How Did it All Happen?

In order to understand the future, it is helpful to know the past to appreciate how we got where we are today. Who would have known that what started as an idea to rekindle some community pride at a Chamber of Commerce meeting would rejuvenate our community in a major way? Along the route were a few key turning points that made the difference whether to proceed or not…Â

In August, 2003, Randy Sawatzky, manager of Thompson Renewal Corporation, offered to fund 50% of a proposal to develop a walking trail from the Museum. Along the way were ideas for 9 Points of Interest which started from creating Canada’s largest mural. After a presentation by Randy Sawatzky and I failed to secure the other 50% from City Council in October, the Chamber of Commerce under President Bob Wall approved the balance of funds to contract Design North to prepare a Master Plan. Without that simple decision, there would not have been a Spirit Way!

During that process, a number of individuals were interviewed for input. Anita Campbell supported my suggestion of  highlighting Aboriginal art and culture which needed a more visible presence in Thompson. MLA Steve Ashton felt “this could be Thompson’s Golden Boy project”, as we overlooked a 10 story blank wall of Highland Tower 1/2 mile away from his office window. On our committee’s walking tour, Diane Shefford pointed out some unique bedrock that became the Nickel Belt Story point of interest. Dave Moore pointed out a “sweet spot” for a viewpoint of the potential Highland mural. Shaun Harman casually suggested there should be a tribute to Lambair and pilots. Well, four years of work by volunteers later and over $200,000 in donations resulted in the awesome, restored Norseman floatplane and Thompson Lions Club Park thanks to Fred Palmer, Marion Morberg, Nick DiVirgilio and the many, many volunteers. What started out as 9 became 18 points of interest when the Master Plan was finished.Â

In May, 2004 after a presentation to City Council to approve the Master Plan, only four people showed up at a public meeting – Alain Huberdeau, Tamy Burton, Dave Moore, and myself – and formed Spirit Way Inc. (SWI). Other community members were invited and over 3 years a working committee of 12 people, under President Alain Huberdeau, met WEEKLY to plan, manage, fund raise, and facilitate all aspects of the project. That in itself was an accomplishment!

Yet in hindsight, what a naive thing to do… undertake 18, repeat – eighteen, projects at the same time? Someone said two or three would have been enough for any community. Another naiveté was thinking that everyone would share the same vision, or that everyone would support what was good for Thompson. But invariably there are other agendas. Progress began slowly.Â

At a surprise announcement in February, 2005 Scott MacDonald, President of Inco, presented Spirit Way Inc. a cheque for $30,000 at a Chamber of Commerce meeting for the Rockface project. Now, that was an endorsement! In June, the first Gala fundraiser occurred at the Thompson Inn. It sold out 30 days in advance and was a huge success.  $22,000 net was raised in one evening! Thompson had been in a malaise for a few years and was looking for something to take pride in.

Grant proposals were written. Presentations made. Funds solicited. Some were awarded. Others rejected. The Rotary Club of Thompson became the first partner to undertake a bold move and developed the Great Kid’s Slide, now renamed the “Otto Bindle Slide” as a tribute to one of their original members and a pioneer of Thompson. The Slide was controversial. Some did not want it to proceed. But President Tom O’Brien and Rotary proceeded. Today, it’s a fun place for local kids in winter, and a beautiful scene to watch with the huge wolf standing guard!

After biding our time for 18 months, SWI sent a contingent of Thompson supporters, Marion Morberg, Dan McSweeney, Judy Kolada, and myself to Winnipeg in May, 2006, using donated Calm Air passes, to meet with Bob Brennan, CEO of Manitoba Hydro. We offered Hydro a PR opportunity to sponsor a mural of a Robert Bateman painting, which he had never allowed before. It would be a first. As McSweeny said, “In the future, the economic wealth of Northern Manitoba will come from northern hydro power”. Then why not have a Hydro mural in the North as they have in Winnipeg? Three weeks later, his office phoned to say Mr. Brennan had been impressed and Manitoba Hydro would donate $125,000! What a huge endorsement and another major turning point. Spirit Way was being recognized from afar by an outside source. At the Gala presentation in June, 2006, Ed Danyluk, local Customer Service Manager, received a standing ovation from the audience. Not something you receive at work everyday!

Of course, finding the right muralist was a challenge. Seven proposals were received from across North America. The lowest offer came from Seattle, Washington, but the committee felt choosing a Winnipeg artist would be preferable as the sponsor was now Manitoba Hydro. One company’s rep drove 9 hours to Thompson and then back to make a half hour presentation. Why? To paint the first Robert Bateman mural in the world would have been a feather in any portfolio.

Charlie Johnston’s name came up as a casual reference from Steve Wilson, Graffiti Gallery of Winnipeg as Winnipeg’s award winning muralist. He was chosen and Charlie created a masterpiece in its own right. Read his BIO on… http://www.thompsonspiritway.ca/take-the-walk/points-of-interest/wolf-mural/about-the-artist/ to understand Charlie.

And read the fascinating story how Charlie got started on the wolf mural…

There was some criticism that a local artist had not been chosen. Painting murals one story high is one thing. Painting them 10 stories high plus reproducing a Bateman painting exactly takes it to a whole another level of artistic skill. Johnston had been painting murals for 23 years. He was a master and his world class mural proved it. His work set the bar to continue all Spirit Way projects with very high expectations.Â

And why a wolf mural? That was a fluke. After approaching Robert Bateman with a request to allow us to use his art as the subject matter, I looked at 100s of Bateman paintings. I superimposed four of his animal paintings onto a photograph of Highland Towers – a lynx, eagle, moose, wolf. Then we discussed it. Bateman stated the wolf was his preference. It was the best choice for Thompson for two reasons… From downtown or across the river a mile away, one can only see the top half of the Highland Tower wall. The appeal of the painting comes from the wolf’s stare. Its face is in the top half of the painting and no background scenery, trees, mountains competes with that. And Bateman had painted the wolf in 1990 as a predator looking at the viewer “eye to eye with respect”. Perfect! What a tremendous message to preach to our community. If all our actions were undertaken with respect, the world would be a much better place. Today the Highland Tower wolf mural has become a landmark for Thompson. It was recently published in Greece in a 300 page reference book of world murals and the only one in the book that is a full page in size. That says something!

From the mural Spirit Way progressed. Four awards to date. Numerous magazine articles written in Canada. A CTV half hour show on Spirit Way. Unprecedented positive publicity that continues.

There are so many people to thank that helped us get to this point, it’s almost impossible… the Spirit Way Board. Tim Johnston and Judy Kolada have been supporters since Day One. Wayne Hall has been indispensable as construction supervisor extraordinaire. Marion Morberg and Fred Palmer devoted 3 years to restoring the Norseman. Tom O’Brien and Rotary. Geoff Lamontagne at the Galas. Calm Air and Burntwood Hotel were key. Recently Dave Jensen, Al Meston, Pierce Roberts and Rhonda McDonald and all the firefighters. And the list goes on and on.

As we now move forward, the next stage is to protect and promote. Spirit Way belongs to the community. People will soon forgot who was on the committee when it all started. Spirit Way is a public asset that requires upkeep and maintenance. Let it deteriorate, and Thompson’s reputation will be blemished. Everyone should promote it to the hilt. It’s a positive asset with tourism and economic potential. It’s a public relations beacon. It’s a recruiting tool. It’s a cultural and heritage storybook. It takes a 2+ hour walk to experience and understand it all. It proves why Thompson is a great community in which to live, work, and play. Enjoy it all! Ekosi.

PS. Spirit Way Inc. is now looking for 25+ key Thompsonites to become official FRIENDS OF SPIRIT WAY. The invitation is to YOU. What kind of person are you – do you watch things happen or do you want to make things happen? See the website herein for details. We want to make things happen, and prove why Thompson is a great place. Join us as a FRIEND!

Volker Beckmann