Hidden treasures and monumental discoveries (updated!)
Why do some people enjoy history, heritage and public art?
And why am I one of them?
One of my favourite areas to go for a walk is in the Capital Area Park in Yellowknife. It contains the Legislative Assembly building, Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, Yellowknife City Hall and Somba K’e Civic Plaza.
If you read the NWT government webpage on the area, you’ll also apparently find the Northern Frontier Visitors’ Centre. Nope, that’s been closed for years and the condemned building torn down a few months ago.
But I digress, back to my story…
The Frame Lake walking trail and other small paths around city hall reveal some public art, monuments and memorials ranging from the magnificent, to sweet and just, well, curious.
You’ll also pass through a gauntlet of flags from the NWT’s 33 communities. Some of the designs are quite rudimentary, while others have clearly been updated over time and are quite sharp looking.
There are also a couple of official entities, including a memorial to fallen RCMP members, the war Cenotaph and the base of the Veterans Monument, erected by the Royal Canadian Legion. The actual sculpture was vandalized by being pulled from its base apparently with a vehicle in July 2019. Inuvialuit artist Eli Nasogaluak, from Tuktoyaktuk, created the monument, which was dedicated in 2005.
A sign on the base states a new memorial is being designed by Northern artists and should be ready this year. Donations can be made by contacting the Vincent Massey Branch No. 164. Let’s hope some dumb asses don’t destroy the next installation.
The city’s website also contains some information about the history of the plaza near city hall:
This area has been under active park development since 1947, when Petitot Park, now called Somba K’e Family Park, was first opened. Since City Hall was built here in 1975, several years of grass planting, path paving and landscaping have created a pleasant parkland.The various paths starting here lead to a network of trails surrounding Frame Lake. Be sure to view the plaques and displays behind city hall that depict the story of mining in Yellowknife.
And I have. And I think I found those plaques and displays.
It was a bit of a treasure hunt, as there isn’t one source I could find directing me and explaining the many installations and such in, on and around city hall and Somba K’e Civic Plaza. There are two self-guided brochures on the city’s website and distributed at a couple of locations in the community. The New Town Heritage Walking Tour of Yellowknife is woefully inaccurate, given that it was compiled by the City of Yellowknife Heritage Committee in 2006 (The old Town Heritage Walking Tour of Yellowknife is even older, done in 2005).
Now, having been on one of these committees when I lived in Brandon prior to moving up here in 2016, I understand how difficult is to tackle such a complex project as a walking tour guide. And then, given the churn of members and the changes in budget by successive city councils, it’s darn hard to remember to keep updating those kinds of reference manuals.
But both of those guides need to be updated, or pulled — especially the New Town, or city centre, pamphlet — as they will frustrate people who use them and make the city look amateurish in its execution and uncaring about its history.
(Please see update at bottom of post, it turns out the GNWT does have a detailed Art Walk of Yellowknife map, which I couldn’t find in my exhaustive research.)
The city does have some decent pieces of public art in the core area — there are many more in Old Town and in other areas of the community — and a policy on the acquisition and placement of pieces. Perhaps the most prominent one being the six-metre high sculpture of three drum dancers on the shore of Frame Lake by local artist Francois Thibault, who passed away in 2014.
The Public Art Policy states it exists to:
- Establish a place for the arts in the life of the community.
- Establish art opportunities that are free and accessible to both citizens and visitors.
- Enhance our diverse cultural character and celebrating our heritage.
- Cultivate the growth of a culturally informed public.
- Enhance, enliven and enrich public spaces and public experiences.
- Showcase and celebrate the work of professional artists and designers.
- Foster a culture of public art creation and investment.
- Reflect and embrace diversity.
- Inspire community and neighbourhood revitalization.
The second-most noticeable installation is the 3.35-metre tall horticultural muskox gifted to Yellowknife by Québec in 2018. As reported by Cabin Radio, the monument was christened Elon Muskox in a competition won by a Florida resident. It began life as an attraction at MosaïCanada – a Canada 150 exhibition in 2017. Interestingly, those ungulates live on Banks Island, in the High Arctic. But they have been spotted in many other regions of the NWT, including one being seen at Cameron Falls, just outside of Yellowknife.
There are some good basic facts about the city’s history on the city’s website, especially the full-colour Yellowknife Heritage Map. I’ve cobbled together a brief history of Yellowknife from GNWT and city information (agreed, it’s from a simplistic colonist perspective, but it’s good basic information). It’s a one-minute read, if you want to be the smartest person in the group the next time someone brings up the city’s history:
Yellowknife, and the adjacent river and bay on Great Slave Lake, derive their names from the knives once used by Dene of the area. The blades were fashioned from naturally occurring copper gathered along the Coppermine River, near the Arctic coast.
The people of the city’s two neighbouring communities of Dettah and Ndilo are the Yellowknives Dene First Nation. Their ancestors – Slavey, Dogrib, and Chipewyan speaking Dene – have inhabited the region since time immemorial, with known archaeological evidence dating back thousands of years.
During the late 1700s, newcomers trickled in with the expanding fur trade. First came Metis families connected with the trade, then came the trade company explorers.
With the help of the Dene people, a young John Franklin completed his overland trip to the Arctic coast in 1820. Aboriginal people continued to inhabit the area, eventually congregating on a point of land on Yellowknife Bay’s east side – Dettah. Southerners did not come again for many years.
What brought them back was gold. Though the presence of the metal was first noted in Yellowknife Bay in 1897, by a prospector on his way to the Klondike, the area was then too remote to create sustained interest.
By the 1930s, new transportation systems over water and by air were established and the Yellowknife area became more accessible. By the end of 1935, enough gold had been discovered to prompt serious mining development.
By 1936, Yellowknife was a boomtown. Mining companies sank shafts on the Con and Negus claims. Commercial gold production began in December 1938, and Yellowknife became an incorporated village the same year.
By 1940, the village had a population of one thousand people. Development was halted during the Second World War, but a new rush started when Giant Yellowknife Mines struck gold in 1946. Yellowknife, then centred around the Rock and Latham Island — now known as Old Town — became overcrowded, resulting in the surveying of the New Town site in 1945.
In the summer of 1953, Yellowknife became a municipality and its first mayor was elected. In 1967, Yellowknife was named capital of the Northwest Territories, and was later designated a city on Jan. 1, 1970. The gold mines have all closed, replaced by massive diamond mines far outside the city.
UPDATE: I received a couple of emails in response to my request for information on the Garden of Hope above. Thank you so much. Here’s a note from Megan Cooper:
A friend of mine sent me a screen shot of your post about the memorial at the Garden of Hope this morning. The garden was started in memory of my mom in 2003 and I have fallen into the role of steward in recent years, partnering with the city to keep the garden going. I’m happy to answer any questions you have about the memorial!
Information about the garden is on the sign but you’re right in that there’s not much information about the plaques. The plaques started when it became clear a number of years ago that citizens were looking for opportunities to dedicate a small public space to a loved one. We had sole people do this unofficially in the garden anyways (e.g. hang little signs for loved ones who have passed) and decided to make this spot to formalize that for people.
It was a project my dad spearheaded and his buddy Dave Hysert Volunteered to plant the posts in concrete for us back in 2010 i believe. We had an initial round of orders but shortly after my dad passed away and the project kind of came to a halt for a number of years. We rejuvenated it this year by passing the torch to the city. People can now order the plaques through the city and that seems to be an easier arrangement for everyone. They have an info sheet I put together about the program and how to order!
If you have any other questions, please don’t hesitate to ask!
And the best discovery was a detailed and updated map by the GNWT of all the public art in the city. Wow. I swear I searched high and low online for such a resource. Why isn’t it easier to find? And there should be a link to it somewhere on the city’s website. In any event, here is the link to it and it is truly fabulous. Thank you, Rhonda Buckland.