Arctic Interruptions

Life in Hay River’s High Rise

This photo essay is the third in our ongoing Arctic Interruptions series. Edited by Sara Komarnisky and Lindsay Bell, this series challenges our expectations about the North and opens new windows on its life and history. This series will appear in Volume 4, Issue 1 of Northern Public Affairs.

In Canada’s Northwest Territories, rail, river and road meet in the town of Hay River – the transportation “Hub of the North”. Known for its key role in facilitating the movement of natural resource goods and labour in, out, and around the territory, pluri-ethnic Hay River is often described by outsiders as “not the real North.”

Whether you arrive to Hay River in a World War II era DC-3 operated by Buffalo Airways or by car via the only paved highway, the first structure to catch your eye will be a yellowed seventeen-story building. Mackenzie Place, known locally as simply “the High Rise” is the tallest residential building in the NWT. Completed in 1975, the tower was anticipatory. The 80 units were to be filled by an influx of workers and residents that would accompany the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline.

On the flat landscape in a town of 4000, the High Rise can be seen from just about anywhere, yet few people, not even the residents, would direct a visitor’s (or an anthropologist’s) attention to it. “That’s not the REAL Hay River!” people say when asked about the tower. Such declarations about “the real” elements of a place signal the ways in which people struggle to define who they are by emphasizing some things while erasing, or downplaying, others.

From almost every vantage point, the tower is the stand out feature in Hay River. It is the only building of its type for over 1000 kilometers, and yet for most visitors to the NWT, the tower is by and large a sight unseen.

Hiding the High Rise is impossible: it is Hay River’s CN Tower. It visually interrupts the landscape from all directions. It can be seen from as far as 75km away. For those who do visit, it’s a sight that many don’t know what to make of. For locals, the High Rise, like many urban towers, went from being a promise of a modern future to an all too present eyesore. This unlikely Northern icon interrupts our collective sense of Northern places.

Imagining the North as unruly and unspoiled wilderness is part of Canadian national mythology. Because of this, tower life is not part of most people’s vision of the North. Based on 18 months of fieldwork in the lone tower, and follow up work with artist-researcher Jesse Colin Jackson, this visual essay invites you to see the tower and its residents as central to Canada’s Northern cultural and political landscape.

Bell and Jackson Image 1While a post-war tower jutting up from the sub-arctic landscape may seem unusual, Northern Canada has been the site of many experiments in planned urbanization and modernization. Inuvik, known for its above ground “utilidors” and brightly painted homes, was planned in the 1950s as part of larger Cold War efforts to develop and protect the North. Iqaluit, formerly Frobisher Bay, began as a military base and was expanded to an administrative center during these same years.

In the 1970s, the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline was slated to carry oil and gas from the Beaufort Sea, southwards to the railhead in Hay River where it would leave for refineries further south. The pipeline project was defeated due to a mix of Aboriginal activism, changing Canadian policy towards Aboriginal lands, and a substantial drop in the price of oil. Nevertheless, infrastructure projects had already gone ahead. Projects like Hay River’s high-rise tower.

The Mackenzie Place High Rise was part of a planned relocation of the original settlements, which were located along the lakefront on both sides of the river. This was partially to make room for a larger marshaling yard along the lakefront, which was already serving as the Northern Transportation Corporation Limited’s (NTCL) marine shipping headquarters. The relocation was also meant to deal with the seasonal flooding of the original town site when river ice broke up every spring. In 1963, federal administrators for the region decided that a “new town” would be developed further up the river. Its centerpiece was the high rise. As a result of the defeated pipeline and nominal population growth, and resistance to relocation on both sides of the river, the high rise has never been filled to capacity.

Bell and Jackson Image 2Physically, the Mackenzie Place High Rise has reached its best before date. Its recently repainted exterior belies its inadequate insulation and tired mechanical systems. The original tower design included shops on the ground floor, conference facilities on the second, and the first coin-operated laundromat in town.

These spaces have been repurposed many times. Most recently, the bottom floor was used as remedial classroom space for the nearby high school. Hay River’s lone radio station has been broadcasting from the second floor for the past 20 years. As in many towers, the residential units are stratified vertically, with the nicest units on the upper floors. Units in this building are also stratified east to west, with the riverside units seen to be more desirable than the town side units, both because of the view and their superior satellite television orientation. Like mushrooms growing on the sunlight side of a fallen log, grey satellite dishes line only the one side of the building.

Local elites claim the high rise is an epicentre of drug activity and complain about the building owner’s failure to contribute to the town’s beautification efforts. When the High Rise has garnered outside attention, the focus has been on violence and tragedy. Several regional news stories told of a young woman who moved up from Alberta then “fell” from the 16th floor. These were shortly followed by reports that a jealous ex-partner killed a local fisherman and his wife. These anomalies easily overshadow the everyday life for those in the tower.

What I learned from spending a year living in the tower as an anthropologist was that those who make their home in the high rise, like those in other towers like it elsewhere in Canada, see it as an important stepping-stone in the search for “the good life.”

For Ivan, Hay River wasn’t supposed to be his “forever home.” What was supposed to be a brief stay before moving to Miami lasted much longer. In 1978, his family fled Chile just as military dictator Pinochet had come to power. Ivan arrived in Hay River just as a nearby lead and zinc mine was moving into full production and getting work proved easy. As he explained,

Being an immigrant and coming up here is like winning the [lottery]… When we arrived, they were desperate for help. [My] Dad took a job as a janitor for $1000-a-week and could not believe it! Although my father had been wealthy in Chile, we became servants, but we were well-treated, so that was confusing to us.

Other residents are eager to go “home”. Adore, an engineer from the Philippines uses his second bedroom as a mini recording studio. On any given Saturday or Sunday, you can find him behind an electric piano, wearing headphones recording songs he has written or adapted to send home CDs to his wife and children. He came to Canada seven years ago and has been unable to return to visit them. Adore moved North to save more money in the hopes of returning to the Philippines soon.

Destiny, a twenty-two year old Dene woman from the nearby First Nation, folds baby clothes she buys each week at the town’s local thrift shop. For her, the High Rise means doing things “her way.” Like many young adults, Destiny wants to feel in charge of what’s to come. With a baby on the way, she hopes that moving to a bigger town in the NWT will offer her more job prospects.

For Mary, a nurse practitioner originally from Ontario, the High Rise is the road out of many more years of work. She came North to save for retirement. She sits at her dining room table painting pieces of driftwood she collects at the beach on her morning walks with her pug, Oscar. “This place has everything I need. At my age, you have learned that it doesn’t take much to keep on,” she laughs.

Bell and Jackson Image 4Many people, like Nicholas, make the high rise their first stop in town while they decide whether to make Hay River home or head back south to their hometowns. Nicholas arrived from eastern Quebec seven years ago to work as a teacher in the town’s small French language school, École Boréale. He left his high-rise apartment after a year when he decided Hay River would be permanent “for now.” He bought a small home on the river’s edge but returns to the high rise every week to broadcast his francophone radio show. The NWT is home to many Francophone and Francophile families.

Although High- Risers may not self-identify as being part of a coherent cultural whole, they are extremely insightful with respect to questions of political economy. Their life trajectories reveal the types of conjunctures that bring together a labour supply just in time for resource booms and busts. The larger study from which this essay is drawn, chronicles individual high rise resident stories with an aim of tying them together in order to understand the changing cultural and political landscape of urban and peri-urban communities in the North.

Bell and Jackson Image 3The everyday lives and experiences of tenants and the construction and maintenance of the physical building provide a vantage point from which to understand larger questions of social reproduction. Instead of thinking of Hay River, the High Rise and the people that live there as somehow “not the real North”, I argue that Northern urban and peri-urban spaces are in fact crucial parts of the history of Canada itself. The late modern concrete residential tower – and its associated physical and existential problems – is no longer an image associated with progress in Canada. Nevertheless, understanding the evolving function of these multi-unit dwellings is fundamental to understanding a community’s strengthening – or stilling – heart.

Hay River is no exception.

The Mackenzie Place High Rise is deeply threaded into the story of the town. Hay River, the North and even Canada in the broadest sense cannot be understood without understanding the high rise and the stories that it holds. Demographers predict that the circumpolar world will see growth in their peri-urban and urban centers in the years to come. The high rise and other modern experiments tend to interrupt stories of progress and improvement.

We’d do well to fully see them and those who live in them, in the years to come. ◉


Photo credits: Jesse Colin Jackson.

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