'They were our Games': A look at the first South Slave Arctic Winter Games, 40 years on

As the 2018 Arctic Winter Games prepare to open in Hay River and Fort Smith, long-time residents are fondly remembering the last time they came to the South Slave. Now, they celebrate the 40-year anniversary of one of the most unique Games ever held.

Participants remember controversy with local MP, 'Inukshuk Express' passenger train, community pride

Arctic Winter Games participants march through Hay River to the 1978 opening ceremonies. The ceremonies were held outdoors and were headlined by federal minister of sport Iona Campagnolo arriving by dogsled. (Ulu News/Arctic Winter Games International Committee)

As the 2018 Arctic Winter Games prepare to open in Hay River and Fort Smith, long-time residents are fondly remembering the last time they came to the South Slave — 40 years ago, when the region hosted one of the most unique Games ever held. 

In 1978, the Arctic Winter Games were held in Hay River and the now-defunct town of Pine Point — the only other time the Games were held in the Northwest Territories outside of Yellowknife.

It's an anniversary that holds special meaning for many long-time residents of the region, who still remember those Games fondly and are eager to pass on the experience to a new generation.

"It did mean more being at home," said Hay River's Sabrina Broadhead, the territory's flag bearer for the 1978 Games.

"It was the first Games that my parents could come to ... they were close enough to home. And we knew everybody."

Sabrina Broadhead, originally from Fort Smith, was the flag bearer for the N.W.T. at the 1978 Arctic Winter Games in Hay River and Pine Point. She remembers the games fondly, 'feeling like they were our games, as a kid from the South Slave.' (Submitted by Sabrina Broadhead)
Originally from Fort Smith, Broadhead  — born Sabrina Dragon — first represented the N.W.T. as a 12-year-old basketball player in 1974. As the 1978 Games rolled around, she was the oldest player on the team, which also featured two of her sisters, and was selected to lead the territory into the opening ceremonies, which were held outdoors in Hay River.

"I burnt my left hand on a curling iron," she said, with a laugh.

"And my whole team goes crazy, and I go, 'No, I'm OK, it's my left hand.' But I didn't know how I was going to hold the flag with my burnt hand!"

The 1978 Games were a more modest affair than their current iteration. Only three jurisdictions — the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Alaska — participated, and about half the number of athletes expected to take part in 2018 were involved. 

The small setting and number of participants led to a more intimate affair than in larger cities, and a dramatic turnout for many events. Additional seating was installed in Hay River's volleyball venue after the 150 seats were constantly filled at the outset of the Games. 

"The places were always packed with people watching and cheering," said Robin Mercer-Sproule, a veteran of 12 Arctic Winter Games who took part as a Team N.W.T. figure skater.

"When you get to the bigger cities, not so many people are as interested as a small town. It brings the community together."

Broadhead has similar memories.

"I remember being able to walk from place to place, and really playing hostess for other teams," she said.

"Feeling like they were our Games, as a kid from the South Slave."

'He said it was the worst Ulu News he'd ever seen'

Though they were a smaller affair, the 1978 Games weren't without controversy. N.W.T. national ski team star Shirley Firth was unable to score an invite despite several other VIP invitations, leading Inuvik Ski Club president Rosslyn Smith to remark, "We get a bunch of political VIPs eating caviar and champagne," to the Ulu News, the Games' newsletter. 

Northwest Territories MP Wally Firth was also "kind of snubbed" at the Games due to scheduling an NDP nomination meeting in the community at the same time, according to Chris Brodeur, the 1978 Ulu News' publisher and owner of local newspaper The Hub until 2011. 

This editorial cartoon from the 1978 Ulu News shows snubbed N.W.T. MP Wally Firth. It prompted a call from then-commissioner Stuart Hodgson, according to publisher Chris Brodeur. 'We thought: 'Oh, fabulous, we're doing a great job here,'' he said. (Ulu News/Arctic Winter Games International Committee)

The paper ran an editorial cartoon showing Firth being held out of a VIP reception, something Brodeur remembers lead to an angry phone call from then-N.W.T. commissioner Stuart Hodgson

"He said it was the worst Ulu News he'd ever seen," said Brodeur.

"And we thought: 'Oh, fabulous! We're doing a great job here.'"

Taking the train ... in the territory?

However, most Games participants have one memory that stands above the rest: the Inukshuk Express, a passenger train that shuttled visitors and participants between Hay River and Pine Point. 

The first passenger train to operate in the Northwest Territories, the Inukshuk Express shuttled nearly 4,500 passengers between Hay River and Pine Point during the 1978 games. (NWT Archives/Stuart M. Hodgson fonds)

The first passenger train to ever run in the Northwest Territories, the Inukshuk Express only ran for the week of the Games, where it transported nearly 4,500 passengers.

"You'd never think to see a train in the Northwest Territories," said Mercer-Sproule.

"It was just a neat experience, just all of us going, 'Wow,' because you'd never been on one."

The train's first journey during the week was memorable for a very different reason. A group of bandits on snowmobiles stopped the dignitary-filled Express for a faux-holdup. Hodgson was handcuffed to federal minister of sport Iona Campagnolo, and the 180 passengers were brought off the train halfway through its trip to Pine Point — but not for a robbery, it turns out.

"They had a little champagne party," said Brodeur.

"Bunch of guys looking like robbers in masks, with fake guns. It was all in fun, right?"

One of the inaugural trips of the Inukshuk Express was marked by a 'champagne hold-up,' in which a troupe of faux bandits stopped the train halfway between Hay River and Pine Point. (Ulu News/Arctic Winter Games International Committee)

Passing the torch

There won't be a train running as the Arctic Winter Games return to the region, but the impact of the 1978 games is still being felt. The Hay River-Pine Point Games have been cited by organizers as an influence and inspiration for the region's more recent bid, and many participants and organizers remain involved, 40 years later.

One of those is Broadhead, who will serve as mission staff for the N.W.T.'s hockey teams in Hay River.

"It was really important for me to do that," she said.

"I really want the kids that come, particularly our team N.W.T. kids, to make it the best experience for them, from our perspective." 

The event is a chance for the region to showcase itself in more ways than just sports, said Broadhead, something she hopes locals are able to do just as successfully four decades on.

Broadhead hopes the 2018 games will inspire community pride in a new generation, the same way the 1978 games did in hers: 'It does take on a different level of importance.' (awg2018.org)

"The community could show what it had to offer," she said.

"It does take on a different level of importance [when it's your home region]."

Brodeur agrees.

"It was really positive," he said.

"Tons of people were volunteering, everyone was really positive. I thought it was a great idea to go back."

The 2018 Arctic Winter Games begin March 18 in Hay River and Fort Smith, N.W.T. Get ready to follow the action with this look at the 'Olympics of the North.' 1:56

About the Author

Garrett Hinchey

Social Media Editor/Reporter

Garrett Hinchey is a Métis journalist based in his hometown of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, where he has worked as CBC North's social media editor and a multimedia reporter since late 2014.