Whitehorse’s Norma McBean, a sharp-tongued elder who never passed up an opportunity to speak her mind, passed away on New Year’s Eve. The accomplished photographer was 91.
It was easy to get along with McBean – as long as you saw things her way.
“She was very good on a one-to-one level, or in a group, if it went according to her thinking,” said Mary Murphy, who knew McBean for about 34 years.
“If she questioned it, she rubbed people the wrong way. She could be gracious and she’d discuss things with you, but on her terms.”
McBean was a familiar sight on Whitehorse’s streets, often seen heading somewhere with the help of her walker and decked in a matching hat, coat and dress.
Murphy and McBean became good friends early on because, Murphy said, she gained McBean’s trust by being honest with her.
Murphy called McBean out one day for walking slowly across the road.
“She said ‘You got me, didn’t you?’” Murphy said.
“She knew that I could say things to her and she’d take them quite well – I was more diplomatic. She trusted me to tell her if she was going off on the wrong track.”
They could also relate to each other on another level – both had differences with their twins, Murphy added.
But despite her contentious nature, McBean was also known as an intelligent, independent and generous woman, the kind who threw large birthday bashes at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre and the Thomson Centre.
Kevin Barr remembers performing at one of those parties many years ago.
He said McBean would always rent a big room, provide a huge spread and invite people from all walks of life, which always made for an interesting party.
At the end, McBean always insisted on paying musicians, although Barr said he would have been happy to perform for free.
“You’re going to take the money,” Barr said with a cracking voice, impersonating McBean.
One time, Barr said he received an invitation to meet McBean at a local park. He didn’t know why.
It turns out McBean, an accomplished photographer, just wanted to take his picture.
Barr told the story at one of her birthday parties, as he’d found the situation humourous.
But McBean stopped him on the street about a month later, and wrung him out for insinuating that the invitation had been a date.
“I just want to tell you that I asked you to come and sing, I didn’t ask you to talk,” Barr said, using the same hoarse voice.
Born in Calgary in 1923, McBean became a Christian at the age of 17, Murphy said.
A year later, she joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps at a camp in Ontario, where women trained as drivers, cooks, clerks, typists, and telephone operators during World War II.
Following the war she took up a job as a proofreader for Compton’s Encyclopedia in Chicago, where she worked for several years.
It was while working for a company in Edmonton that she first came to the Yukon, in 1966, after being commissioned to take pictures of the Sourdough Rendezvous Festival.
In 1979, she moved back to the territory permanently. In 1995, she was commissioned by NorthwesTel to travel to the Northwest Territories to photograph elders around the territory.
She insisted that her photographs not go to the archives but be returned to the elders in the pictures, according to Liz Hanson, who also knew McBean.
“She said it belonged to them,” Hanson wrote in an email.
Since then her photographs have been exhibited around the territory, including at the Hougen’s Centre and the courthouse in Whitehorse.
Hanson said McBean had strong political opinions and wasn’t afraid of sharing those, either.
“It was not unusual for her to call me at home, to express her dismay at the federal government and more recently the territorial government,” Hanson said.
At church, McBean always had a bible verse in her back pocket whenever she heard something she believed to be contentious, Murphy said.
“They didn’t see God the way she did,” she said.
“If she saw a biblical truth not being presented the way it should be, she’d contend it. Gotta give her credit for that.”
Contact Myles Dolphin at