North

'Christmas will never be the same': Beloved tree felled in Fort Smith, N.W.T.

Salt River First Nation owns the land on which the tree stood, and is clearing the land to make way for a conference centre. Band members and the public say they were not consulted.

Midnight operation took down town’s Christmas tree

The Fort Smith Christmas tree was a landmark throughout the winter. (Submitted by Sarah Pruys)

At 2:17 a.m. on Friday morning, a beloved Fort Smith landmark hit the ground.

The town's "Christmas tree," which has been decorated every year in living memory, was felled to make way for a conference centre being built by the Salt River First Nation.

"Christmas will never be the same," says Lucy Villebrun, who grew up in Fort Smith, and says on cold nights she has even warmed up by the heat of the tree's lightbulbs.

The tree was a landmark. Older than most of the town's residents, it stood well above the height of most trees and in the winter could be seen from all over town.

It was planted by the Schaefer family, who owned the lot before the First Nation purchased it.

Villebrun was driving late Thursday night when she saw a construction vehicle getting ready to work.

"I thought, 'Oh my god, they're going to cut down the tree,'" she says. She watched as the crew set to work, and watched until the tree fell.

The tree was taken down at 2:17 in the morning on July 7. (Submitted by Lucy Villebrun)

Friday morning when she returned to the site, only the stump remained — "along with multiple strings of Christmas lights," she says. "That was the heartbreaking part."

Villebrun said she is saddened by the loss of the tree and the longstanding traditions that took place around it.

"I think there was total disregard for the community and how passionate they felt about this Christmas tree," she says.

No comment from First Nation

Salt River First Nation leadership declined to comment for this story, but band member Jeannie Marie Jewell says there was no internal consultation prior to the tree coming down.

"At no point did they have any consultation with the band members," she says.

"We have a chief that just does what she wants. Consultation is not something she does with the members on a regular basis."

The stump has been decorated with flowers and strings of Christmas lights. (Submitted by Lucy Villebrun)
The town was not involved in the decision either. Mayor Lynn Napier-Buckley says she didn't even know the tree would be cut down in the middle of the night.

"I don't know why that happened at 2 o'clock in the morning," she says. "I did not know that that was going to happen."

Napier-Buckley says operating a chainsaw in the middle of the town after 11 p.m. does violate noise bylaws, but the town has not yet decided what to do about it.

The contractor responsible for the operation, Fort Smith Construction, says the decision was made for safety and traffic reasons, but could not explain why the town was not consulted — only that the tree was "on private property."

Napier-Buckley says the town has not yet received permit applications for the construction of the new building.

She says new offers have been sent to the town for alternative sites for a Christmas celebration.

About the Author

Jimmy Thomson is a former reporter for CBC North.

now