I’m listening to our captain, Matthew Grogono, as he settles into a lively description and history of each houseboat we cruise by in his speedboat on Yellowknife Bay.
Just a few moments later, we’re in his houseboat and I’m being introduced to his wife, Lynn Taylor.
Welcome to Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories.
There’s something special about this charming city of about 20,000 with the frequent roars of small planes, rocky landscapes and many, many lakes. The spontaneous invitation was just one example of the hospitality and generosity I received while in Yellowknife.
I arrived a few days earlier in time for National Indigenous Peoples Day and summer solstice, when I attended the the North Slave Métis Alliance annual free fish fry and stage show at the Somba K’e Civic Plaza near City Hall.
I was treated to performances by Edmonton’s Métis Cultural Dancers, Yellowknives Dene First Nation Drummers, and Inuit throat singers Tanya Roach and Anna Seagrave. Did you know there are 11 official languages in the Northwest Territories?
Over the next five days, I immersed myself in the local history visiting the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, the Bristol Monument, the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly, the N.W.T. Diamond Centre, Bush Pilot’s Monument and the Outdoor Mining Heritage Centre.
Yellowknife sits on the Canadian Shield — a large area of exposed Precambrian igneous and high-grade metamorphic rocks. Do you remember your geology terms from Grade 10 science?
Yellowknife gets its name from a local Dene tribe called the Copper Indians or Yellowknife Indians.
The city has something for everybody with its rustic small town feel and its modern day amenities. While these days people may travel to Yellowknife for to see the Northern Lights, there’s much more to this northern Canadian city than spotting the aurora borealis.
Take a walk
Old Town is Yellowknife’s funky historic neighbourhood where its pioneer roots are present around every corner. Take photos in front of the original Weaver and Devore Store. Feast on grilled Arctic char or deep fried whitefish at the famed Bullocks Bistro. Watch the airplanes at the Bush Pilot’s Monument and get the best view of the city. Head on down to “Woodyard” along a section of the waterfront where a bunch of shacks, outhouses, cabins boats and other junk fit together perfectly in a haphazard surreal way. See if you can find the infamous “Ragged Ass Road.”
All that glitters
Visit the N.W.T. Diamond Centre to learn how diamonds are mined. If you’re in luck, you can try your hand at cutting and polishing a real diamond. Here’s some fun facts: Three mines have opened in the Northwest Territories — Ekati, Diavik and Snap Lake since 1998. Canada is the world’s third largest diamond producer in terms of value after Botswana and Russia
The outdoor mining heritage museum near the Giant Mine’s A shaft and the Great Slave Cruising Club’s public boat launch is also a must see. Just be mindful of the signs as there is arsenic in the area.
The polar bear in the room
You can’t miss the giant polar bear hide on the floor of the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly. Our tour guide told us years ago a man asked for help with a polar bear terrorizing his community. The assembly did not help, so the man went back to his community. The man eventually killed the bear, brought it back in the form of a bear rug to the assembly as a gift. No doubt they took notice of the polar bear problem.
The Northwest Territories operates as a consensus government, as opposed to a one-party system like we have in the south. The MLAs are elected as individuals or independents. After the election, the members choose a premier, a speaker and six cabinet members among themselves.
Another fun fact — the Great Hall in the Legislative Assembly Building can be rented by anybody as long as it is open to the public. It was only in November 1993, when the first permanent assembly building opened. Before then the territories used to be governed by a travelling assembly.
The mace is a symbol of the N.W.T.’s Legislative Assembly and its speaker. Originally it was designed as a weapon to protect royalty. When Nunavut (“our land” in Inuktitut) became a territory in 1999, the N.W.T. commissioned three northern artists to create a new mace to represent the new Northwest Territories.
It was designed using materials such as northern diamond, beadwork, porcupine quillwork and Yellowknife gold. What I remember most from the tour are the pebbles — pebbles from the 33 N.W.T. communities are inside the language, band, shaft and foot. When moved, they create a sound similar to a rainstick, representing the voices of the people.
Growing up in rural Nova Scotia, I remember going to “the dump” looking for treasures. A man sitting in the seat next to me on the plane to Yellowknife thought salvaging was hilarious. These days you can’t get anywhere near a ‘waste management facility’ because of the safety and health concerns. This must be one of the few places you can still salvage. On any given day, the dump on Hwy 4, is usually filled with at least a dozen people looking through the trash.
If you go:
The best source for general research is Yellowknife Online at ykonline.ca.
The Visitor Information Centre is located on the lower level of City Hall (4807 25 St.). Phone: 867-920-8687.