Lyrics by Bob MacQuarrie

Billy Adamache, he’s slowly coming around
After raising himself from a hole in the ground.
“Well, I’m stiff and I’m cold, and I’m bare bones,” said he,
“But I ain’t quite dead yet, so please don’t bury me.”

Oh, arise, Billy, rise. Keep the wolf from the fold.
Your job’s on the line and your bed’s getting cold.
The hymns have been sung, got a box just your size,
So come back from the dead. Oh, arise, Billy, rise.

Billy thought he’d go hunting to bring home a meal,
Thought some contraband duck for a tasty pastille.
Crossed an Arctic ice river on June’s first warm day,
And he watched as his footpath just floated away.

He was trapped, he was caught, he was lost in a fog,
Wandered fifty long miles over tundra and bog.
Billy screwed up his courage and hatched a great scheme.
Set his clothes on an ice flow and swam ‘cross the stream.

Oh, arise, Billy, rise. Keep the wolf from the fold.
Your job’s on the line and your bed’s getting cold.
The hymns have been sung, got a box just your size,
So come back from the dead. Oh, arise, Billy, rise.

Back in Coppermine village when folks heard the news
That young Billy was missing, they organized crews.
Oh, they searched the great river, its mouth to its bed,
And they sadly turned home, thinking Billy was dead.

And for them that was that ‘cause the record it shows
That his lady packed up all his traps and his bows.
Then his boss advertised for a new employee,
And his pastor held services down by the sea.

Oh, arise, Billy, rise. Keep the wolf from the fold.
Your job’s on the line and your bed’s getting cold.
The hymns have been sung, got a box just your size,
So come back from the dead. Oh, arise, Billy, rise.

After fifteen long days Billy strode into town.
He was skinny and haggard, his face burnished brown.
But he laughed at his plight and with twinkling eyes
Let his Coppermine friends know the corpse was alive.

Oh, arise, Billy, rise. Keep the wolf from the fold.
Your job’s on the line and your bed’s getting cold.
The hymns have been sung, got a box just your size,
So come back from the dead. Oh, arise, Billy, rise.

Billy Adamache’s back and he’s walking around.