TV film pays tribute to Arctic hero and proud Borderer

John Graham
John Graham

BACK in 1976, Borderer John Graham was one of hundreds of young Scots who answered the call of the Hudson Bay Company, which was recruiting staff for its many outposts in the harsh Canadian Arctic.

During the previous decade, the Inuit had abandoned their nomadic existence and formed communities around such posts, each of which had a general store where basic supplies were traded for the seal furs brought in by the native hunters.

John, aged just 19, ended up on the frozen shores of Frobisher Bay – now Iqaluit – on Baffin Island which was one of the company’s larger postings. There, he mastered the process of grading furs as well as book-keeping, and developed a strong affinity with the Inuit people who relied on the HBC tariff for their survival.

But come the dawn of the 1980s, the seal fur trade collapsed and most of the imported labour – known as the Hudson Bay Boys – left for pastures new.

John, from Selkirk, was one of the few who remained. Having laid down roots there and married local women, they set about rebuilding the Inuit communities broken by the dying fur trade.

And next week the story of John, now 55, and the other Scots who stayed on will be told in The Hudson Bay Boys, part of BBC Scotland’s Explorers season.

The film features John and four of his long-term pals – Donald Mearns from Aberdeenshire, Jim Deyell from Shetland, Neil Greig from Edinburgh and John Todd from St Andrews – as they come together for a hunting trip reunion and tell their incredible stories amid stunning snowscapes.

The programme, which will be screened on BBC Two Scotland on Wednesday from 9-10pm, follows the men to their homes to meet their extended Inuit families and find out more about their way of life in a remote but beautiful part of the world.

And yesterday, the five gathered at an Edinburgh hotel for a private screening of the film and John intends making the most of his visit by having a holiday in his native town.

The son of the late Jeffrey and Muriel Graham of Sunnycroft Farm, Lindean, John attended Knowepark Primary and Selkirk High School.

“My mother died in 1974 and my plan when I left school was to join the RAF because I was always fascinated by aviation,” he recalled this week. “But I saw a wee recruitment advert in the Selkirk paper about the Hudson Bay Company and thought I would give it a go.

“My father had often talked about moving to Canada and the Grahams already had a strong foothold there, my ancestors having emigrated to the prairie province of Saskatchewan in 1905.

“I also heard a lot more about Canada when my cousin Gerald Beggs was the Standard Bearer of Selkirk Colonial Society in 1973.”

So why did John remain in one of the most challenging environments on earth when so many of his countrymen departed?

The answer, he says, lies in his Selkirk roots.

“From an early age growing up in Selkirk, a sense of community, so strongly evoked at the Common Riding, was instilled in me and, when I left the Hudson Bay Company after four years, I knew I had to do the right thing by the native people who were really struggling,” he told TheSouthern. “I had also met my wife-to-be, Eva, who was an Inuk and, by that time my father had emigrated to Canada, so although Selkirk was always in my heart, there was little to go home for.”

In addition, John’s interest in aviation landed him a job in airport management, a career which has spanned 31 years. He is now managing director of Iqaluit Airport and has developed the facility into a testing ground for aircraft makers in the Arctic.

Earlier this year, he became the first recipient of the Canadian Forces’ lifetime achievement award for his services to the country’s air cadets.

This was an acknowledgement of Captain John Graham’s role as commander of the 795 Iqaluit Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Cadets. At his investiture, he was described as being largely responsible for the unit’s success and transformation over the years and he was praised for bringing credit to the Canadian forces as a whole.

“I still get satisfaction when I see a fully-fledged pilot who was once one of my cadets,” he told us.

But even that accolade cannot quite rank with the honour he was accorded in his native town in 2010 when he was appointed Standard Bearer of Selkirk Colonial Society, returning to the town with Eva and their five children – Linda, Diana, Heather, Saila and Simon – to cast the flag during the society’s centenary year.

“Whenever I am asked where I come from, I always say Selkirk,” said John, whose siblings Michael, Jane and Helen all live in Canada: in Vancouver, Calgary and Saskatchewan respectively.

“Making the film and exchanging stories with my Scottish friends was a great experience and coming back home for the screening and yet another reunion is even better.”