The Lac Seul Event Centre is almost symbolic of the intertwined relationship between Lac Seul First Nation and the neighbouring municipality of Sioux Lookout.
Since its celebrated opening in 2013, the $8.5-million arena and multi-purpose facility has become the go-to place to stage local and regional conferences.
“I think we’re a one-of-a-kind (venue) in the Northern communities where we have these accommodations,” said Jeremy Capay, the centre’s manager.
Nearby Sioux Lookout is a service, administrative and health-care hub catering to more than 30,000 people in remote, fly-in First Nation reserves in northwestern Ontario.
The new Lac Seul Events Centre provides one of the largest venues for any major gatherings of regional leaders.
The building is located on the main road in the village of Frenchman’s Head, about a half-hour drive off of Highway 72, the highway connecting Sioux Lookout and the Trans-Canada Highway.
The Event Centre was one of the rewards from the resolution of a century-old timber harvesting dispute with the federal government that delivered millions in settlement dollars to the band.
At the time, Capay said council had many ideas on what to do with the money. An arena with adjoining conference rooms was one of the selected projects.
“It had been a long time coming.”
The facility, which features an NHL regulation-size ice surface, is equipped with three conference rooms and one smaller meeting room.
The 2,300-square-foot Bear Room can accommodate 160 for presentations and up to a maximum of 80 for dining.
The smaller 700-square-foot Moose and Woof Rooms each have a seating capacity of 50 each with a boardroom setting for the former and more flexible space for the latter. The 170-square-foot Loon Room seats six in a boardroom setting.
Catering is available through the Event Centre’s on-site restauranteur, Marie Norton and the Miijim Co. (Ojibwa for ‘food’) offering a breakfast, lunch and dinner menu. The eatery is also a popular pit stop during weekday lunch hours.
Charter bus and shuttle service for conference-goers between the hotels in Sioux Lookout and the Event Centre can be arranged through the Lac Seul Education Authority.
Fall is the busiest time of year. Not just with sporting events in the main arena, but for corporate annual general meetings.
When the ice goes in in early September, weekend hockey tournaments dominate the calendar.
But year-round, the building is usually humming with wedding receptions, outdoor shows, career fairs, community engagement sessions, assembly meetings, trade expos, workshops, corporate gatherings, and at times a refuge for evacuees from remote communities.
Over its short history, the rink and conference rooms have staged numerous conferences and annual general meetings, said Capay, who mentions the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority, Tikinagan Child and Family Services, and some one-off events such as the Nishnawbe Aski Nation and the Chiefs of Ontario conference, both in 2017, the latter attracting close to 100 provincial leaders.
“If it wasn’t for the building we wouldn’t have these big events.”
Staging events on that scale is a confidence booster for staff, Capay said, but also an opportunity to learn from their miscues to try to improve next time.
Most recently, Capay said the centre held an Indigenous tourism expo that he coordinated as the community’s tourism representative. And earlier this summer, the venue hosted the first annual Innovation Station conference involving the Town of Sioux Lookout, a two-day socio-economic gathering of area First Nation community leaders and academic researchers.
In his three years as manager, one of Capay’s most memorable events was hosting a Montreal Canadiens alumni game last November, which packed the arena to its full 1,300-person capacity.
With close to 70 bookings a year for the conference rooms, Capay hopes that the year-round traffic they generate is enough to convince a developer to see fit to build an adjacent hotel. All the overnight accommodations in the area are about 40 kilometres away in Sioux Lookout.
“It would be so much more convenient for people having meetings,” he said. “Someday, I’m hoping someone will step up and open up a hotel so we can be more accommodating whenever we have conventions or conferences or tournaments."
Looking to the future, Capay believes the building is well-suited to attract some speed skating and figure skating events, and maybe host a women’s hockey tournament.
He’s also been in contact with the commissioner of the Superior International Junior Hockey League – the closest franchise being an hour away in Dryden – about staging an exhibition and possibly a regular season game.