The Boomtown Trail Community Initiatives Society won the nation’s top history award for its Bringing History and Culture to Life Project they started just three years ago.
“It’s still processing,” Ken Duncan, CAO of the society, said about winning the 2013 Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Community Programming. “Words like transformational and a lot of other words come to mind, but there isn’t any other word you can use to sum it all up other than stunned.
“From the time we won it until now, I just think it’s a dream and I’m going to wake up and think this didn’t happen.”
Duncan, along with Nora Smith and Christie Mason, went to Rideau Hall in Ottawa last week to receive the award from David Johnston, Governor General of Canada.
“The whole experience was something none of us have ever been involved in,” Duncan said. “We were in Parliament and all the MPs for our country, the lawmakers for our county, stood up and gave us applause. How do you describe that? It’s overwhelming.”
The society didn’t even know the award existed, he said. “They reached out to us and they said, ‘You guys are doing some phenomenal work — tell us about it.’ ”
At the award presentation in Ottawa, Phillippe Mailhot, one of the judges, said, “There was an unprecedented number of submissions for this year’s award. So the task for the judges was not an easy one. But, Boomtown Trail stood out because of its creativity and commitment to community engagement.”
So just how did the Boomtown Trail society bring history alive to earn such an honour?
It started in Cumberland, in a country hall that serves rural folk spread out on farms dotting the vast Prairies. The history society wanted to latch onto something that would attract tourists and generate income into their struggling communities.
“What we looked at was, we said, ‘We got big communities, we got little ones, and then we got tiny ones. What do they have in common? What one program could we put in place that they could all participate in at their own size level?’ ”
The society, knowing the area is steeped in rich history, dug a little deeper. They thought about what they call the colourful five per cent.
“These are the folks that pushed the law right to its limit and sometimes might have crossed over it and sometimes made laws, but they were larger than life,” Duncan said. “And what if we brought them back, the person dressed in character, fairly authentic, and present that as though they were that individual, and they did that for 20 minutes and you have three of them — you got dinner theatre.”
Well, it was almost dinner theatre.
The Cumberland women said “we’re done cooking for a bunch of people, desserts we can do, but the meals forget it,” laughed Duncan at the recollection.
“And that is how Boomtown Trail Dessert Theatre was born.”
Legendary Alberta residents like Irene Parlby, a member of the Famous Five who fought for women’s rights, Gabriel Dumont, Louis Riel’s lieutenant during the 1800s, and James Gadsby, a sharpshooter and an American Civil War veteran, come to life with stories gleaned from residents — and even descendants of the colourful five per cent — through entertaining monologues.
A common thread that unravels at these performances is the values from the past.
“When you listen to these characters, or you watch them perform, one of the things that comes through loud and clear is the values at the time,” Duncan said. “We start to see the results of the efforts that were tied to those values. They did something pretty special, those people. Can you imagine the values it would take to be a housewife on the prairies before power? You have six kids and you are living in a one room sod hut and you don’t have power and it’s wash day. How do you make meals?
“We say life was simpler then — I’m not so sure.”
Bringing the Prairies’ rich heritage to life builds community character.
“It makes people value their community,” Duncan said. “We have to look to the past before we can move forward.”