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Heritage awards honour Yukoners

The 2017 Yukon Heritage Awards, sponsored by the Yukon Historical and Museums Association (YHMA), took place at the Yukon Archives Feb. 19. Five individuals and a First Nation were the recipients of this year’s honours.
The 2017 Yukon Heritage Awards recipients Tip Evans and Bessie Cooley (representing Teslin Tlingit Council), from left, Leda Jules, Lily Gontard, Alice Cyr, and Peggy D’Orsay, pose for a photo at the Yukon Archives on Feb. 19. (Michael Gates/Yukon News)

The 2017 Yukon Heritage Awards, sponsored by the Yukon Historical and Museums Association (YHMA), took place at the Yukon Archives Feb. 19. Five individuals and a First Nation were the recipients of this year’s honours.

Leda Jules was the first recipient of the evening, honoured with the YHMA Annual Heritage Award. The award is presented to a person, organization, First Nation or business for an outstanding contribution to Yukon heritage. According to the YHMA, for more than five decades, Jules has “worked tirelessly to promote and protect Kaska language, culture and heritage…. A fluent speaker of the Pelly dialect, Leda has worked with numerous organizations, institutions, linguists and academics to document and develop resources for the Kaska language.”

Peggy D’Orsay was recognized with the History Maker Award by the heritage community for her work in the service of protection, conservation, promotion or development of Yukon’s heritage over a period of many years. Peggy held the position of archives librarian at the Yukon Archives from 1990 until her retirement in January 2017. Among her many accomplishments, she led the archives digital book project, and the development of the Yukon genealogy website.

According to the program for the ceremony, “Peggy was also instrumental in the formation of Hidden Histories Society Yukon.… She continues to be involved in the Society to this day, helping to enlarge the representation of Asian, Black, and other ethno-cultural individuals and groups in the interpretation of Yukon History.”

Alice Cyr was this year’s recipient of the Helen Couch Volunteer of the Year Award. She began volunteering at the Yukon Transportation Museum (YTM) in 2016 by cataloguing the large collection of photographs and artifacts she had previously donated. Since then, her role has expanded to create a collections and research work area and test a new record-keeping system that encourages community involvement. She also created a virtual exhibit entitled “Paul Cyr Loved Cats,” which opened at the YTM on Feb. 14.

Lily Gontard and Mark Kelly were joint recipients of the Innovation, Education and Community Engagement Award. Gontard was present to accept the award. This award celebrates the various ways in which knowledge is shared and transmitted between generations and cultural groups, in this case, through a publication.

Gontard, an author, and Kelly, a photographer, collaborated to produce the book, Beyond Mile Zero: The Vanishing Alaska Highway Lodge Community, that tells the story of the lodges and lodge communities along the Alaska Highway, many of which have now disappeared from the landscape. Gontard and Kelly traveled up and down the highway, visiting many of the lodges, and the sites of former lodges, and they interviewed dozens of current and former lodge owners to create this remarkable story.

The final award of the evening was the Heritage Conservation Project of the Year Award, which is sponsored by the Yukon government’s Department of Tourism and Culture. It is given to the individual, community group, First Nation or business whose work to preserve, restore or rehabilitate a historic property, listed in the Yukon Historic Sites Inventory, best reflects conservation principles and practices.

This year it was given to the Teslin Tlingit Council for the conservation and restoration of the Freddie and Nina Johnston House. On hand to receive the award were Tip Evans and Bessie Cooley. The House, built in the late 1920s or early 1930s, “is the last remaining frame house of its style and age in Teslin.” Over a period of six years, the First Nation consulted with elders, historic photos and old documents to guide their work and ensure the heritage value of the building was preserved according to nationally accepted standards. Work on this project is planned to continue this year.

After the presentation of this award, Bessie Cooley stepped forward to speak, first identifying her clan affiliations, and speaking in the Inland Tlingit language. Her paternal grandmother lived in this house, and Bessie shared some personal reminiscences from when she stayed in the house as a young girl.

She remembers when she and her two younger brothers pulled the bed up to the window on the second floor so that they could watch the adults gathered outside. She charmed the large audience attending the awards by recalling the time when a bitter snow storm encapsulated the house in snow and her father had to dig a tunnel out from the house through the drifts. Bessie and her brothers had a ball running up and down this snow tunnel.

This year’s guest speaker was Brent Slobodin, Yukon’s newly appointed member of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC). Recipient of a PhD in Canadian history from Queen’s University, Slobodin has sat on the National Trust for Canada, and served for many years as president of the YHMA. He has also taught Yukon and First Nations history at Yukon College for many years. He is also a recipient of a YHMA heritage award for his involvement with several others in the organizing of an international conference on the North in World War I in May 2016.

Slobodin said since 1919 the HSMBC has made recommendations to the Government of Canada, currently through the Minister of the Environment, about the commemoration of people, places and events that are of national historic significance. Among the 982 national historic sites that span the country, only 171 are administered by Parks Canada. The remainder are in the hands of other levels of government or First Nations, businesses or private individuals. Included among the sites of national significance in the Yukon, Slobodin mentioned the Dawson Historical Complex, Dredge No. 4, the Old Territorial courthouse, the SS Klondike and the Discovery Claim.

Every year, the HSMBC accepts on average 70 nominations for consideration by the board, 95 per cent of which come from the public. Anyone interested in submitting a nomination to the board for consideration should refer to the board’s website.

The ceremony was well attended this year with nearly 100 people present to witness the awards, share in conversation and enjoy the delicious food that was served after the official ceremony was completed.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in stores everywhere. You can contact him at