How To Steal A Bear
Whatever happened to the NWT legislature’s original polar bear hide?
In 1985, a polar bear went missing in Yellowknife. Specifically, someone stole the 10-foot hide that was mounted in the temporary legislative assembly chambers at the Yellowknife Inn. To this day, it’s never been recovered.
On August 9, 1985, News North reported the hide that had previously adorned the chamber’s centre table had disappeared. Whoever took the fur left behind the narwhal tusk that was placed on top of it, and the beaver and seal pelts that were also left out in the chamber, within reach of sticky fingers.
On loan from the Hudson’s Bay Co. collection in Winnipeg, the hide was valued at between $10,000 and $15,000 at the time (or between $22,000 and $33,000 in today’s money).
“Nothing like this has ever happened before,” assembly clerk David Hamilton told News North at the time. Despite continued coverage in the press, no trace of the bear was ever found. There was speculation over whatever could have happened to it. It didn’t just walk out of the building, after all.
This was the era when informal tours of the spaces of government were just beginning, in the mid-1980s. The public and tourists could go on tours of the chambers, shepherded by a staff member. And the doors were always locked at night. But one morning, it was simply gone, with not a hair turning up anywhere in town.
All of that leads Anthony Whitford, former commissioner of the Northwest Territories, former speaker, and current keeper of assorted political legends, to deduce the bear was whisked outside the territory.
“I mean, Yellowknife, one knows half the people here and at some point in time a delivery man or a visitor will go to somebody’s house and say, ‘Oh, isn’t that wonderful,’” says Whitford. “I don’t believe it’s in the territories. Because surely by now, all those years have gone by, it would have surfaced. I mean it’s no good if you don’t show it off!”
At the time, he remembers, the chamber’s decorative and ceremonial items had to be packed away when the assembly wasn’t sitting. Before the construction of the current Legislative Assembly building on Frame Lake, the territorial government rented space in a ballroom at the Yellowknife Inn—and when they weren’t in session, their things had to go.
“Everything that was in the Legislative Assembly had to be packed up. They took it off the wall and they rolled it up, and they were moving it somewhere and it disappeared, never to be seen again,” Whitford says. “I don’t know if it was stolen but it was deliberately taken.”
He doesn’t know who took it but he has his suspicions about how what the newspaper described as a ‘carnivore caper’ may have gone down: Step one, get some coveralls. Step two, pretend to be a worker. Step three, carry the bear to freedom.
“It may have been a crime of opportunity—someone came by, saw it there, and said, ‘Well, it’s been known to happen where people put a pair of coveralls on and you think they’re workers. Here, hold the door open for me while I haul the polar bear skin out.’”
By the time the new Legislative Assembly building officially opened on November 17, 1993, former High Arctic MLA Ludy Pudluk donated a new hide, which still adorns the chamber to this day, although not without some wear and tear. Whitford, who’s now retired but still gives special VIP tours of the Legislature, says when the hide last went to the taxidermist to be groomed, several of its claws had to be replaced.
And the mystery of what happened to its predecessor remains unsolved. Unless of course, you’ve noticed your neighbour has an awfully nice bear skin hanging around...