Chef's French flair serves up 'scandale' in Yellowknife

City council demands restaurateur drop the use of 'le' from name of beloved Wildcat Cafe


KATHERINE O'NEILL - It's been dubbed Yellowknife's "le scandale."
The controversy - a linguistic tempest in a log cabin - stems from a battle between city hall and Pierre LePage, a Quebec-born chef who dared to tinker with the name of Yellowknife's legendary eatery and one of its oldest buildings: the Wildcat Cafe.
Since Mr. LePage started leasing the seasonal diner in 2007, he's called it "Le Wildcat Cafe."
"This is discrimination," he said in an interview about a council committee's decision that demands he drop the "Le" when the restaurant opens again for the summer season next month. "You can't force a French person to say, 'I'm going to the Wildcat' because he's going to say, 'le Wildcat.' It's the same thing, right?"

The 32-seat Wildcat Cafe was built in 1937 and has fed everyone from prime ministers to bush pilots. (Paul Kane for The Globe and Mail)

But for the city, which owns the rustic cabin that houses the diner, and many Yellowknifers, it's not.
"There was a lot of community input about this," said Grant White, Yellowknife's director of community services and a member of the Wildcat Cafe advisory committee. "It's a living heritage building and we want to make sure it continues to operate."
On one online forum, Mr. LePage, a well-known Yellowknife businessman and restaurateur who operates three other eateries, has been accused of disrespecting "his role as a steward of the past."
The 32-seat restaurant was built in 1937 by prospectors Willie Wylie and Smokey Stout when Yellowknife was a rough-and-tumble frontier town swept up in a gold rush. Like Yellowknife, the Wildcat has a rich and colourful history, having fed everyone from prime ministers to bush pilots.
But it has also seen its share of hard times over the years and, from the 1950s to the 1970s, it was shuttered. While the Wildcat managed to escape demolition, many of its neighbours in Yellowknife's original town site, Old Town, were razed.
In 1979, the Wildcat was restored and reopened by a non-profit group and quickly became one of the city's top tourist attractions. It is also a favourite with locals who sit shoulder-to-shoulder on benches at its long wooden tables. The diner serves many Northern delicacies, including Arctic char and caribou; one of the most popular items on the menu is a muskox and caribou poutine.
For people who have never travelled to Yellowknife, a full-scale replica of the Northern landmark, which was designated a municipal heritage building in 1992, is on display at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Que.
Mr. LePage said the "Le" issue has been blown out of proportion by a few members of the city's historical society. He said he never intended to change the diner's iconic sign, which reads: "Wildcat Cafe." (Among locals, the name has evolved into "Wildcat.")
Mr. LePage, who moved to Yellowknife 16 years ago, insists he used the name "Le Wildcat Cafe" only on menus, staff uniforms and advertising, including company vehicles, and points out he was the only person to bid on the Wildcat contract this year.
"This whole thing has pissed me off," he said. "It's so silly."

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