“The board gathered around in a circle this afternoon, the 15th of June (2015); all of us just sat and looked at each other. Everyone just seemed to be in a state of shock and no one knew how to start.”
That was the opening sentence of a submission to the Kamsack Times by the members of the board of the Fort Pelly-Livingstone Museum, dated June 16, 2015.
“Almost three years have passed since our Saskatchewan community was devastated by a disaster that destroyed our legacy landmark,” said a release from Allan Reine, board member of the Fort Pelly-Livingstone Museum.
“Most Pelly residents were at the rink for our annual country music festival when word came in. Fire at the Museum: the unthinkable.
“By the time firefighters were on scene the situation was out of control. All the artifacts were in danger; people risked their safety to rescue a few valuable items until the RCMP, thankfully, would allow no more entry. Far too much was lost.
“Thanks to our courageous area firefighters the adjacent heritage train station and nearby seniors’ residences were damaged but not destroyed,” he said.
The Pelly area has a significant chapter in the history of colonial and early Canada. Fort Pelly and Fort Livingstone are two National Historic Sites, places of “profound importance to Canadian History” according to Parks Canada.
They are located at the closest intersection of two prairie river valleys, and Fort Livingstone, on the banks of the Swan, was the first capital of the Northwest Territories and the controversial first post built specifically for the North West Mounted Police (NWMP), said a release from Reine.
Fort Pelly, located on the Assiniboine, was a vibrant Hudson’s Bay Company outpost that witnessed 50 years of colonial history and interrelationships with area First Nations.
Pelly village, located near the Manitoba border in east-central Saskatchewan, lies almost midway between the two forts; a ten-minute drive from each.
For decades local area residents had contributed to these historic sites and worked at the museum that housed the artifacts of this colonial and pioneer era. Many had spent their adult lives in this effort; in maintaining the museum developed from the old abandoned school and in providing residents, area students, tour groups and others with a look at the long-forgotten past, the release said.
Thousands of hours of volunteer work went up in smoke, including scale model replicas of both Forts, and hundreds and hundreds of period items. Some important items were saved, including uniforms of NWMP officers and First Nation dance uniforms.
In an instant most was gone. An aura of gloom and grief descended on the village, as well as disbelief, blame, anger and finally acceptance that something had to be done.
“The museum, of course, was an integral part of village infrastructure and activity; we were somehow desperate to save the day,” he said.
The community gathered, and a new board of directors was charged with developing options. The board committed to rebuilding; some time, some way.
“We don’t know what form our future museum will look like,” Dave Weiman, past board member, admitted at the time. “We do want to move forward, but we’re not entirely sure what form that is going to take.”
“Numerous obstacles stood in our way. We had little cash, the building was uninsured, and the fire refuse contained asbestos so nothing that survived in the rubble could be recovered. But we still had hope,” said Reine. “Our dedicated community and board of directors were committed to finding a silver lining in this disaster.”
Fundraising efforts began with the goal of attaining a new museum building. Volunteer committees were struck.
Building designs were presented and analyzed. Community members and local business contributed generously to fundraising events. Local farmers and businesses cooperated to grow a canola crop.
“Our coffers built up. There was more light, but still the future was unpredictable. Realization set in that long years of effort would be necessary to achieve our objective. We knew our main focus had to be the Forts, so we committed to that priority,” Reine said.
“A year after the fire we caught a huge break. A real estate listing showed the village's former RCMP barracks were up for sale. The building had been privately owned after the RCMP left town years ago, but it had become available at a reasonable price. The board got a mortgage, the building was purchased and the light grew brighter. We could now develop a better plan, host an open house in our new building, and inform curious area residents about our progress.
“We even started thinking about an opening date. The barracks and attached residence were not only structurally sound, but historically appropriate. They were a great fit with our desire to celebrate the achievements and activities of both the NWMP and their RCMP successors.
“With the assistance of Public Safety Canada, we were able to touch base with related RCMP organizations like the RCMP Veterans Association and the RCMP Heritage Centre to seek advice and assistance for our goal to celebrate important achievements of both forces that provided security in colonial and early Canada. To that end, we've allocated a specific RCMP/ NWMP display area in the new museum.
“With our new building secured, we could move on to other issues. We needed to ensure our operation represented our area's diversity. We have a large First Nations population, centered on three reserves in the immediate area. Sadly, their huge role in this area's historical development has been underrepresented in past heritage collections and activities.
“We, as a board, resolved to address this issue,” he said.
Yvonne Hotzak, museum president, committed to this objective in a press release: "An important added focus for the new museum will be the significant contributions of indigenous peoples in our history. Giving voice to their stories of the past will be an exciting challenge and an opportunity for us and our area's huge First Nation population who currently participate and lead in many village organizations and activities."
“Our board has allocated a specific display area for this purpose in the museum and our members are actively engaging First Nations in our activities,” Reine said.
“We are almost ready to open our doors this year. Vice president Donald Budz has been leading a giant effort to repurpose the former RCMP detachment and living quarters into a suitable museum format safe for public use and secure for our ever-growing collection.
"There are concerns about the smaller display area," said Butz. "Although we have less room for displays, using today's technology and rotating exhibits throughout the year should allow us the capacity to be sufficient."
One area of the museum will be dedicated to archival photos of this early era of vibrant Fort operations. Budz is working with the Hudson's Bay Company in Winnipeg, and archival collections in Regina to access representations of the Forts in operation.
Given all the items lost in the fire, the museum is still seeking additional materials, relating to this early period.
”In particular, we need items and stories related to early governance, the fur trade and First Nations history,” he said. “We would also welcome any artifacts related to European settlement in the decades immediately after confederation.
“Relating to more recent history we have received dozens of artifacts from local and past residents of the area. Their commitment and generosity have been overwhelming and we could not be more thankful. Due to limited storage space, we have had to be selective about receiving additional donations.
“Currently, things look bright for the museum but there are significant remaining challenges. We are particularly concerned with the continuing protection, promotion and operation of our National Historic Sites. Much work is needed to bring these sites to a level befitting their status as important Canadian landmarks.
“As local proponents of these important resources, we have a duty to take reasonable steps to secure these sites for the benefit of current and future generations. The efforts of past generations will not be abandoned on our watch. We are committed to fulfilling our role and to ensuring that others who have a mandated responsibility for the sites, preservation and promotion are held to their obligations,” Reine said.
An additional and related challenge is to find information and education channels that could provide more Canadians with a knowledge of the long-forgotten role of this period in Canada's history.
“We have had some success in engaging our media stakeholders, and our next step is to reach out to other organizations focused on Canadian history to enlist their support and encouragement.
“Another challenge is to work effectively to support the resiliency of our local community. The vitality of many Canadian rural areas is threatened by an aging and shrinking population. Pelly is no exception and we hope that our museum and historic sites might somehow contribute to our area's sustainable development and economic vitality. We hope to be part of the solution by building more productive relationships with area business and local governments, including First Nations.
“As mentioned, we plan to open our doors on a seasonal basis on May 19. Our board is proud of the work done, and the direction that has been cast. We are so thankful for the community's support. The museum will continue to be a large part of the activities that have sustained our community over the years, and through this dark period: the numerous parades, culture days celebrations, music events, and more.
“Our Grand Opening event will feature a pancake-type brunch, and an ability to tour our new museum and our developing exhibits. We plan for a program with a ribbon-cutting and speakers including representatives from the museum, Village of Pelly and the provincial government,” said Reine.
“Perhaps there is a silver lining to our struggle. Perhaps with new partners, new ideas, and new commitments we will rise ever more resilient, like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes.”
Allan Reine is a board member of the Fort Pelly – Livingstone Museum. You can reach the Museum at 306-595-2030, or firstname.lastname@example.org.