The story of Edmonton

// Curtis Hauser
// Curtis Hauser

There are more than 800 000 wildly diverse souls in Edmonton, possibly someone from every country in the world.

With such a wealth of stories to tell, it’s no wonder there are about 20 museums and dozens more heritage groups spread out across our prairie city. But what’s missing is a city museum, a place that gathers the essence and story of Edmonton—whatever that might be—and stashes it under one roof.

City of Edmonton archivist Kathryn Ivany says there have been multiple attempts at establishing a city museum. The idea, she adds, has popped up every 15 years or so since the ’50s. According to the veteran archivist, past efforts failed because they focused more on building a brick-and-mortar location when they should have been getting ordinary citizens excited about telling their stories.

Build from the outside in

The Edmonton Heritage Council knows its history and vows not to repeat it. The council, formed late last decade as part of Edmonton’s plan to showcase its art and heritage, still wants a building—but they want to build from the outside in. It’s called the City as Museum Project and it aims to democratize the curating by encouraging Edmontonians to share their stories and ideas of what this city was, is and could be.

“Edmonton has an insane amount of interesting stories being told by little museums and ordinary people—but there’s no centralized location to look for this history,” says Claudia Bustos, the council’s city museum strategy coordinator. “We’re not going to dictate what the points of interest are; we want to figure out what people want to talk about and hear about. So that could absolutely mean potholes, which are a huge part of this city.”

Bus tours and LGBTQ history

The Heritage Council has been showcasing fascinating but little known history since last year with their Curiosities Bus Tours. Last November the council loaded up ETS buses and got compelling storytellers to detail everything from a pioneering Chinese restaurant to aviation history to the first gay bars.

Michael Phair was the city’s first openly gay councillor and shares his rich knowledge of Edmonton’s early LGBTQ history. During the bus tours and walking tours organized throughout Pride Week, he takes people back to the early years of the struggle for equality that took place on our streets in the ’60s and ’70s. Back then, 104 Street, now lined with trendy shops and upscale bistros, was a gritty warehouse district—and the centre for gay advocacy and activism with important gathering places like Flashback and The Roost.

“104 Street was very much the centre for gay and lesbian activities—it’s changed dramatically since then,” Phair says. “We’re a relatively young and new city, so people think we have no history. But there’s a significant and rich history. People don’t appreciate what we have.”

Nuclear war in Edmonton

The bus tour also visits a surreal slice of Cold War paranoia: a real nuclear fallout shelter and command centre built hidden in the River Valley. Local photographer Fred Armbruster says he stumbled across the squat, concrete cube while out for a walk in 2010 and was instantly transfixed by the mysterious discovery.

“It was cold and dark and dingy,” Armbruster says. “When I started looking into it I found there was next to no information available. That’s when I realized that this was a part of our history that had been pushed aside and forgotten.”

Soon, his diligent research shed some light on the neglected bunker. It was a command centre in case of nuclear war and was built in 1953 – 54 in the feverish heart of Cold War paranoia, when everyone was told to look over their shoulder and schoolchildren dove under their desks at the sound of air raid sirens. Armbruster says the government was offering loans for people to install bunkers in new homes and there are at least five houses in Edmonton with Cold War-era bomb shelters.

He’s also amassed the second-largest collection of Cold War artifacts in the country, behind only Ottawa’s storied Diefenbunker. Armbruster wants to completely restore the bunker to its original condition and open it as a museum and venue for everything from weddings to reunions. He says the project has sparked a lot of enthusiasm and interest from people across the country and is evidence that Edmonton is a place full of amazing stories just itching for an audience.

Tell your story

The whole point of the Heritage Council’s bus tours, Bustos says, is to get people excited about Edmonton’s history—and hopefully add to it with their own stories and ideas. The council will be holding brainstorming events, announcing the next bus tour in mid-March, and will soon be launching an online portal for input and collaboration. Bustos says the best way to get involved and stay up to date is to follow the Edmonton Heritage Council on Facebook.



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