The Woodyard: surviving progress

story and photos by Fran Hurcomb

The Woodyard is one of Yellowknife’s most distinctive neighbourhoods, but it’s also a place of some mystery and controversy. Squeezed into less than three hectares of Commissioner’s Land on Yellowknife Bay, between Willow Flats and Ragged Ass Road, the Woodyard is the last echo from an era of shacks, honeybuckets and general disorder.

I moved into the Woodyard in 1977 and was overjoyed to have, for the sum of $60 a month, my own 8 foot x 16 foot skid shack. It wasn’t much: two small rooms, a hot plate and a woodstove, with an outhouse in the backyard, but it was mine. My neighbours were commercial fishermen, a trapper or two and several young “longhairs” who mainly worked in the bush in mineral exploration camps or on Great Slave Lake. Dog teams were still tied behind shacks, but snowmobiles often took the place of honour as the preferred vehicle for winter travel. While most of the shacks had electricity, none had running water. Water was pumped twice a week into water barrels by water delivery men like Jonas Johnson, and “honeybuckets” were hauled away to the dump once a week. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked. The shacks were a low-cost housing alternative for those with minimal incomes and an aversion to subsidized housing “uptown.”

Life in the Woodyard had its ups and downs. Without lot lines and fences, neighbours had to learn to respect each other and work together. It was an eclectic mixture of old and young; aboriginal and non-aboriginal; owners and renters; traditional and not-so-traditional cultures. Things ran along fairly smoothly until October 1984, when City Council announced plans for a new “Squatter’s Policy” to be applied to the 60 residents living on untitled land in Old Town. Residents were alarmed. This could potentially be the end of many shacks. The Willow Flats/Joliffe Island Community Association was formed when 34 motivated Old Town residents packed a small shack for the founding meeting, hammered out by-laws and elected a nine-person executive. We were ready for a fight.

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My shack, 1977.

The issue divided Yellowknife: those who wanted to be rid of “the squatters” and those who felt they were a part of the city and should be left alone. Heated debates filled City Hall with standing-room-only crowds. In November of 1984, the “Squatter Policy” was adopted. Anyone living on untitled public lands would be required to sign an annual “occupancy agreement.” If a dwelling was vacated, it could be torn down by the City. Nobody signed the agreement.

Woodyard residents felt threatened and offended by the accusations that they were freeloaders. Commercial fisherman Wilfred Smith, my next-door neighbour, had lived in the Woodyard since the 1960’s. Like many, he was also confused by the City’s intentions. In an interview I did with him in 1985 for a magazine article, Wilfred said “What are they thinking? They’re worried about people not taking care of themselves and being on welfare, and here we take care of ourselves and they talk about knocking down our houses.”

Retired diamond driller Clifford “Slugger” Sloggett bought his shack in the Woodyard in 1962. He was also interviewed at the time and was quick to defend his neighbours in the Woodyard who, he felt, were being condemned for being young and having radical ideas. “I like the people here. They’re all working hard, so give them a chance, same as we had before. The people that want us to move, they’ve had their chance; now give these young people theirs.”

The Willow Flats/Joliffe Island Community Association appealed directly to NWT Commissioner John Parker on the grounds that the shacks were actually on GNWT Commissioner’s Land and not under the jurisdiction of the City. Parker, in turn, requested that the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre study the heritage value of the Woodyard. The resulting study by archeologist Christopher Hanks concluded that the Woodyard “has played a significant role in the evolution of the city” and that the area was historically important for many reasons and should be considered within “an overall historic planning process for the city which allows for an adequate public discussion of all the issues by the groups involved.”

Emphasis on the fact that the Woodyard was actually owned by the Territorial Government took some wind out of the City’s sails and the shacks and their residents were given a temporary reprieve. However, in 1985, the City initiated the first of many Yellowknife Waterfront Development Studies. Much of the focus of this study was on new recreational development along the waterfront in the Old Town, with special focus on the area surrounding and including the Woodyard. Once again, the Willow Flats/Joliffe Island Community Association made presentations to save the neighbourhood. Once again, jurisdictional confusion saved the day.

In 1992, the Woodyard survived the “Old Town Secondary Development Scheme”; in 1997, a Planning and Lands policy review called “The Woodyard: an Examination of Alternatives” and in 2000, the “Waterfront Management Plan”, which included the “Woodyard Waterfront Park Study.” During this time, although the Woodyard had managed to escape total destruction, the surrounding Willow Flats neighbourhood was changing quickly. Shacks were disappearing and Old Town had become a fashionable place to live.

Woodyard map, 1981

With each passing year, the Woodyard becomes more of an anomaly. Nonetheless, it is still home to more than a dozen hardy residents willing to live in tiny, poorly serviced shacks. Gone are the fishermen, trappers and drillers. Today, most residents are young and exploring alternative lifestyles that often don’t earn them much income, so the low rents and the associated freedom are much appreciated. Several older residents have lived in their shacks for more than 20 years and still the enjoy the lifestyle of the Woodyard.

As 2012 unfolds, “The Draft Harbour Plan”, a wide sweeping 150-page document, outlines ambitious plans for Yellowknife’s waterfront. At least in this study, the Woodyard is recognized as having a “unique heritage” and there is no discussion of demolishing the shacks and displacing residents. On the other hand, one wonders how much longer the Woodyard can hold on against increasing demands for more waterfront recreation space and access. Something will have to give, and sometimes I fear it will inevitably be the Woodyard.

Walking through the Woodyard, especially on a crisp, clear winter night, when the woodsmoke from the small shacks reaches up to mingle with the northern lights, feels like stepping back into an earlier time. For a brief moment, it’s easy to imagine yourself in the Yellowknife of the 1940s… rough, isolated, and not for the faint of heart, but above all, a place of endless possibility. Long live the Woodyard.

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