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Dehcho Hall to close its doors

Roxanna Thompson
Northern News Services
Published Monday, January 26, 2009

LIIDLII KUE/FORT SIMPSON - Dehcho Hall is facing an uncertain future as three government departments move out of the 50-year-old structure into new offices. Staff with the Department of Education, Culture and Employment, the Dehcho Divisional Education Council and Aurora College are expected to be fully relocated by the end of the week.

"It's our hope once everyone is out of the building we will start closing it down," said David Waite, a projects manager with the Department of Public Works and Services.

Once the building is closed, the department will follow its disposal policy which starts with an environmental site assessment that identifies any hazardous materials in the building. The assessment will likely be done by the end of the month, said Waite.

The department will then look for anyone who's interested in taking over Dehcho Hall. Government departments and agencies that might be interested in the building will be given priority.

"We don't believe there are any so it's just a formality," said Waite.

The building will then be offered for sale to the general public. If no one steps forward the building will likely be demolished, Waite said.

Although Deh Cho hall has historic significance there are some who would be happy to see the building torn down.

Many former students have mixed feelings about Dehcho Hall, said Andy Norwegian, who attended residential school in 1965 - when he was 14 - and later worked in the building.

"I'm hearing now that people want it down. As part of their healing experience they don't want to look at it," said Norwegian.

The 50-year-old building has had a checkered past in the community. The federal government built Dehcho Hall in the late 1950s. The building, then called Lapointe Hall, was run by the Roman Catholic mission as a residence for students attending residential school in Fort Simpson.

Joachim Bonnetrouge, from Fort Providence, remembers being one of the more than 100 students brought to Fort Simpson by plane in September 1960.

"All day long the plane was flying back and forth," he said.

Bonnetrouge, who was 14 at the time, was part of the first group of students who stayed at the hall. Inside the new building everything, including the floor, was very shiny, he said.

"The varnish and the paint smell was still very strong," said Bonnetrouge.

As a residence, the building was strictly divided. The south wing, which is closest to Bompas elementary school, housed the senior boys on the ground floor and the junior boys on the second floor. The order was reversed in the north wing with the junior girls downstairs and the senior girls upstairs.

Each room in the dormitory had six beds with a locker beside each for the students' clothes, said Norwegian, who is originally from Jean Marie River.

The hall could house approximately 144 students, Norwegian said.

The other parts of the building were also in use. What is now the cultural centre was the chapel while the library and the resource centre were the girls' and boys' gyms respectively.

The rooms along the main hall were bedrooms for the staff while the back section of the middle wing housed the cafeteria and the kitchen. In the winter a large outdoor skating rink was constructed behind the building, said Norwegian.

Lapointe Hall continued to operate as a residence under the Roman Catholic mission until the early 1970s. Later the Kue Gocho Society, which was composed of a board of parents, took over the residence operations.

The hall was empty for a time while the students lived at Bompas Hall. The hall was utilized again in the fall of 1975 when students were housed there while Bompas underwent renovations.

Deh Cho hall continued to act as a residence, although for decreasing numbers of students, until the early 1980s.

In 1986, it took on a new function when the Teaching and Learning Centre moved into the building. Norwegian and Margaret Jones were its first staff.

It was strange at first to work in a building that he lived in as a student, said Norwegian.

"There was a nun that scared the heck out of me," Norwegian recalled of his student days.

The nun's leather shoes used to creak when she walked.

If someone came into the hall with shoes that made a similar noise Norwegian said he had get up from his desk and move around to remind himself why he was in the building.

The hall's education theme continued in the 1980s when staff with the Department of Education arrived in approximately 1987.

Nolan Swartzentruber, Shirley Villeneuve and Jim Gilbert were sharing a small office space in the Milton building when, a week before Christmas, they made a decision.

"We had that vacant building and said let's move," said Swartzentruber, the superintendent of the Dehcho Divisional Education Council.

When the board was formed in 1989 the staff at the building increased.

"We just kept expanding over there," said Swartzentruber.

That was also the year when Arctic College, which is now Aurora College, moved into the hall. Throughout the years Dehcho Hall has also provided space for Nats'enelu, a daycare, the Open Doors Society, the Fort Simpson Historical Society and the John Tsetso Memorial Library.

The hall was also filled with students again for two years. Classes were held on the second floor from 1994 to 1996 while Bompas elementary school and then Thomas Simpson school were renovated.

"It's provided an overwhelming service to the community.

"It will be a great loss," said Swartzentruber.