Peggy Hanifan, photographed at the Yukon Arts Centre on July 24, is the recipient of the Conrad Boyce Award, an award given to people who support the arts community in Whitehorse. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Whitehorse open mic night organizer earns arts award

‘Whitewater Wednesdays is one of those institutions that makes living up here worth it’

Peggy Hanifan was ambushed with an award on July 19.

When it happened, she was doing what she’s done every week for the last two decades — running the Whitewater Wednesdays jam session. Even when Mike Ivens, a member of the Conrad Boyce Award Committee, got onstage and started talking about the recipient of this year’s award, Hanifan didn’t realize she was the subject of his speech.

“Once he came to the part about ‘she even survived hypothermia on the Yukon River’ … that’s when I knew it was about me,” Hanifan told the News over the phone on July 24, her voice hoarse from a weekend at the Dawson City Music Festival.

“I had no idea. I don’t think I’ve ever been more surprised in my life actually,” she said of the award, given each year to a behind-the-scenes player whose support is integral to the city’s arts community.

Ivens said the awards committee was less surprised when Hanifan’s name came up during discussions about this year’s recipient.

“When someone suggested Peggy it was one of those moments when everyone looked around and said, ‘Oh yeah, of course, come on,’” he said.

“We wanted to recognize (Whitewater Wednesdays) because it was her work and dedication over a couple decades at least. That’s why we felt she was deserving of the award.”

“There’s a lot of energy and commitment to putting on something like that,” he said of the jam night, which began at Kopper King 22 years ago.

It was her sister’s idea. At the time, she was managing Kopper King, and asked Hanifan to bring her guitar and run an open mic one night. Initially, Hanifan told her sister to forget it — she wasn’t a performer.

“I (was) a sit-around-the-kitchen-table kinda gal,” Hanifan said. She had learned guitar in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., after her school music teacher showed up at the door and told Hanifan’s mother that the then-11-year old Hanifan should be taking lessons. She “had something” according to the teacher.

Hanifan’s sister may have recognized that something too, because she persisted until Hanifan agreed to play.

That first night was so successful, it’s remained a staple of the city’s music scene, though the venue has changed a number of times – moving from Kopper King, to Backwater Lounge (now the Social House), to the Gold Rush. It’s been at Epic Pizza since 2012.

Hanifan said the event has never missed a week. If she’s sick, or if she and her husband are on vacation, she finds someone else to host rather than cancel. Most nights, she said, there’s a full house. Sometimes there are more musicians than there are hours in the evening.

While Hanifan is slow to pat herself on the back, she said she has heard from attendees that the reason they love the event is that it feels safe and comfortable.

She talks to everyone who shows up. Her husband Jack does all the stagework and sound. The audience is warm and receptive and giving of applause in a way that makes you feel like you want to do it again.

Hanifan said Kim Beggs got her start there. Beggs released her fifth solo album this year, and tours all over the place now, but on her first jam night, Hanifan remembers they had to crank the sound to be able to hear the whisper-quiet Beggs.

Gordie Tentrees also started out there. He said he only knew two songs when he went to watch a friend perform at Whitewater 18 years ago. Hanifan cornered him and told him if he played three songs, he’d get a free beer. Tentrees told her he only knew two. When she told him to play one of them twice, he did.

Two weeks later, he wrote his first original song. It was about playing at Whitewater Wednesdays, which he did every week for the next two years.

“Every single time I went to play, I didn’t know how to sing or keep time, it was atrocious, but she kept spurring me on,” he said, calling Hanifan a rare commodity.

“I figured it can’t be that bad, she keeps telling me to get up there.… No matter what level you’re at and who you are, she makes you feel great about yourself and makes you feel like you have something to offer.”

A lot of people feel that way, said Ivens, and have only started playing in front of people because of Hanifan. Her approach with musicians has made the music scene in Whitehorse all the more rich, he said. That’s why she was chosen to win the Conrad Boyce Awards.

“Whitewater Wednesdays is one of those institutions that makes living up here worth it,” he said.

Contact Amy Kenny at amy.kenny@yukon-news.com

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