It’s a familiar scene to anybody who has travelled through Yellowknife’s airport – a large polar bear on its way to snag a seal just barely escaping through a hole in the ice.
What tourists may not know is the animals cannot be found in the city, nor anywhere near it. Polar bears are an NWT icon but they exist in the vicinity of the Arctic Ocean, a thousand kilometres away.
For this reason, members of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation want the stuffed bear – which sits atop the terminal’s largest baggage carousel – removed.
“They should put that polar bear in a box and give it a proper burial,” Ndilǫ Chief Fred Sangris said, explaining the fact the animals on display are not native to the southern part of the territory is only a secondary concern.
“That’s really disrespectful to Indigenous people, to display animals that way.”
Chief Sangris said his community has been writing to the airport for more than 10 years, seeking to have the display replaced.
Yellowknife’s mayor, Rebecca Alty, said she first heard the concern in 2019.
“I recognize that everybody loves polar bears and wants to snap a photo,” Alty told Cabin Radio last week.
“I think it’s important that the main baggage carousel have a scene that has cultural significance to the Yellowknives Dene … This is their homeland.”
Alty believes moving the polar bear to the airport’s second baggage carousel, where flights from Nunavut typically unload, would both provide a polar bear selfie opportunity and respect the First Nation’s wish for a more culturally appropriate display in the airport’s main space.
GNWT contemplates ‘potential actions’
A 2020 joint economic development strategy between the First Nation and the City of Yellowknife makes several mentions of the desire to see the polar bear removed from the airport.
“YKDFN stakeholders felt that the local airport misrepresented YKDFN culture as it portrayed images of wildlife not native to the region,” the document states, adding that future actions should include “updating displays at Yellowknife Airport to better reflect Yellowknives Dene First Nation culture.”
That report was released two years ago. The bear remains in place.
Yellowknife’s airport is controlled by the territorial government.
At a meeting of city councillors last month, Alty said an initial letter about the bear was sent to the NWT’s infrastructure minister in November 2020, signed by Alty and both Yellowknives Dene chiefs at the time.
Alty said a response received from the territory three months later indicated that the Department of Infrastructure recognized the polar bear was not representative of the region and that future plans included the sourcing of a more representative display.
“So it’s a bit of a: ‘We hear you, but are not looking to change this yet’,” Alty said.
The department is developing a new airport master plan, a process delayed by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In a written response to Cabin Radio, the Department of Infrastructure said future airport improvement plans will focus on “better representing the diversity in our regions” and “could include potential actions regarding the location of the polar bear at the Yellowknife Airport terminal.”
The department did not expressly confirm that the polar bear would be moved.
For Sangris, it’s not simply a question of moving the polar bear to a new carousel.
“Displaying animals, well … it’s just not good, in the eyes of Indigenous people. I see that as a graveyard. I don’t look at that too long,” Sangris said.
“It’s a dead animal. It’s something people are laughing about touching… there’s no respect.”
Sangris believes the territory’s reluctance to move the polar bear is grounded in a marketing scheme that depends on the imagery of the polar bear to welcome visitors to what they’ve imagined Canada’s North to be.
“It’s all about the mighty dollar to bring in tourists, to make Yellowknife a place where the wilderness is, but it’s a very wrong message,” Sangris said. “There are no polar bears here. None.”
Sangris believes the polar bear should be sent to a community where the animals actually live.
His vision for a replacement display is a life-sized statue of Sir John Franklin shaking hands with Yellowknives Dene leader Chief Akaitcho.
“That will tell the history of the people here, since the Dene people were here first,” Sangris said.
“The Dene people live here. Forget the animals, stop displaying animals. Put the true history of the people here.”