The 20th anniversary of the opening of the Hay River Heritage Centre will be celebrated on Aug. 23.
Paul Bickford/NNSL photo

The Hay River Heritage Centre opened 20 years ago, and that significant event for the community will be remembered this coming weekend.

“It’s been so much work by so many people over the years,” said Tom Lakusta, chair of the Hay River Museum Society.

Lakusta said that work has gotten the heritage centre to where it is today.
“And we’re really proud of that centre and we’ll continue to try and build it and improve on what we have,” he said.

The Hay River Heritage Centre opened to the public on Aug. 26, 2000.

The celebration of that event will take place from 1-3 p.m. on Aug. 23, the closest weekend date.

“It will be primarily an outside event,” said Lakusta. “However, we will be doing tours, as well. We’ve invited people that we thought might be interested in coming to the event, and that includes the supporters, both government and non-government, throughout the years.”

As with everything these days, precautions are being taken for the celebration because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

There will be a limit on the number of people who can attend.

“But the limit is very high,” said Lakusta. “I believe it’s 100. I don’t think we’ll be even getting close to that.”

There will also be physical distancing.

“What we’re going to do is put up a tent outside of the museum,” Lakusta said. “So all of the festivities will be taken outside, except for the tours.”

As of last week, he noted plans for inside tours of the building were tentative, and could involve 15-minute guided tours for up to 10 people.

The outside tours of the grounds would be for upwards of a half an hour.

Currently, access inside the heritage centre is by appointment only, although the grounds are open.

The 20th-anniversary celebration is special for Vicky Latour, a former co-chair of the Hay River Museum Society and someone who was instrumental in getting the heritage centre open.

Latour, now a board member with the society, noted that talk about a heritage centre or museum for Hay River began in the late 1970s.

“The idea never got very far at that point, but it never disappeared,” she said.

Latour noted that, in the late 1980s, the GNWT began an initiative to preserve the history of the territory, and funding came to Hay River to set up a museum society and hire a consulting company to look at the idea of setting up a heritage centre or museum.

Latour recalled that the consulting company from Toronto came in “full blast” in 1990 to do a study, and recommended a $2-million project involving a new building.

“It was very elaborate, and it would have been a ‘museum’ as opposed to a heritage centre, because they were talking about controlled areas of humidity and so on,” she said. “It was grandiose, and I don’t think any of us had been thinking completely in such elaborate terms.”

While the words ‘museum’ and ‘heritage centre’ are used interchangeably to describe the Hay River Heritage Centre, Latour noted it is technically not a museum.

By 1992, it was decided that construction of a museum would not be happening, partly because Hay River would have had to raise $1 million for the project, with the other $1 million potentially coming from government sources.

Latour said the Hay River Museum Society then dwindled to a few core members, including herself and Peter Osted as treasurer, but it never disbanded.

Then in 1996, Latour took some personal action to launch the heritage centre.

She was driving to work one morning when she happened to pass the old Hudson’s Bay store, which at that time was owned by the now defunct Northern Transportation Company Ltd. (NTCL) and was being used for dry storage.

“And I said, ‘To hell with this,'” she recalled, noting she drove to the offices of NTCL and went to see its president at the time, Cameron Clement.

“‘I want you to give me the building.’ Those were the words I used,” she said of that meeting with Clement.

And about two months later, NTCL did give the old store to the Hay River Museum Society.

“We paid $1,” said Latour. “But the agreement was we couldn’t get into it until 1999 because they were still going to use it.”

During those three years, artifacts were collected for the heritage centre.

And with funding from a number of sources, a group of volunteers began work in the summer of 1999 to prepare the building for opening.

“It was hard physical work,” Latour recalled. “It wasn’t fun and games.”

The Hudson’s Bay store was built in 1947 on what is now the Hay River Reserve, and it was moved in 1951 to its current site on Vale Island, where it operated as a store until the mid-1960s.

When the museum society got the building, it had no washroom, no ramp and no kitchen.

“On top of all of that, it was filthy,” said Latour. “It took us months of hard, slogging work on hands and knees chiselling muck off the floor. They’d been running a little forklift in there.”

Latour expressed gratitude to all the volunteers over the years who helped develop the Hay River Heritage Centre.

Paul Bickford

Paul Bickford is the reporter for Hay River Hub.

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