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TRIBUTE: Fighting for Labrador

Former Aurora owner Gordon Parsons is seen in this file photo from 1999 outside the Labrador Mall, where the newspaper office remains located.
Former Aurora owner Gordon Parsons is seen in this file photo from 1999 outside the Labrador Mall, where the newspaper office remains located. - The Aurora

Former Aurora editor remembers Gordon Parsons

It’s not hard to spend your years giving back to the community you’ve always called home.
It’s effortless, natural almost, to turn the civic pride you developed as a child into meaningful contributions as an adult. You become part of the generational nurturing of your hometown, and the town is all the better because of it.

It’s an easy cycle to be a part of and it’s great to see people give back.

But what about those who affect such momentous change in towns they have no connection with? Is it just as easy or does it take something more?

Ask most anyone in Labrador West if you’d like to know the answer. Those now in the senior set, especially, can tell you what it’s like to move to an area with no family present and now consider nowhere else home.

They can attest to the benefits of making their community great, developing a heightened sense of pride, and the priceless gratitude of knowing what it’s like to build a community from the ground up, in every aspect.

These are the people that laid the foundation for this area. This is the esteemed company of which Gordon Parsons was part.

While Gord landed in Labrador West a few years after the initial influx of miners and other community pioneers, he was already a lover of the Big Land through a decade he’d spent in Goose Bay, where he not only worked but also met Clemmie — the post in which his gate always swung — fell in love and started a family.

Taking up the cause for Labrador was already in his blood and settling into business and family life (which included his beloved children, Susan and Karl), it seems the heart of Labrador was beating in every cause he carried.

I met Gord shortly after he sold The Aurora to the Robinson-Blackmore chain and they decided to put at editor from “outside” at the paper while Gord stayed on in a publisher’s role. In my 20s and comprised of a strict combination of piss and vinegar, I quickly realized my youthful rebellion paled next to Gord’s life’s work of scrapping — for people, for business, for recreation services — all in the name of making life better for Labradorians.

During my first night of work, I attended a chamber of commerce meeting where a government type spewed on about this and that economic saviour for Labrador West. The time came for questions from the floor. No one asked a thing at first, and then Gord spoke. He had taken the time to analyze what they expert was saying, ran some of his own numbers against some of the claims in his pocket notebook and challenged key points in a way that was respectful but also poignant. He wasn’t buying any of the sales pitch, and I was not even aware there was a pitch.

The room hung on every one of Gord’s words. It wasn’t because he was such a physical force — a burly giant of a man with a trademark full scraggly grey beard and raspiness to his voice that you could only assume meant he had been tossing back a cup of thumbtacks.

It wasn’t just because of Gord’s affiliation with the paper either, or because of his relationship with the chamber of commerce, where he held several positions, including that of president, and was a former Atlantic Canadian chamber president.

No, they hung on his every breath because what he was saying made sense — especially for Labrador — and they all knew something I quickly found out: he was likely the smartest person in the room.

The Aurora at the time was selling to 96 per cent of the homes in Labrador West, a number that baffled the accountants and blew away all of the other properties owned by the company. My job was to try to maintain that number so I made it my goal to be everywhere in the community with hopes the readership would continue.

I remember at the end of my very first week. I collected what I thought were some decent photos and stories, had some great contributions from stalwart journalist Gary Peckham and community contributions to boot. My deadline was a Thursday morning so I started early on Wednesday to get things done before too late that night. Time management lacking, my work was still incomplete when Gord and Paula Hillier (the glue who still keeps the Aurora together) came into work Thursday morning to find me sitting at the keyboard. They scrambled to help me finish my work. Gord said little. When the paper was finally ready to be put to bed and brought to the airport for 11 a.m., Gord looked at me: “We’re just going to have to call that missus back,” he said, deadpan.

I was exhausted, but looked back long enough to focus and ask what he was talking about.

“The one who said she could put the paper to bed on time,” he said.

I stared at him a long time, waiting to see where he was going with it. I stared long enough that I started to drool on my shirt — a little tired after the 28-hour shift. Finally, after tumbleweeds passed by the door to the mall, I saw a smirk develop in the corner of his mouth. That’s when I started to understand the magic of Gord’s sense of humour.

Gordon and Clemmie Parsons are seen in this photo from 2017.
Gordon and Clemmie Parsons are seen in this photo from 2017.

Always armed with a litany of solid comebacks and cutting one-liners, Gord’s wit was caustic and clever. It was also endearing and disarming, especially to those who felt intimidated by him.

Gord’s wit was evident throughout my time in Labrador West. Everyone he’s met carries at least one story that will make them laugh without fail.

And the stories, oh, the stories. For a man who always professed to never be a propagator of journalism (“that flowery shit,” he would say) he could certainly spin a tale. Gord’s writing was a style that was unmistakable. He had his own voice and form, raw by nature but softened on subject and always engaging.

In person, he was a raconteur of force. His signature gruff voice led all company down the roads of many a grand tale, as they reached the limits of the fantastic, but always stayed within the realms of possibility, especially when Gord would firm up details with solid, real-life proof. The story of being the first Labradorian (and Newfoundlander, for that matter) to bungee jump in the West Edmonton Mall was well known by all of Labrador West, as were the times he and a group of fellow trailblazers beat through animal paths and old woods roads to get across Labrador and down to Baie-Comeau before a real road ever existed.

They say the best stories fall in the laps of those who can tell them, an adage that fit Gord like a smack in the mouth.

During my time in Labrador West, Gord would offer to accompany me to the most bizarre situations because he knew where the stories lived.

One, in particular, was during a tumultuous hunting season when no caribou licences were being handed out to the locals, and only Native hunting rights were allowed. There was some tension among the locals and a group of Quebec Innu hunters that crossed the border into Labrador. At the height of it, Gord asked me to go with him in his truck and we headed out the highway. About 40 kilometres east on the Trans-Labrador, we came across a couple Quebec pickup trucks on the road. There was a young boy in one of them so Gord figured the hunters weren’t far.

“Go in there toward that smoke and you should find someone,” he said.

I got out of the truck and headed in a fresh trail toward a fire and mound of caribou carcasses when I saw Gord’s truck speed away behind me.

Luckily, the Innu men were a peaceful lot, and despite my inability to speak Montagnais, or French, or hunting, Gord showed up again a few minutes later.

Those stories and that sense of adventure never left Gord with age or retirement. He may have softened his touch with people a little, sure, but the fight for his community and the people in it was as voracious as ever.

During one of our last chats he talked about meeting up with a prominent politician. “I don’t give a shit who they’ve talked to over the last for years, I want to know what they’ve done for Labrador — a list of things,” he would say.

Gord was a man of substance over splash, a man who valued integrity over self-preservation and someone who had little time for wasting time.

He was also a man who never got bogged down with emotional responses to issues or ideas. Working together for those few years and chatting with him since, Gord and I engaged in many a fierce debate. I never once had to worry about Gord carrying a grudge, even at times when I thought I might. He was above board. He stuck to the issues and it never got personal.

His accomplishments are varied and extensive and will be felt by the people of the region for decades to come. The intangibles, in my opinion, are just as important.

Given his interests in politics and community, Gord’s fighting spirit meant he was always in the fray. And given his keen intellect (smartest guy in the room) his advice was sought after in many circles. It could be talking world trends of iron ore production, environmental impacts of people on Labrador bird populations, the plight of seniors’ health care, or how the governing political party could provide better representation — his voice mattered, and was heard.

It made Gord a true person of influence, and that loss will be hard to fathom. Sure, there are a ton of bright people in Labrador West — always will be — but a valuable perspective has been lost, and the indirect effects of that will be felt in the greater community.

Many in that greater community became like family to Gord.

At work, he was the father figure, the uncle or big brother, and never succumbed to a top-down style of leadership. We were afforded a great amount of respect and dedication. His vision was as focused as his marksmanship.

Outside of work, the word "friendship" never had a past tense, was never a phase or felt over a set period or left to fade away — it was permanent and important. He made time for those he cared about, and that list of people was extensive.

We’ve all taken the time over the past few days to remember Gord and we’ve all recounted our own stories about what made him special.

The gentle giant inside a tough exterior. An astute business leader and owner of the province’s must prosperous newspaper. An ardent volunteer and visionary community builder. An advocate. A dedicated family man. The smartest guy in the room. A coach and sports official. A dead shot. A protector of his environment. A rebel.

The list can be as long as you want it to be and as different as each person compiling it. That speaks volume to the complexity of Gord and the impact he had.

For me, it’s fairly simple: Gordon Parsons was my friend. He made his community, his Labrador, a better place.

Troy Turner is the managing editor of The Western Star. He writes from Corner Brook.

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