Back to the Future: A Brief History of the NWTRPA Conference

 November 8, 2019
Posted by smiklosovic


In 2019, we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the NWT Recreation and Parks Association by looking back at the people, events, programs, and projects that have made the NWTRPA what it is today. Most recently, we shared the story of Arctic Symposium ’96, but we’ve also written posts about, for example, the NWTRPA logo and our esteemed presidents over the years (see here and here). After a brief hiatus—September and October were busier than anticipated!—we’re back with a post about the history of the one of the premier NWTRPA events, the annual conference.

Delegates Tyler Lafferty, Coleen Hardisty, and Katie Johnson at the 2019 NWTRPA Conference in Hay River.

The NWT Recreation and Parks Association recently hosted its annual conference in Hay River. (A big thank you to all of the presenters, delegates, and conference committee members for making the event a success!) During the conference, we celebrated the organization’s 30th birthday, as well as milestone anniversaries of two of our programs: Elders in Motion turns ten this fall and Walk to Tuk will see NWT residents conceptually walk the distance of the big river for the tenth time in January. Nothing was said, however, about the conference’s birthday, and that’s because the origins of that event were a little murky. We put our resident historian to work, though, and here is what she uncovered.


When the NWTRPA organized its first AGM in 1989, it did so in conjunction with the Recreation Conference, an initiative of the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs (MACA) that was started in 1983. (You may recall from the post entitled “The Making of the NWTRPA” that the 1980s were a time of investment in recreation in the North; the 1989 conference was aptly themed “Recreation—Coming of Age in the NWT.”) MACA’s Recreation Conference was a professional development opportunity for municipal recreation leaders and facilities staff, GNWT employees involved in recreation, and recreation volunteers from across the territory, which at that time included communities which are now part of Nunavut.

Ron Cook (left) welcomes delegates to RecSpo ’92 in Hay River. This was the first time the NWTRPA was the lead on the recreation conference.

By 1990, the NWTRPA was already angling to become the primary host of the annual event (a strategic plan from 1990 included a note to develop “guidelines to take over”!), though MACA remained the lead organization that year with the NWTRPA providing logistical support. Even after the NWTRPA became the official recreation conference host in 1992 (some of you may recall RecSpo ’92 in Hay River), it has partnered at various times with other organizations, including, most recently, with the SideDoor.


While MACA hosted the Recreation Conference in Yellowknife, the NWTRPA felt it important that the annual events travel around the territory. In fact, from 1999 to 2011, the NWTRPA conference was only held in the territorial capital twice (in 2003 and 2009). Since 2012, the practice has been for the conference to visit a community outside of Yellowknife every other year, though host communities are limited to regional centres because of meeting space and accommodation requirements. It’s not just the location of the conference that has changed over the years, but the timing as well. In the 1990s, the annual event was held in the month of April, with a few exceptions. After the year 2000, the conference was typically in May or June. In 2009, it moved to the fall time.

The theme of the 2004 conference in Fort Smith was “Opening the Gateway to Recreation and Tourism.” The conference coincided with the opening of the DesNethéDiscovery Trail, part of the TransCanada Trail network.

Most years, the NWTRPA Conference has had a theme, such as “Vision for the Future” (Hay River, 1999), and “Let’s Get LOCO!! (Leadership Opportunities in Culture and the Outdoors)” (Norman Wells, 2008). The conference themes and the programmes offer a glimpse into changing priorities and issues in the recreation sector in the NWT over time. In Rankin Inlet in 1995, the conference programme considered how division, which was still four years away at that point, might affect recreation and parks. At the 1997 conference in Fort Smith, delegates grappled with the implications of “electronic communication” for recreation. In Yellowknife in 2003 the conference was oriented to celebrate the International Year of Fresh Water.


The organization moved away from conference themes in 2014, though in recent years, there has been a return to a thematic approach. In 2018, conference delegates were invited to reflect on “Intergenerational Connections.” This year, in honour of our thirtieth anniversary, but also in recognition of the importance of traditional knowledge and the old ways to healthy and vibrant northern communities, we went “Back to the Future.”

The shape of the conference changed in two important ways in 2016. That year, the Elders in Motion Training Gathering was combined with the NWTRPA Conference with great success. Amongst other things, this change expanded and diversified the list of attendees; delegates now include more people working in the health sector and in long-term care, as well as Elders. Merging with the training gathering also inspired the introduction of streams (Recreation Leadership, Elders in Motion, On the Land Programs, and Youth Centres), which ensures a variety of topics and issues are covered at the annual conference.


Regardless of the location, timing, theme, or sessions, the NWTRPA conference has long been a highlight of the yearly calendar for NWT residents engaged in recreation, in part because of its educational content, but perhaps more importantly because of the way in which it connects people from across the territory with a passion for recreation.


The 2020 NWTRPA Conference will take place at the Explorer Hotel in Yellowknife, October 20-22. If you have ideas for themes, session topics, or speakers, contact the conference chair, Amanda Grobbecker ([email protected] | 867.669.8377).