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Six Celebrated Seniors

As part of the Yellowknifer's special full edition on seniors, we reached out to a few prominent folks in their prime to tell us how they arrived here and what they've done to contribute to the well-being of the community and themselves.

Merlyn Williams, 76

Brendan Burke/NNSL photo.
Merlyn Williams, 76, is a former business owner and one-time Yellowknife City councilor.
Jan. 29, 2018.

From business owner and politician, to thespian turned YouTube sensation, Williams, 76, has worn many hats as a Yellowknifer since he arrived in 1967.

At 26, Williams and his wife of two years immigrated from Wales to Yellowknife where he found work as a radio and television technician, servicing TVs, jukeboxes and installing PA systems in the then “frontier town.”

“Yellowknife was getting four hours of black and white television then,” he recalls.

Four years later in 1971, Williams Electronics Ltd., his own business, was born – and with it, his widespread involvement in the community.

Williams helmed the Royal Canadian Legion, Yellowknife branch as president in 1985, 1986 and 1992. Later in the 1990s, Williams changed channels again, moving into the realm of politics to serve as city councillor for three years.
Williams later took over as chair of the Liquor Board.

Williams is a two-time president of the Yellowknife Seniors’ Society and is now the immediate past president of the organization.

Retiring at 65, a model airplane hobby and a love of theatre have kept him busy. He performed in over 40 plays and musicals in the city, playing the lead role in Man of La Mancha.

In the 1960s, in a town where everyone knew everyone, passersby would shout “hey Will.”

He says he's been afforded a new moniker: “I’ve been referred as the Raven Whisper.”

A seven-year friendship with a Raven named Raymond, a video camera, and 1.2 million YouTube hits would earn Williams the title.

He turned his long love for birds into an Internet phenomenon dubbed “Conservation with Raymond the Raven.”
His feathered friend has since moved on, but after fifty years, Williams is staying put in Yellowknife. “There’s nothing I dislike about it," he says. "Except the weather.”

Patrick Scott, 68 

Brendan Burke/NNSL photo
Patrick Scott, 68, is a former CBC videographer and current owner of Birchwood Coffee Kǫ̀,
Jan. 29, 2018

Scott is the owner and operator of Birchwood Coffee Ko. He's also a former videographer, and a historical witness to one of the North's seminal cultural and political moments.

After landing a job as a cameraman for the CBC, Scott moved to the city in 1975.

Shooting on 16mm film – which would be shipped to Vancouver for processing and editing – Scott aimed his lens at the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, better known as the Berger Inquiry.

For two-and-a-half years, Scott documented the inquiry, which assessed the environmental, social and economical affects of a proposed pipeline that would have carried gas through the Mackenzie River Valley, if it had received the green light. It didn't.

“It was an amazing experience,” he recounts. “It was really like a two-and-a-half university immersion program on the North and the Dene.”

Decades later, with a passion for creating and capturing narratives, and the lasting impact of the inquiry still lingering, Scott attended the University of Dundee in Scotland in 2004, where he earned a PhD, the focus on which, was storytelling.

Years later, after returning to Yellowknife, Scott opened Birchwood Coffee Ko in August 2016, which he runs with his daughter, Jawah.

Inside his coffee shop each day, he’s still telling stories – and listening to new ones.

At 68, Scott sees an encouraging inter-generational relationship between the past and present. “ It’s very heartening to see that there’s still a strong link between youth and elders."

Gordon Van Tighem, 69 

Brendan Burke/NNSL photo
Gordon Van Tighem served four consecutive terms as Yellowknife mayor.

Serving four consecutive terms as Yellowknife mayor, Van Tighem is no stranger to the world of politics. But an interest in fishing – not public life – first brought the Calgary native to Yellowknife as a young adult.

Later, after graduating from the University of Manitoba, a job opportunity at the Bank of Montreal brought him back, and kept him here.

For 24 years, Van Tighem worked in the marketing management department at BMO, moving on to become the territorial manager for NWT during his last eight years with the Bank. After retiring in 1999, Van Tighem headed the NWT Community Mobilization Partnership – marking the beginning of his close community involvement.

Van Tighem took on a long list of roles, including NWT Public Utilities Board Chairman, director of the Canadian Wildlife Federation, president of the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce, and served as a member of the executive committee of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities – a position he says helped boost Yellowknife's profile on the national stage.

After being convinced to run for mayor, Van Tighem was elected in 2000, taking office again in 2003 and 2006 after uncontested elections.

In 2009, Van Tighem defeated to opponents to become mayor for a fourth consecutive term. Van Tighem oversaw construction of the Multiplex, the soccer Fieldhouse, Somba K'e Park and the boat launch, but he's most proud of the work he's done to address homelessness in the city.

He established Bailey House, SideDoor Youth Centre and a women's transition centre. Van Tighem also lobbied for the dementia centre, now housed at Avens seniors community. With services and programs in place tailored to seniors, and an “excellent” hospital, Van Tighem believes the city is well placed to meet the needs of older adults.

Barb Hood 

Before becoming the longstanding executive director of the NWT Seniors' Society, Hood arrived in Yellowknife from Stanley, N.B. in 1977 with no job prospects.

She was pursuing adventure and new opportunities. Accompanied by her husband and three young children, Hood soon found employment as a typist, working at the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.

Planning to only stay two years, Hood was struck by Yellowknife's “strong sense of community” and soon moved on to work at the office of Constitutional Development in the Northwest Territories until 1979.

But, Hood returned to her home base in New Brunswick soon after, but she “left with a real love to come back.”
Almost a decade later, in 1988, Hood did. Moving North, Hood worked at Inuvik's regional health board for six months, where she had the opportunity to travel to communities all over the territory.

Since then, she's visited 21 communities in total.

In 1999, Hood assumed the role as executive director at NWT Seniors' Society, where she remains today.
With a career that spans almost 55 years, Hood has never retired.

“What drives me is that every small thing you can do for someone is the most rewarding thing in anything I've ever done. The work at the society, which “makes her get up in the morning,” will come to an end in May when she's slated to retire with family in Alberta.

Helen Balanoff, 71 

Daniel Campbell/NNSL photo
Helen Balanoff, still involved in the NWT Literacy Council,  is seen here in 2013

“If I failed at anything in my life I failed at retirement," says Helen Balanoff.

At 71, the prominent member of NWT Literacy Council is “supposed to be retired,” but she's anything but.
After studying economics and education in her homeland of Scotland, Balanoff, whose husband was Canadian, moved to the North in 1973, living in Cambridge Bay before moving to Yellowknife in 1981.

Here, with her background in education, Balanoff sat on the legislative assembly's special committee on education, reviewing education as a whole in the territory.

Next, Balanoff took on various roles at he Department of Education. In 1984, she developed the first NWT school health program in partnership with the Department of Health, later becoming the director of a “student support” division, which offered counselling, health and special needs programs for students.

In the late 1980s, Balanoff crafted the first strategic plan for the Department of Education.

Teaching English in China for six years, Balanoff returned “home” to Yellowknife in 2001, where she worked on the committee to review the NWT Languages Act before taking a position at the NWT Literacy Council.

“I've worked here more or less ever since,” she said. Balanoff hopes her passion for education has made a difference. "I'd like to think I've contributed in some ways to education in the North. There's lots of things in the north that we can do to help students succeed, and when I see a student succeed, it's an amazing feeling."

Bob Gamble, 71 

Brendan Burke/NNSL photo.
Bob Gamble, 71, served as the chief federal negotiator for the Inuit Impact and Benefit Agreements for national parks of Nunavut.

Bob Gamble says wasn't supposed to stay in Yellowknife.

Born in Edmonton, Gamble came to the city in 1962 for a summer job before his parents relocated to the city after the territorial government moved to Yellowknife.

Once the summer ended, Gamble, who had already taught in remote northern Ontario communities, attended the University of Saskatchewan, where his interest in cross-cultural learning led him to study Indian and Northern education.

After meeting his wife in Ontario, they married in Saskatchewan and toured across Canada before Gamble began doing contract work with Indian Northern Affairs and Parks Canada.

The government was looking at establishing six Northern national parks, and Gamble was hired to assess the feasibility and receptiveness of the proposal.

“They sent me up to Yellowknife for a year and a half of a two-year term, and I've been here ever since," he recalls.
In 1995, Gamble was appointed chief federal negotiator for the Inuit Impact and Benefit Agreements for national parks of Nunavut.

Deemed one of the most complex land negotiations in Canadian history, Gamble says the process took time and a lot of effort.

“It's very fulfilling time consuming, exhausting. But overall, I really enjoyed working with people in the communities, traveling around to different camps to get to know the people and talk informally about the idea of national parks ... to get them to a point where they were ready to make a decision.”

In 2003, Gamble received a Meritorious Service Medal for his work in negotiating the Inuit Impact and Benefit Agreements for three national parks in Nunavut.

Now retired, you can find Gamble weaving through the streets of Yellowknife on his bicycle.

Brendan Burke/NNSL photo Patrick Scott, 68, is a former CBC videographer and current owner of Birchwood Coffee Kǫ̀, Jan. 29, 2018
Patrick Scott MLA Candidate for Great Slave