Long-time Heritage Committee member James Kostuchuk is taking somewhat of a breather from the group, but is still involved to a degree. The Portage la Prairie 'go-to' man for local heritage notes he's always available for consultation and is currently still assisting in heritage projects. 

"It's been a long time; I think I've got over 30 straight years of community committee work, but I haven't disappeared. I'm just changing gears," says Kostuchuk. "I think the biggest impact over my career is, and of course, it's funny to look back on it because you like to think you're an educated, worldly person, but it's a coming to grips and understanding of Indigenous history. Truth and Reconciliation had a lot to do with that. In many ways, it's exciting because it's opened up an entirely new view of the world."

Kostuchuk explains the Fort la Reine museum was built around settler history. It was there to tell the history, seeing as the farmers who built that institution wanted to celebrate and acknowledge their achievements. Of course, he adds, that was at a cost, and at the same time, the most exciting change for him over the years. 

He says he's been in contact with the museum steadily and they're always available to help one another in both assistance and volunteer work.

"We get support from so many different areas," Kostuchuk continues. "Right now, I have two students working on heritage projects, but it's being funded by the South Central Regional Archives. They just happened to get the funding. Although they're not directly in Portage, they're helping support the heritage here because the needs are great."

Kostuchuk cites a recent news story from Gord Goldsborough, whom he says is the province's most noted historian, as well as author and researcher. He's also responsible for the website at mhs.ca, which has thousands of places for people to visit their history and thousands of names. 

"I think the one thing that's remained constant in heritage is underfunding," continues Kostuchuk. "We're very careful to not point fingers because people have been very good and have been supportive. But the province of Manitoba spends about a tenth of what the province of Saskatchewan spends. And as a result of that, a lot of important heritage initiatives are not being dealt with. So, as an example, the Manitoba Genealogical Society; their records have ended up in a car wash bay in Virden."

He explains Portage's history is likewise to be found everywhere in the region. He applauds the local library where you can find some of the records, and notes the staff there are great, and have some of our records. The high school houses much of it, too. 

Kostuchuk says the Residential School system started in Portage.

"They've been here since the 1880s, so it was a significant part of our community that we've never, at least from my perspective as  someone who's been interested in history, fully addressed. But you know, I'm very pleased that we're finally having conversations about it," continues Kostuchuk. "It's appearing in our classrooms and on a community level. We have Orange Shirt Day and we have the Indigenous Residential School Museum right in our community. I live on the Crescent, and I think back to the times when they used to March the students from the residential school to church right in front of my house every Sunday. So, it's very real to me because I live near the school."

He adds to think that the school sat across from the island where the golf course is, with students able to watch settlers having sport, is sobering. 

"To think that just a generation before, my parents and grandparents lived there," notes Kostuchuk. "It's a very emotional thing, but I think for me, that's been the biggest shift in heritage." 

Kostuchuk says the committee has been able to cover practically everything that can be covered, but change is slow.

"They often say in education that change is generational and sometimes, it is that way. But we've made small gains," continues Kostuchuk. "The one thing I would have to say is that I live in a community that's very supportive. I mean, you can't always get what you want when you want, but I would say that everything is moving forward in a good way. We've had lots of support from our MLA and lots of support from the municipality on all our heritage initiatives, and there have been a few."

As an example, he points out the progress made at Heritage Square where historical photos are displayed on decals on the windows. There is also new signage that's recently been placed in town, and is ongoing.

"We've got a book we've published, with another one on the way," says Kostuchuk. "We have, I think, four or five heritage building and heritage site inventories and I've lost track of how many dollars in grants that we've got over the years, but it's fairly significant. Just about every year, we get $8,000 or $10,000 to complete a project. We've got a good group and things are getting done."

Kostuchuk outlines one particular project with which he's currently involved; publishing another book of historic photos of Portage la Prairie. That's being coordinated with the timing of the opening of the new hospital, and will be used as a fundraiser for the facility.  

"It's going to be much like the first book; lots of photos of people imported with a little explanation of what they're doing. But we're also going to include a history of the hospital, which I just started getting into. And it's pretty interesting; what I'm learning about hospitals. One of the things I found, and I have to look into this, I was surprised that there was a hesitancy on the part of people to use it, which I found quite shocking."

He describes the story of one man in the 1800s who was working with some farm machinery. He'd written a letter to the editor after his arm had been torn off and decided to go to the hospital.

MedalOne of the treasures Kostuchuk came across concerning Lillian Stephens of Portage la Prairie recognized for her community work

"His family convinced him to go to the hospital," continues Kostuchuk. "He went and was writing a letter to say that it's really not as bad as people made out. I'm thinking, 'You could have died, and here you have this service.' But I don't know what it was. It seems that there was some hesitancy to use the healthcare system. And of course, in that time period, if you had something serious before we had a hospital, you had to go to Winnipeg by, maybe, cart."

Kostuchuk adds there were people back in the day who weren't interested in so much as having a hospital in town or thinking that expanding the hospital would be too expensive, and not required. 

As far as leaving the Heritage Committee in good hands, he says all is well.

"Councillor Terrie Porter is a chair and she has an absolute passion for Portage la Prairie history," adds Kostuchuk. "Our new MLA Jeff Bereza has a very keen interest in history, and so did Ian Wishart, as well."

Looking back at his time with Heritage, Kostuchuk shares that he received the McWilliams Award for the book on Manitoba history. 

"I was pretty excited about that. And then I received, last year, the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal," notes Kostuchuk. "Over 1000 Manitobans were honoured and I was very pleased to be one of them. It was after I was kind of planning to step back for a little bit, and it was a good kind of capstone." 

Some of the historical treasures James Kostuchuk has discovered in Portage la Prairie - Click photos to enlarge: