Building the past into the future

It's all about the river, says Gary Bailie. The Yukon River flows right past the new public library and Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre taking shape in downtown Whitehorse.

It’s all about the river, says Gary Bailie.

The Yukon River flows right past the new public library and Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre taking shape in downtown Whitehorse.

The waves on the front walls are more then just architectural design, said the project manager.

“They’re there to mimic what Mother Nature has given us,” he said, noting that the beige-like colour was picked specifically to blend in with the clay cliffs that surround Whitehorse. “There is also a lot of symbolism to the river and the land.”

This is especially true of the cultural centre.

A long corridor runs the length of the centre from north to south.

With all the doors open, you can see the river from the other end of Black Street, said Bailie, with a proud grin.

The $25-million building will serve many purposes.

On the cultural centre side, there is space for offices and archives, artist workspace and classrooms, a full-catered kitchen with sitting room, an elders lounge and a huge long house, complete with acoustic paneling running up the 40-foot walls and ceiling. There is a second long house, about one-third the size. Both can be used for special functions, conferences and performances. On the north end there is circular, sacred space. A round skylight is mirrored by a circle inlay in the ceiling and floor. Within the floor’s circle, a medicine wheel will be tiled, pointing true north, said Bailie.

There is also a boathouse outside with floor lights to illuminate the dugout canoe that was donated to Kwanlin Dun for display at the centre.

With construction crews cluttering the space and circular saws screaming, one thing stands out more than anything else – the smell.

As soon as the front doors of the cultural centre open, a rush of fresh cedar fills your nostrils. Almost the entire centre is covered in cedar paneling, inside and out.

All the wood comes from sustainable mills, said Bailie.

And all the materials used for the project were as natural, recyclable, non-toxic and local as possible, he said.

While all of the contracts went to open tender, nearly half were awarded locally and there was a real emphasis on hiring locally, especially from within the First Nation, he said.

Almost the entire east side of the building, facing the river, is windows from floor to ceiling. The natural light, along with energy-efficient electrical work and low-flush toilets will help keep the building eco-friendly.

“We definitely want to do our part to make sure the place is energy efficient and that we use good, healthy products,” he said. “Things are a little bit more expensive, but I always ask: What’s the price we’re going to put on our environment? You put more upfront but you are going to save more down the road and you’re providing a healthier environment for people. And that’s priceless.”

The efforts don’t stop with the interior.

During clearing, the workers had to pull up a lot of alder, which is the best for drying and smoking fish, said Bailie. It was all saved and sent to a new fish camp the Kwanlin Dun First Nation is building near Mountain View golf course.

Once all the snow melts, Bailie also hopes to have a massive clean-up of the river and adjoining bank led by the First Nation’s youth core, he said.

On the library-side of the building, health and comfort continue to be a priority.

There are windows everywhere, plenty of office space, an archival room, storage, conference rooms and employee quarters with a kitchen and showers. There is also a deck overlooking the river.

Currently, power lines run across the river on big, red and white poles, obstructing the view.

“Those will be gone,” said Bailie. Work crews are just waiting for the government to decide whether they will be tunneled under the river, or if a pedestrian footbridge will be built across.

A double-framed door on the main floor connects the two sides of the massive building.

It really is a natural combination,” he said. “It’s all about learning and sharing.”

From the beginning, the project has run really well, with all groups – the First Nation, the municipal and the territorial governments enthusiastic and working together, he said.

“This is our home,” he said. “We’re all in it together. This is a great thing for Whitehorse.”

And for the First Nation, who has been involved in the project every step of the way, “It’s a dream come true,” said Bailie.

“As traditional hosts of the area, once again we will be here to welcome the world,” he said. “Whenever anyone comes here, they want to know about the first peoples. We can teach them the Kwanlin Dun story from even before contact. We’re on a journey of re-discovery ourselves. With this building we can really regain a sense of identity and pride.”

Kwanlin Dun means people of the river, and the nation is the Yukon’s largest and most diverse aboriginal group. Being based around the capital, immigrating people have been adopted from aboriginal nations all across the territory, British Columbia and even Alaska and the Northwest Territories.

The new centre reflects that in many ways.

Most of the rooms will be given traditional, native names chosen from three main languages: Northern Tutchone, Tlingit and Southern Tutchone.

As well, a call was put out to all Kwanlin Dun artists.

Two were chosen to design the centre’s front windows.

In the round window to the left of the front door, on the wall of the elders’ lounge, Mark Preston will be doing an original etching of a moon with a wolf and crow coming up either side.

To the right, on the glassed wall of the gift shop, Jason Smith will also be doing a wolf/crow piece.

The two animals are traditional and sacred symbols for all of Yukon’s First Nations.

It has been a great honour to be so integral in this project, said Bailie, who hopes it will instil the same pride in the future generations.

“We all come from somewhere and we should take the time to find out where that is and be proud of it,” he said.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at