Inside the front lobby of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre on Tuesday morning, everything looks pristine.
Carpets are being vacuumed, sunlight shines through the windows and employees are ready to greet visitors once the building opens for the day.
Behind the scenes, there is another troupe of people bringing the museum to life.
A conservation team, archivists, a graphic designer, multimedia specialist and exhibit designer have been researching, writing, uncovering photos and designing displays that will soon line the museum’s walls as part of a new exhibit.
This week, after nearly three years in the making, the team is putting the finishing touches on “We Took Care of Them: Special Constables in the NWT,” which will reveal the stories of Indigenous people who helped the RCMP patrol the North in the 1900s.
“In the Canadian imagination, at least for me, I think of these Mounties going out in the Arctic, whereas the real story is I think more interesting,” said museum director Sarah Carr-Locke. “They had guides, they had people leading them through those patrols and the people were the special constables.”
According to Carr-Locke, the idea for the exhibit arose a few years ago in the legislative assembly when Inuvik-Boot Lake MLA Alfred Moses brought up the important role special constables played.
The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, which falls under the Department of Education, Culture and Employment, agreed to look into the project and eventually partnered with the Department of Justice and RCMP to make it happen.
“Since then, what’s happened is a great collaboration,” said Carr-Locke.
Paul Andrew, who Carr-Locke said was contracted to help with the project, worked with a member of the RCMP to conduct 19 interviews with special constables or their descendants.
Meanwhile, Carr-Locke and exhibit designer Rae Braden travelled to Ottawa and Regina to explore oral histories and archive collections.
The museum’s archive team dug up its own photos and received more contributions from family members for an image wall within the exhibit.
A number of people also donated old RCMP uniforms, clothing made by women from the communities and even an old dog bowl from Fort Reliance.
“Then Rae does the magic of making an exhibit with that,” said Carr-Locke.
Working with the museum’s graphic designer and multimedia specialist, Braden visualized how the exhibit would unfold.
“It’s almost like a storybook,” she said. “There should be a beginning, where we introduce the ideas and then take people on a bit of a journey through the space to give them a sense of why these special constables were so important.”
Between the late 1930s to mid-1960s, the goal of RCMP patrols was often to check-in on communities and assert Canada’s sovereignty in the North, according to Carr-Locke.
But many Mounties had no experience in the North and needed help.
Whole communities from across the NWT pitched in to teach them how to live, including women who made clothes and cooked, Carr-Locke said.
“What we heard over and over again in the interviews is … ‘They would have died without us,’” she said. “We’re really trying to honour that history and honour the role of these people.”
With the research done, photos printed and objects mounted, Braden said now is the “fun” part.
On Tuesday morning, she could be seen scurrying around the exhibit space, where a ladder and table of tools still stand and pieces of paper taped to walls map out how the final product will look.
“All of the little pieces of that puzzle are starting to click in together,” she said. “We’re really just fine-tuning how we’re installing things.”
The exhibit officially opens to the public Aug. 3, when Daniel Dubeau, acting commissioner of the RCMP, will make a guest appearance.
Special constables and their families are also being invited to take part in a pre-opening and dinner.
“That’s really who we’re making this exhibit for,” said Braden. “So that’s kind of our real test – hoping that they come in and they see themselves or they see their family represented in a way that we’re trying to honour.”