Friends, colleagues and family members are paying tribute to a northern media giant this week.
Jack “Sig” Sigvaldason, founder and president of Northern News Services, died in Ottawa Aug. 9 after a brief illness. He was 84.
Sigvaldason began his news company in early 1972 after being fired from News of the North just before Christmas. His first newspaper, Yellowknifer, was born on his kitchen table.
“I think it was, in part, out of spite to (the publisher) but also recognizing that the town was ripe for its own newspaper. The weekly News of the North had a more territorial slant,” said Bill Braden, a former MLA and Yellowknifer‘s first staff photographer.
Sigvaldason and his first business partner Jack Adderley “cobbled Yellowknifer together” on Sig’s kitchen table, much to the dismay of his wife Mae, said Braden.
“He was attracted to the North. Things were exciting and and Yellowknife had just been declared the capital. I think Sig saw the chance to be a part of that, so he brought his family up from Winnipeg,” he said.
Sigvaldason had “quite a presence,” said Braden, noting his big beard, big pipe and football player’s build.
As a journalist, he had a passion for “going after the bureaucracy,” said Braden.
“Government wasn’t a good word, especially for Sig when it came to what government did to the little people. He was a champion of the little guy and the paper would smoulder with cutting editorials,” said Braden.
In the 1970s, the NWT was the “backwater of Canada, to be ignored until stories of interest to the general Canadian public came out. And they did,” said friend Gail Cyr, a former Yellowknife city councillor who met Sigvaldason in the heady days of the Gold Range bar in Yellowknife where everyone tended to gather on a Friday night.
Sigvaldason was cognizant of racism in the territory toward Indigenous peoples through the implementation of southern-style government in the North, said Cyr.
“Sometimes the famous eyebrows would quake with news that frustrated him. Always interested, always aware, always there,” she said.
Bonnie Logsdon, who has worked at Northern News Services since the 1980s, remembered him as a person who wasn’t afraid to make his opinion known.
“He was always progressive, always trying to move us ahead,” she said.
Sigvaldason’s one-time competitor for news and advertising dollars, Charles Dent, who founded CJCD Radio, now Moose FM, remembers his humorous jabs.
“In the early days, he’d tease me and say nobody listens to that crap, and I’d say they only buy your paper to line their bird cages with but it was all in jest,” said Dent.
“It was always in fun and we both agreed that the media had a job to do and we wanted to do the best they could. Its a small market so we were both working hard for the advertising dollars,” said Dent.
“In the early days, we were quite the team when it came to holding government’s feet to the fire. I think the fact that Northern News Services is still going strong is a testament to him having created a product that people still think is relevant,” said Dent, who called him a “builder of our community.”
Media company grows
Sigvaldason purchased the newspaper that fired him in 1979, renaming it News/North. A number of newspaper titles followed afterwards: Inuvik Drum, purchased in 1988; Deh Cho Drum, launched in 1994; the following year came Kivalliq News, published in Inuktitut and English; and Nunavut News in 1998. Printing company Canarctic Graphics was acquired in 1989.
Today, Sigvaldason’s contributions to northern news encompass 3.8 million square kilometres of regional coverage, serving 60,000 people in two languages.
In 2012, Sigvaldason received a Canadian Journalism Foundation (CJF) Lifetime Achievement Award on the 40th anniversary of Northern News Services. By that time, he had been in the journalism business for 60 years.
Last year, Sigvaldason acquired 100 per cent ownership of Northern News Services and Canarctic Graphics after previously sharing ownership with former general manager Mike Scott.
Sigvaldason was a “true pioneer” in the industry, said John Hinds, president and CEO of News Media Canada, an advocacy group representing 800 print and digital publications across Canada, including Northern News Services publications.
“He sort of did it all. He was a vocal supporter of the industry and always had an opinion,” said Hinds.
“I think he gave the whole part of the country a unique voice” and mentored “fantastic people” into the industry, said Hinds.
“Very few people can say they created an industry in a region. Because of his position he had a pan-Canadian profile. I also think he occupied a unique place in the industry given what he did and how he started the Northern News,” he said.
Sigvaldason is survived by his wife Mae, daughter Karen, son-in-law Norman Ball, son John and granddaughters Maya and Megan.
“Sig believed passionately in the fundamental strength of NNSL and Canarctic, the staff and the strong future ahead. I too share that belief and will continue to support you in that work,” Karen Sigvaldason wrote in a letter to staff the day after his death.
Braden said Sigvaldason’s legacy in the North is far-reaching if not widely understood.
“I think the North owes him some real acknowledgement … a level of gratitude. I know it was important to him to give voice to people, to the communities. I think that’s his legacy,” said Braden.