North

Flying to Yellowknife in 1967: Remembering the birth of the N.W.T. capital

Jake Ootes was one of the first employees to work for the N.W.T. government 50 years ago. He shares some of his earliest memories of the birth of the capital, Yellowknife.

'You know when you consider it, over the fifty years, what an incredible change has taken place'

Jake Ootes, (left) was one of the first on the payroll for the new territory when Yellowknife became the capital. Ootes is pictured with Ben Sivertz, who was the non-resident commissioner before 1967 when Yellowknife became the capital of the N.W.T. (submitted by Jake Ootes)

Jake Ootes was aboard a vintage Douglas DC-7 plane with 29 others, en route to Yellowknife.

It was September, 1967 — just months after the city had been declared the new capital of the Northwest Territories.

"This will be a new adventure," said Ootes, just a lad in his early 20s then.

Thousands of feet in the air, then commissioner of the N.W.T. Stuart Hodgson began to walk up and down the aisles, sitting and chatting with the territory's first government employees, flying in from Ottawa. Members of the council that ran the N.W.T. had lived and worked in Ottawa until this point, while administrative functions for the territory were mostly carried out by civil servants in Fort Smith.

"It allowed [Hodgson] to build a team on the airplane," recalled Ootes. "People really admired that. He was a very personable individual and he just was able to massage them to do the best they could."

The plane landed in Yellowknife and its passengers were greeted like celebrities.

"On arrival, there were at least half the town out at the airport to greet everybody. They had a bag piper, a red carpet... and people were waving the polar bear flag," said Ootes.

They had a bag piper, a red carpet, and people were waving the polar bear flag.- Jake Ootes

"It was an exciting, incredible time," said Ootes, adding this was one of his favourite memories from that period.

Ootes was one of the first employees in the territorial government 50 years ago. He worked in the Commissioner's office, then a publishing business and eventually pursued a career in territorial politics. 

Today, Ootes, now in his 70s, lives in Celista, B.C. and runs a winery.

First GNWT office 'condemned, dilapidated'

The first government office was "a condemned, dilapidated school," said Ootes.

"It was a two-story green building where the Mary Murphy (senior's home) building is located now," he said. "The staircase was leaning sideways. You couldn't get into the front door, and you had to go through the back."

Mary Murphy senior's home is located where the first territorial government's makeshift office was back in 1967. (Jennifer Geens/CBC)

When Ootes walked around the corner of the building, he witnessed a monumental moment.  

"And here's (future N.W.T. commissioner) John Parker, standing on a ladder and he's nailing up a sign. A two-foot by five or six-foot length sign. And it said, 'Government of the Northwest Territories.'" 

It was one of the first indications of government being present in the territories, said Ootes.

"You know when you consider it, over the fifty years, what an incredible change has taken place."

Ootes said he's in the process of writing a book to be released later this year, for the 50th anniversary of the capital.

with files from Joanne Stassen, Lawrence Nayally

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