Gary Bailie can’t keep the pride out of his voice as he guides a visitor around the imposing newKwanlin Dün Cultural Centre.

As manager of the $25 million construction project, Bailie knows every inch of the 40,000 square-foot waterfront complex, built to resemble the cluster of buildings typical of many First Nation villages.

The first thing he points out is the centre’s physical orientation, that will allow processions down Black Street to flow directly through the building, past the firepit rimmed with granite from a quarry named after revered elder Annie Ned, and on to the cedar dock at the river’s edge.

“Because it really is about the river,” Bailie says.

“We’re here at the waterfront and the river is what gave Kwanlin Dün its name. The simple fact that we’ve reclaimed our place at the river again is very significant.”

The curved brick walls at each end of the complex reflect both the river’s sweep and the clay bluffs that contain it, he points out.

Next, Bailie indicates the eight-foot diameter moon window by Yukon artist Mark Preston, which gives onto the glass-walled Elders’ Lounge just inside the lobby.

Then he shows where the red and black “moiety panel” carved by Justin Smith to represent the First Nation’s wolf and crow clans will be installed in time for the grand opening on National Aboriginal Day, June 21.

“It’s going to be front row centre, so it seems very significant that we’ve saved this till the grand opening,” he says. “And it looks stunning.”

As the tour continues, Bailie points out the lush grass along the building’s front.

“Everything grew. I haven’t found one dead plant yet.”

To learn more about landscaping,Bailie even took the Master Gardener’s course at Yukon College on his own time.

“I wanted that knowledge to be able to apply it here,” he says.

At the north end of the complex,beside a smaller building that houses the dramatic dugout canoe made in 2009 by the Sun Dog Carvers, there is a small traditional garden.

“We started out with sage and birch trees and gooseberry and currants,kinnikinnick, juniper, balsam fir,” Bailieexplains.

“We just got a few things to start it, but as time goes by, more people will plant some things in here.”

At the back of the building, a ribbon of boulders hauled from Fish Lake suggests rocks that might have been left behind by the river itself.

“What I was trying to do was give some continuity, because all of a sudden the project ended and it just looked like no-man’s-land,” Bailie says.

“This way it blended it out.”

Always, the conversation comes back to the river.

“Kwanlin means water running through canyons, so essentially it’s speaking of the water,” Bailieexplains.

“Dün means people, and Kwanlin was a spot. So when you’re up in any end of the country and people said there’s a gathering down at Kwanlin, people automatically knew Kwanlin was a spot here at the river.”

Rae Mombourquette, the cultural centre’s executive director, later expands on the importance of the river to a First Nation that has been dislocated seven times in its history, ending up inland and uphill in the McIntyre subdivision.

“It was a transportation highway, it was a gathering space, it was a space to collect food, it was a place to bury your dead, and it was a place for people to be born,” Mombourquette says.

“The people have had a long history here, but through the context of history and residential schools, et cetera, a lot of that culture and that connection had been lost.”

For both Bailie and Mombourquette, the importance of re-establishing their First Nation’s presence at the waterfront can’t be stressed enough.

The complex itself is designed to reflect that connection.

A long hallway runs parallel to the Yukon River, from the Whitehorse Public Library at the south end, past a climate-controlled archive area, the spacious Longhouse, the Elder’s Lounge and a fully-equipped commercial kitchen, with a clear line of sight to the boathouse at the north end.

Dubbed the “river corridor”, it sweeps past a compact administration area, classroom spaces, a multi-purpose room, a glass-walled artists’ workspace and the peaceful-looking “Sacred Space”, which features a sunken circle tiled in the traditional colours of the four directions and surmounted by a matching circular skylight.

“Originally it had carpeting in there, and I persuaded them to do the four directions. The white is oriented to true north. I researched it to make sure that was right,” Bailie explains.

Indeed, from the tiny LED lights embedded in the pavement outside, to the mountain ashes blooming in front of the library, to clutches of colourful mosaic floor tiles inspired by something his father saw in Egypt, Bailie’s touch is apparent everywhere.

His hands-on approach to project management even extends to using a friend’s jet boat to haul driftwood logs from the river to use as benches outside the complex.

Yet he is quick to stress the teamwork that made the building possible, from the Kwanlin Düncultural committee that initiated it, through architects David Nairn and Associates and contractors Stuart Olson Dominion, to Mombourquette’s administrative staff and the workers who will maintain the buildings and grounds—many of them Kwanlin Dün members.

He is also quick to acknowledge the project partnership between the First Nation and the Yukon Government, which administered a $14.8 million contribution from the Canadian Strategic Investment Fund.

“We did bring it in on schedule and on budget, which is somewhat of an anomaly, I’m told,” he says.

“So I’m very, very proud of the building, and proud to have been part of a positive team.”

And, like Mombourquette, he looks forward to seeing the “river corridor” flowing with both First Nation and non-First Nation people willing to share the story of their people, their connection to the river, and their aspirations for the future.

“Kwanlin Dün, as traditional hosts of the area… we can open our doors to the community, and open it to the world. It’s about welcoming people and about sharing,” he emphasizes.

“And I think, in doing so, there’s going to be a lot of healing that will occur, not only individually, but collectively. We need to move forward, and positively, right?”

Bailie likens the centre’s physical presence to the “jewel” in what he sees as the city’s ever-evolving, crown-like waterfront area.

“The remnants of history are here, and all the phases that have gone through our fair little town over the years,” he notes.

“And you look at this beautiful building, with the library and the cultural centre, and the landscaping… I’m really proud of this place.”