Let’s celebrate our heritage champions

A large crowd helped kick off the celebration of Heritage Day on Monday evening by attending the Yukon Historical and Museums Association 31st Annual Heritage Awards ceremony at the Yukon Archives.

A large crowd helped kick off the celebration of Heritage Day on Monday evening by attending the Yukon Historical and Museums Association 31st Annual Heritage Awards ceremony at the Yukon Archives. The awards recognize outstanding achievements in the heritage field in the Yukon.

The 2014 Annual Heritage Award was presented to Kitty Sperling and the Friends of the Ross River Bridge Society, for their successful efforts to have the Ross River Suspension Bridge saved from demolition. A year ago, the Second World War structure, which is the longest single-span suspension footbridge in North America, was slated to be torn down.

Sally Robinson, the president of YHMA introduced the recipients, who, she said, through a combination of passion, engagement and organization, galvanized public support for their cause, garnering national media attention, and engaging the community in sustained non-confrontational protests.

Their strategy of good will and positive dialogue was successful. Demolition was first postponed, then deferred, and then cancelled. A Yukon government leaflet that was distributed throughout the territory last week announced a commitment of $1.75 million for the restoration of the Ross River bridge.

Present to receive the award from Robinson on behalf of the Friends of the Ross River Bridge Society were Kitty Sperling, accompanied by Councillor Yvonne Moon and Chief Brian Ladue of the Ross River Dena Council.

The 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Casey (McLaughlin) Palmer, a born-and-raised Yukoner by her successor at the Yukon Transportation Museum, Janna Powell. According to the YHMA citation, “During her tenure as executive director at the Yukon Transportation Museum from 2007-2014, Casey created a fun, safe and creative environment while directing the museum through its rebranding and actively encouraging young Yukoners to develop their heritage skills.”

“In addition to her professional work, Casey has a long volunteer service record with the YHMA, including serving as its president. Casey’s professional accomplishments, extensive volunteerism, and personal dedication to the Yukon heritage field are an inspiration for all Yukoners with a passion for heritage.”

Palmer was effusive in acknowledging the many friends she made and worked with, including the museum board, which was more like a family than a board.

Palmer also talked about her love of historical places. She has visited old mines, searched for an old native village, slept in a dredge in the Klondike, and even came across an abandoned cat train on one of her hikes. She talked about her encounters with the tangible remnants of the past which helped her connect with the present. “In the Yukon,” she said, “we can still read the history.”

Palmer also thanked Air North, which, when it heard that she was to receive this award, gave her a round-trip ticket to Whitehorse, from Ottawa, where she now lives, to attend the ceremony in person.

The 2014 Helen Couch Volunteer of the Year Award, which was introduced by Rebecca Jansen, Yukon’s historic sites registrar, was given to the Watson Lake Historical Society for their “ongoing efforts to protect, conserve and share the history of Watson Lake.”

The society, according to the citation, “has become an active volunteer organization over the past few years, working to designate the Watson Lake Signpost Forest as a Yukon Historic Site, repairing displays at the Watson Lake Airport, conducting inventories and research in support of the Alaska Highway National Historic Site nomination, and successfully saving a 1940s-era building from demolition.”

Receiving the award on behalf of the society were Teri McNaughten and Susan Drury. As Tourism Minister awarded the prize, she noted that the first time she went to Watson Lake as minister, she told them that she was very heavily booked, but the full complement of volunteers was able to show up for an 8 a.m. Sunday morning breakfast meeting.

The final recipient of the evening were brothers Leo and Marc Martel, who were given this year’s Heritage Conservation Project of the Year Award for the restoration of the Keno City Hotel.

In 2014, they defied the odds when they opened the hotel again after many years of closure. According to the citation: “After acquiring the building around 2008, Leo and Marc have been putting their heart and soul, blood, sweat, tears and a lot of money into the rambling, very historic hotel.”

In presenting the award, Barb Hogan, manager of historic sites for the territorial government, quoted a phrase from the Keno City Hotel website: “before we started she (the hotel) had both feet in the grave and was sliding fast.” They have done a remarkable job of bringing this old hotel back to life.

The evening began with a brief welcome by Minister Taylor, who has returned to this portfolio after a two-year hiatus. Since she first assumed the role of minister of tourism and culture in 2002, she has seen the number of institutions served by her department grow from eight museums and cultural centres to 19 now.

During that same period, the budget for museums has grown from a half million dollars to the current allocation of just over $1.5 million. Taylor was also pleased to announce an increase in funding of museum operations, maintenance and special projects through the Yukon museums assistance program.

The budget will increase by 10 per cent in the forthcoming fiscal year to an allocation of $1.69 million, followed by another 10 per cent increase in the following fiscal year, 2016/17. This announcement was received with applause from the audience. Taylor noted that the annual budget for museums has increased by 300 per cent since she first assumed the portfolio in 2002. The 20 per cent increase, she noted, also applies to the special project capital assistance fund.

The guest speaker for the evening was Jim Mountain, director of regeneration projects with Heritage Canada. Mountain described how Heritage Canada has been supporting the preservation of heritage buildings across the country for 40 years.

Past projects in the Yukon include the restoration of the Yukon Hotel in Dawson City, and the rejuvenation of Main Street in Whitehorse.

Mountain used a PowerPoint presentation to show examples of community revitalization from every part of the country. Particular mention was given to the successful efforts of the people of Ross River to have the Ross River Bridge restored.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net