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History Hunter: Yukoners honoured for their contributions to Yukon history

The Yukon Historical and Museums Association handed out the 36th Annual Yukon Heritage Awards
The 2019 YHMA award recipients Patti Flather, from left, Leonard Linklater (on behalf of Gwaandak Theatre and the Vuntut Gwitchin government),Lillian Nakamura Maguire, Helene Dobrowolsky, Rob Ingram, and John Firth. (Michael Gates/Yukon News)

More than 60 people turned out for the Yukon Historical and Museums Association’s (YHMA) 36th Annual Yukon Heritage Awards.

The event was kicked off with a special presentation by Canadian author and archives and information management specialist Dr. Laura Millar titled, “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow? Protecting Archives in a Digital Age.”

Millar argued that we have to think differently about archives and records in a digital age: the safeguarding of authentic proof—records, archives, and data with evidential value—is essential in these Orwellian, post-truth times, as digital technologies have opened the door to a world in which “alternative facts” can be so easily accepted as valid.

She noted that every day, hundreds of millions of digital records are created; the question of how we manage these records will provide some unique challenges to archivists in the future. They will have to sift through the vast volume of records and make decisions about what is important enough to save for future generations. She urged us all to think about what we could do to make their job easier for them.

The Annual Heritage Award was presented to John Firth by YHMA board member Judy Hartling.

Firth is the author of several books relating to Yukon heritage including Yukon Challenge: the story of the Yukon Quest, (later republished as Yukon Quest: The 1000-mile dog sled race through the Yukon and Alaska), Yukon Sport, and his most recent book, The Caribou Hotel: Hauntings, Hospitality, a Hunter, and the Parrot.

The latter book, published in 2019, captures the story of one of the Yukon’s oldest, and most haunted hotels. Firth was also a major contributor to the book Whitehorse: An Illustrated History. He has not finished yet. His next book will recount the story of Father Mouchet and his contribution to cross-country skiing in the Yukon.

Dr. Laura Millar speaks at the Yukon Historical and Museums Association Heritage Awards. In a world of “Orwellian post-truth times,” she says it is important to save digital records for their evidential value. (Michael Gates/Yukon News)

Firth recounted how he was instructed when starting a job as tour bus driver in Whitehorse many years ago that if he didn’t know the history, to make it up because the tourists didn’t know the history anyway.

He went on to explain how he later took a cruise on the Yukon Lou in Dawson City in 1996. The cruise operator related the story of a former Dawson mayor being caught crawling out the back window of a Dawson brothel by his wife.

She wrote a letter to Ottawa which led to the elimination of prostitution in Dawson, which up to that time had been tolerated. Firth immediately informed the operator that the one event did not actually lead to the other, adding, much to the amusement of the audience, that the man referred to in the story was his father!

The History Makers Award was presented by YHMA board member Georgianna Low to Helene Dobrowolsky and Rob Ingram.

They have been contributing to the field of Yukon heritage for more than forty years.

According to the YHMA press release, “Since 1988, the two have worked together as cultural and heritage resource consultants under the name Midnight Arts. Their work can be found in the nominations of several Yukon historic sites, numerous books on Yukon heritage, management and interpretive plans for Yukon historic sites, interpretative pamphlets and flyers for heritage places across the territory, online exhibitions, and elsewhere.”

Dobrowolsky has also written several books on Yukon history, including Law of the Yukon and Hammerstones: A History of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in. Together, they produced the book Edge of the River, Heart of the City: A History of the Whitehorse Waterfront.

After receiving the award, Dobrowolsky gave special credit to the Yukon Archives and reaffirmed everything that guest speaker Millar had stated earlier in her address.

Ingram, in accepting the joint award with his wife, recalled in the early days how they giggled over texts they prepared for the large wooden point of interest signs along the highway that were to explain history in only 60 words. They tried to find creative ways to insert the word “suddenly” into the text, which wasn’t easy.

YHMA president Caitlin Normandin presented Lillian Nakamura Maguire with the Helen Couch Volunteer of the Year award.

Maguire is a founding member of Hidden Histories Society Yukon in 2002, and has remained active with the organization ever since. The Hidden Histories Society conducts research, produces displays, and coordinates events that enlarge the representation of ethnic minorities in the documentation and interpretation of Yukon history.

Maguire was modest in receiving the award, but everyone would attest to her important role in keeping the organization active.

Before saying a few words of acceptance, Maguire drew the attention of the audience to the t-shirt she was wearing. On it was a captivating design honouring Viola Desmond, a Black Nova Scotian businesswoman who challenged racial segregation at a film theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, in 1946.

In her acceptance speech, Maguire said that the history that she learned in school was boring and irrelevant to her. But she later caught the history bug from Peggy D’Orsay, a now retired Yukon Archives librarian, and Charlotte Hrenchuk and is now hooked on history for life. The award, she said humbly, was really for all of the passionate and committed volunteers in the Hidden Histories Society who had worked tirelessly over the years.

The final award of the evening, the Innovation, Education, and Community Engagement Award was presented to Gwaandak Theatre and Vuntut Gwitchin Government by YHMA board member Sylvie Binette for Ndoo Tr’eedyaa Gogwaandak (Forward Together): Vuntut Gwitchin Stories. Leonard Linklater and Patti Flather accepted on behalf of the recipients.

According to the press release, “This multi-year, community-based project celebrates Gwich’in storytelling tradition and Indigenous language revitalization through the production of a series of radio plays. The plays are based on long-ago and contemporary Gwich’in stories from Old Crow, which speak to the vital relationship between people and land. (The plays are available as podcasts and illustrated script booklets at and are free to download). This unique project represents an innovative, captivating way of sharing these stories with a wider audience.”

Gwaandak Theatre has been actively producing theatre projects for at least a decade. I can well remember the production of the play titled “Justice” put on at the Yukon Arts Centre by the Gwaandak Theatre in October 2012. The play was based on the killing of an American prospector by the Nantuck brothers in 1898, and their subsequent trial in Dawson City

Linklater echoed Maguire’s comments about history, as taught in school, being irrelevant to him, but later work with material in the Yukon Archives changed his mind. He would pore over old documents and was surprised by how quickly the hours passed by.

Flather expressed gratitude for all the support provided by the Vuntut Gwitchin. Special acknowledgement were given to Patricia Halladay, as well as the Vuntut Gwitchin heritage committee, community elders, language specialists and the First Nation education program in the Yukon Department of Education.

Congratulations to all these deserving award recipients for their special contributions to Yukon history!

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, From the Klondike to Berlin, was shortlisted for a national book award. You can contact him at