As crowds descended on Hay River for the third time in June, the atmosphere was distinctly different for the first-ever Homecoming.
The NWT Track and Field Championships brought young people and excitement, and Hay Days took over the community with its artistic vibe, but the Hay River diaspora came home over the weekend.
“It’s bittersweet,” High Level, Alta., resident Cathy Blanchette told The Hub. “It’s so nice to see everyone, but we know we have to go back home so soon. Coming here is still like coming home for us.”
She and her husband, Ed Blanchette, spent 14 years in Hay River, raising their three children – one of whom set records on a brand new (at the time) track facility at Diamond Jenness Secondary School – but moved away close to 20 years ago.
“I’m so surprised by how many people are still in town,” Cathy said. “You tend to think of these northern towns as a bit transient and it’s amazing how many people have stayed in Hay River.”
One of the most well-attended events of the weekend was the grand and official reopening of Diamond Jenness Secondary School (DJSS) after three years of extensive renovations.
“It was a midlife retrofit that turned into a midlife crisis,” said Hay River South MLA Jane Groenewegen, one of the strongest supporters of the renovation project. “We finally got it all done this year, and now it’s a tourist attraction. I see people stop, get out of their cars, and take pictures of it all the time.”
Hay River North MLA Robert Bouchard laid claim to slightly more personal memories of the old DJSS, recounting one that stands out is of now-town councillor Mike Maher chasing him down the hallway to the boys’ locker room and pushing him into the lockers.
“Thankfully, I was too big at the time to fit into those lockers,” said Bouchard.
Later, he told The Hub he was finding it difficult to get the smile off his face the entire weekend.
“There are so many generations here, all kinds of families coming back together for the first time in years,” he said. “The (Homecoming) committee was expecting about 550 people, but now it’s closer to 1,000.”
The original plan for the reopening had been to hold a separate week from Homecoming, but Bouchard said he was glad the two had been combined.
“It just makes more sense, and so many more people could come out and see their new old school,” he said.
Of course, no celebration of Diamond Jenness, much less a reopening and 40th anniversary all rolled into one, could pass without some mention of the school’s iconic mauve colour.
“I am here to put all the other stories to rest,” Hay River District Education Authority chair Terrance Courtoreille told the assembled parents, teachers and alumni. “It was the students’ idea and the students had the final say.”
As hundreds of people frolicked around town, flocking to the NTCL property next to Fisherman’s Wharf for food and fun, and dropping in at Kingland Ford’s Show ‘n’ Shine to vote for their favourite buffed-up vehicle, a quiet but steady procession made its way to Hay River’s cemetery.
For many of the weekend guests, a chance to meet up with old friends and relatives was accompanied by an opportunity to visit those who had passed away and remain in Hay River.
Eleta Crosby led a group planting a propeller on the D’Aoust family plot in memory of her brother, Hay River native and pilot Randy D’Aoust, who died as a result of a heart attack in 2011.
“Randy was in Ontario when he died, but we brought him home,” she said, adding that, while the propeller would be mounted on the grave, she and other family members had scattered D’Aoust’s ashes somewhere in the Northwest Territories, declining to reveal exactly where.
D’Aoust was a bush pilot who learned on the wings of famed northern aviation pioneer Merlyn Carter. He travelled around Canada and the world, rarely coming back to Hay River, and died on April 18, 2011, just shy of his 58th birthday.
Crosby had visited Hay River a few years ago and had found her family’s small plot in dire need of attention.
“It was sad to come and see,” she said. “The last time we were here, all the graves were sunk in and overgrown.”
Compounding the problem is the fact that there are many white cross grave markers that don’t bear any name at all.
“There really should be names on every one of those crosses,” Crosby stated.
Norma Greer couldn’t agree more, and having visited both the town records and inquired at the churches, went to the graveyard armed with a red sharpie. She had been told her father’s grave was directly in front of the D’Aoust family plot, but she said she knew better and wrote ‘Bill Greer’ in big red letters on the cross to the right of the newly-installed propeller.
“Even if the town or the church doesn’t known who is buried where, the families do,” Greer said. “Every one of these nameless white crosses is a question mark, but somebody out there knows.”
Another site of pilgrimage for returning Hay Riverites was a wall of photos along the road between Kingland Ford and The Rooster.
Entitled ‘Gone but not forgotten’, at first there were only two rows of black and white photos, their dated clothes in no way taking away from their smiling faces grinning out at passers-by. Day by day, however, the photos grew in number until a total of 224 were counted on the afternoon of June 29.
“This is Brad Mapes’ vision,” said Shirley King. “He does so much for this community. This brings tears to my eyes.”
King said the first night the wall went up, a man walked by and wanted his late wife to be included. Mapes, in partnership with Poison Graphics, had her photo up before lunchtime the next day.
“It really takes me down memory lane,” said visitor Glen Horton, as he stared up at a photo of a man he had called family when he lived in Hay River between 1970 and 1983. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to see faces again. I knew most of the people here on the wall.”
— Sarah Ladik