For Albert Bourque, Hay River’s maritime history has been buried for too long.
“As a small boy, I lived here, and NTCL (Northern Transportation Company Limited) was the only transportation company in the North,” he said. “There were no highways and the harbour was a busy place.”
Bourque, in partnership with NTCL, wants to bring that identity back to the forefront. His plan is to get youth involved in boating by having them fix up a few out-of-commission lifeboats over the winter, and then take them out onto Great Slave Lake to learn how to sail after breakup.
“These boats are built from the best materials and are of the highest quality,” he said of the 12-foot wooden lifeboats he plans to use for the project, each of which can be fitted with a sailing rig. “When you restore a vessel, there are lots of skills involved and we want to provide a sort of mentorship program for anyone who wants to learn.”
The project would be designed to draw out the practical applications of abstract learning, Bourque explained.
Navigation is all about geometry, welding is dependent on an appreciation for metallurgy, and even skills like painting involve an understanding of chemistry. The goal would be to not only help young people develop useful skills, but also to give them incentives to study harder in the classroom, as well.
“As a painter, you don’t have to be a chemist,” Bourque said. “But understanding your materials certainly helps.”
The scope of the refurbishing project is not limited strictly to woodworking, welding and painting.
NTCL’s shipyard manager Jim Walker said the company has loads of electrical and computer equipment for young people to learn to repair and use – all playing an integral part in the shipping industry.
“We have surplus this, that and the other thing,” he said. “We could bring a lot of skills together and what a way to do it.”
But Walker has further plans for the potential participants in the project. Beyond giving them the chance to learn skills that would be of use in many industries, he sees the idea as an opportunity to showcase the shipping industry in Hay River – mostly synonymous with NTCL – as a potential future employer.
“We can’t all be librarians and lawyers,” he said. “I believe in training young men and women and giving them some exposure to avenues to which they might not have been made aware of before. All we do here is applied physical sciences.”
Youth Centre volunteer Alice Coates agrees that the project, though still in the early planning phase, could have an enormous impact on participants – not only in terms of learning the basics of a trade, but also of being presented with an opportunity to work in their home community.
“I think there is a tendency to look south for meaningful, gainful employment,” she said. “This could be a chance to show young people that there are viable options here in Hay River, and that they don’t have to turn to places like Grand Prairie, Edmonton and Fort McMurray.”
While giving young people the chance to acquire new skills and perhaps even present them with a potential career path could be motivation enough, Bourque is just as invested in instilling a sense of hometown pride in his would-be apprentices.
“Hay River was established as a port community,” he said. “This project would help establish a sense of place here for these kids.”
Bourque believes local maritime history often gets pushed into the background or relegated to sterile classrooms. His passion for vessels of all types was evident when he explained the differing personalities of each ship on which he had worked and the opportunity to create an appreciation for local history among the young people he hopes will refurbish the ones currently sitting in the NTCL yard.
“If they can learn the history of those boats in context, and to then have that history be made available to the community, that’s a powerful thing,” he said.
The most recent meeting between Bourque and Walker included discussion of a plan to refurbish one of the tugs in the yard as an interactive museum piece.
“I would go a long way out of my way to walk around on a historically-restored boat,” said Bourque. “It would be a great tourist attraction for the town and would really help showcase our maritime history.”
That maritime identity is what drives both Walker and Bourque, along with a pride in the industry that is its result.
“Within the small mosaic of NTCL, we can offer them the opportunity to discern at their leisure what it is they want to do,” said Walker. “Just get them on the water and see where it takes them.”
— Sarah Ladik