Cartwright mayor remembered for being a strong community advocate and leader
Blair Gillis was nothing short of a role model during his 33 years living in Cartwright. If there was a committee that needed serving in the community, it was almost guaranteed he would be at the table.
If an organization needed a volunteer, an organizer or a solid word of advice, everyone seemed to count on Gillis.
“He wore many different hats,” says longtime friend Patty Way. “When he talked to you, you needed to know if he was coming in from a community level, from a regional level. … He truly believed that if you worked hard enough, if you did all the right things and said all the right things, you should be able to make it happen.”
Gillis’ most recent duty was serving as the mayor of Cartwright. After so many years of being the manager of the Northern Store (formerly the Hudson Bay Company), the president of the Eagle River Development Association and a host of other organizations, it was only fitting for Blair to be chosen in the 2013 municipal election.
During his short time as mayor, Gillis was as committed as a municipal leader as he was a community activist and volunteer.
“Blair had great ideas and was dedicated to going into the office every day and going through the issues with our town manager,” says Cartwright Deputy Mayor Dwight Lethbridge.
“For our staff, they’re going to miss the advice. He was the one that took the phone call when something came up. That’s why he was mayor. He was the one who took the lead.”
An ailing heart
Gillis, 53, died Jan. 7 due to complications with a serious heart condition he had been battling his whole life. When he was a young boy, Gillis was diagnosed with cancer. According to his wife, Victoria, the radiation treatment is what gave him his heart problems.
In 2009, Gillis underwent major heart surgery and two titanium valves were placed inside him. After the surgery, Gillis had to retire as manager of the Northern Store, but he never stopped giving his time to the community.
“Every day he lived with all of these problems with breathing, with getting around and doing things. But he always pulled through it,” says longtime friend and Labrador MP Yvonne Jones.
“It never stopped him from the work he did in the community. It never stopped him from being a good advocate for people, from being a strong volunteer. Most people, if they were as sick as what Blair Gillis was, they probably would have given up a long time ago, but not Blair. He just kept going.”
Jones wasn’t the only Labrador politician to be influenced by the late mayor. Lisa Dempster, MHA for Cartwright-L’Anse au Clair, met Gillis in the early ’90s, and was quickly impressed by his determined personality.
“I quickly gravitated to him, because I just saw him as a good human being who was out doing his part. He really believed that change could come, if we all worked together and have our voices (be) relentless,” says Dempster. “Because he had the major heart surgery in 2009, his life had changed a lot. He couldn’t do the things he used to. He could no longer work, but he was very knowledgeable on issues.”
A positive legacy
Gillis was born in Germany and was part of a military family. He moved to Cartwright in 1980 to manage the local Hudson Bay Co. Store. Right from the start, he was involved in making Cartwright a better place.
Many will best remember Gillis for his determined involvement in the Eagle River Development Association (ERDA). He was there at its beginning and was still president of the association until his death.
Patty Way got to know Gillis through her involvement with the ERDA. To her, the success of the association is one of Gillis’s greatest accomplishments.
“I think, in my mind, the mere fact that the development association is still operational in Cartwright is incredible,” says Way. “There still is an office. There’s still an employee. This is kept going through actual effort, through project development. Blair kept that office alive when, throughout the province, most of them had long closed.”
Jones agrees that the success of the ERDA has a lot to do with Gillis’s leadership.
“There used to be 52 associations (in the province). Most of them closed up 15 years ago. And the Cartwright one is still going, still active and still has employees. And that’s because Blair Gillis made sure that it kept going,” says Jones.
“He was very determined. He was one of those people that didn’t give up on an idea when he hit a roadblock.”
A father figure
Whether he realized it or not, Gillis was also inspirational in his role as store manager.
When Rich Lewis was just 14, Gillis hired him and took the young man under his wing. Lewis never forgot the valuable life lessons Gillis taught him. To Lewis, Gillis was nothing short of a father figure.
“He hired me as a teenager and he hired many students and taught them the importance of a good work ethic,” says Lewis.
“He taught us that we were always being evaluated and we need to put our best foot forward every day. He was a leader by example. And he was such a smart man. There was nothing he couldn’t fix.”
Big shoes to fill
Deputy Mayor Dwight Lethbridge now has the difficult task of being acting mayor until a byelection can be called. Lethbridge says that prior to his death, Gillis was working to promote Cartwright as a big tourism destination.
“Blair was pushing hard to have Cartwright as a gateway to Mealy Mountains National Park,” says Lethbridge.
“Blair’s shoes are difficult to fill.”
There’s no question that Gillis still had a lot left to give to his beloved community, and to Labrador. But the number of important projects he was involved with has secured his strong legacy.
“When I think of tourism, I think of Blair Gillis. When I think of winter trails in Cartwright, I think of Blair Gillis,” says Jones.
“He’s going to be missed by a lot of people, especially by people like me who worked with him on a regular basis. He’s going to be missed by his family and loved ones and by Cartwright as a community.”