Written by Richard Saad
How a small-town, oil field worker with little formal education found God and spent thousands building Canada’s first creationism museum in Big Valley, Alberta.
Harry Nibourg has insisted, though, to anyone who will listen, that the museum, which officially opened its doors June 5th, 2007, is an important step in exposing creationism to the public. “Science is a faith,” Nibourg says, swiping at a fly that’s come through the open door and is now buzzing near his face. “If the evidence points towards Biblical creation then that’s not our fault.” Creationism is the belief that all life was created by the God and not through evolution. Because creationists take the Bible to be infallible and the word of God, they often mine the text in an effort to explain the diversity of all living species. Almost all scientists, however, reject the notion of creationism, often pitting themselves against Christian conservatives when it comes to the teaching of evolution in schools. Still creationists, exist. An Angus Reid online poll conducted in August 2008 showed that 55 per cent of Canadians accepted the theory of evolution, while 22 per cent believed in creationism. In the same poll, almost 40 per cent of Albertans said they do.
photos: Richard Saad
Nibourg leads me to a display entitled, Evidence From Genealogy, which purportedly traces the bloodline of Princess Diana and Prince Charles back to Adam and Eve. This information has never been made public because of the liberal media’s control over information, Nibourg says. “They don’t want these things made public,” he says. “We’re not making this stuff up; we’re just following the evidence like any good scientist would.” Nibourg is 47-years-old, has been engaged three times, and when not working as a gas well operator in Sylvan Lake, he lives alone in Big Valley to look after his museum. Still, if you ask him if he were happy about his life, he would look at you, smile, and tell you that the museum he built, The Big Valley Creation Science Museum, is his true calling in life.
Although Allan Collins didn’t know Nibourg before volunteering at the museum, he was naturally drawn to him after seeing a news story about the museum in 2007. “I thought this must be an amazing man,” Collins recalled. “Harry is so focused on this museum; his job is just a means to keep doing this, I guess.” Familiar with several of the creation museums in the United States, Collins admits that he was sceptical of succeeding in Big Valley. “Harry believes it can work here, and I think that it will…eventually.”
In the summer months, pedestrian traffic to the museum relies heavily on tourists making their way into Big Valley via a steam train carrying approximately 300 people a day from Stettler and Edmonton. Nibourg and Collins estimate that of those, there might be as few as 10 interested in stopping by the museum. “It’s not something as popular as the other attractions like the Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller,” Collins said. The Tyrrell Museum, one of the most internationally-recognized palaeontology museums in the world, averages 375,000 visitors every year.
What little pedestrian traffic does come to the museum during the summer all but disappears in the winter. Nibourg doesn’t let it bother him, though. He installed heated tile floors to keep the museum warm. “This way, it can be open for school groups during the winter months,” explains Nibourg, tapping his foot on the tile. Creationism is not considered a real science and so is not taught in schools. Educating children about the “miracle of creation” wasn’t initially on Nibourg’s mind when he envisioned the museum, he admits, but after studying creationism in-depth, he saw that he could teach it to children as a science and as an alternative to evolution. “This is not primarily a Christian facility, it’s scientific,” Nibourg says. Although he dismisses evolution as “hogwash,” he understands that to be taken seriously by academics and scientists, the museum needs to present creationism as an evidence-based science and not get hung up on proselytising Christianity.
“This is a scientific presentation of creation,” he continues. “It’s not biblically based.” After a pause, Nibourg points behind me at a five-foot model of Noah’s Ark, enshrined behind a thick glass case. “Well, I guess that could be considered Biblical.”
The genesis of the Big Valley Creation Museum came to Nibourg in 1995, after he met with Ian Juby, the developer and main backer of the Creation Museum of Canada – a traveling museum predominantly catering to rural, conservative Canadians. It was Juby, acting as a consultant and writer of museum displays for several American creation museums, who saw the potential of creating a permanent museum. “I spoke with him [Nibourg] a couple of times over the phone and he expressed interest in the idea,” recalls Juby. Nibourg admits, a little apprehensively, that visions of a high-tech, million-dollar facility raced through his mind during those meetings with Juby. Nibourg cites the Institute for Creation Research, in San Diego, California, as an inspiration. After visiting ICR and others like it throughout the United States, Nibourg was convinced he could make a museum in Alberta feasible.
“I thought it would be a good place for a large museum because of all the available land,” said Nibourg. One obstacle loomed. Nibourg and Juby estimated that at least two-million dollars was needed. “It would have cost even more money – probably another million or so to keep it stocked with fossils,” said Juby. Nibourg, who by now was working for CanWest Petroleum Corporation, realized he was making nowhere near enough money. He wouldn’t pursue the idea seriously for another 10 years.
The museum is still empty as Nibourg and I leave for a nearby coffee shop, leaving Collins behind the front desk. According to the last census, the village of Big Valley, in east-central Alberta, has a population of 351. Nestled between vast prairie land to the west and the Battle River to the east, Big Valley appears as an isolated, sleepy backwater. Once an oil boomtown during the 1950s, the village now caters to seniors and journeymen workers who make time between Big Valley and the oil fields of northern Alberta. There’s an attractive quaintness about life here. Clean air and no traffic jams is how one local described it.
The coffee shop is located in a small area known as the Jimmy Jock Boardwalk, just off Main Street. The boardwalk has a U shape and was built to resemble a scene from the Old West, right down to the wooden horse trough sitting outside the front door. “Hey Vivian, how’s it going?” Nibourg shouts to the owner of the coffee shop. She I ask him if he has a sense of how popular the museum is with the locals. Nibourg says he doesn’t mind that people in the town don’t come to see the museum anymore. “They may think I’m a crackpot, but in five years, when the truth about evolution comes out, they’ll understand my position.” When our waitress arrives, Nibourg is all smiles. “How’s life treatin’ ya?” Nibourg has an affable, good-natured charm about him. After a brief conversation with our waitress, Nibourg orders a hot chocolate. Flies buzz incessantly around the table. Nibourg, clearly annoyed, swipes at them as they near his face. I’m about to ask him about the museum’s construction when, suddenly, he locks eyes with a fly that has landed near his hot chocolate mug. Nibourg whispers, “When a fly senses danger, it flies straight up. That’s how you go about killing it.” Nibourg takes a deep breath. “Just watch,” he says. As if sensing imminent doom, the fly shoots straight up. Nibourg smashes his hands together with tremendous force and when he opens them, the unfortunate fly, now very much dead, pitifully falls to the table. He casually flicks it onto the floor. “It’s not that I’m good at this sort of thing, it’s just that they [flies] are slow at this time of the year.”
Before I can ask him about the inspiration for the museum, Nibourg says I need to understand where he came from and why he chose his current path in life. “I know you want me to say I hit my head and went crazy, but it’s not that simple,” Nibourg jokes. Born in Calgary in 1961 to a large, Catholic family, Nibourg says that even though he had what he calls a “God sense,” he was never a practicing Catholic like his brothers and sisters. He went to church regularly but religion was nothing more than something forced upon him by his parents, says Nibourg. His family has been in Alberta for generations. After leaving Calgary and settling in the tiny of hamlet of Erskine, just east of Red Deer, his dad managed a dairy farm and worked odd jobs in construction.
“My dad really taught me to work.” Whether it was hauling hay, rounding up the farm’s cattle, or cleaning stalls, Nibourg remembers that he was constantly busy. He epitomized the do-it-yourself spirit that would later reach its zenith during the museum’s construction. His mother, with eight kids, was, according to Nibourg, a “domestic engineer.” Nibourg admits he took his family for granted. During his teen years, when he wasn’t working on the farm, he would be gone the majority of the day, hanging out with friends, drinking, smoking, and generally being a misfit.
“I was a grade one dropout!” Harry jokes. “I just wanted to do what I wanted to and I never cared less for it.” As a teenager in school, he never gave his future much thought. Most of his days were spent enjoying the extracurricular activities school afforded him, as opposed to going to classes. Fearing that I had not understood what he meant by extracurricular, Nibourg mimes drinking from a bottle and smoking pot. He laughs when I break a smile. “I didn’t want you to think I was on the volleyball team or nothing.” It was during a night of wild partying with a friend he met in church that things started to spiral downward. They would meet up by the banks of the Red Deer River to drink, smoke pot, and listen to hard rock. Drunken, rowdy days followed. Nibourg is reticent to recall this time in his life. He admits it’s embarrassing. He vowed he would never embarrass himself in that way ever again. As a result, he lost contact with his “troublesome” friends. It was at this point that Nibourg decided to search for answers in the Bible. During this self-described “critical analysis” of the Bible, Nibourg found what he’d been looking for. “The more and more that I looked into it, I realized that there was something to it and I wanted to be a part of it.” With that discovery, he abandoned the bar scene for good. “I realized what I was doing was wrongheaded and didn’t have a future.”
In late November , Nibourg decided to get baptized in the frozen Red Deer River. Using a shovel, Nibourg and a friend broke the ice until there was a hole big enough to fit his head. He recalled that underwater, he could feel soul being cleansed. He admits, though, that it was over much too quickly. “I thought they probably should have stuck me under there a little longer with some sage brush and soap so I could scrub myself a little more.” For Nibourg, the idea of being born again near the banks of the same river where he used to live a life of moral corruption was most a symbolic gesture to God that he was giving up his old ways. “You can call it an epiphany, or whatever, but it wasn’t like that. I looked at my situation objectively, like a scientist and studied both sides of the issue. I had to study the big picture.”
“Did I sit down to make a game plan?” Nibourg asks aloud, when the subject returns to the museum. “No, I just told myself that it’d happen when it happens.” From previous interviews with reporters at the time of the museum’s opening, Nibourg says that the cost of the museum was $300,000, financed by his own funds, and supporters. Nibourg admits that he might have overestimated how much of his own money went into the construction. “It might be more or less,” he says.
He does acknowledge, however, that the costs of building the museum would have been “astronomical” if he had paid full consultant fees to Juby and Vance Nelson, director of Creation Truth Ministries. Operating out of Red Deer, Nelson is a soft-spoken, courteous man in his forties, and according to his websites, is a self-described “lover of rocks and fossils and the tremendous evidence they exhibit for creation and the flood and ultimately the historicity of the Bible.” Nelson remembers meeting Nibourg in 2005, during one of Nelson’s speaking tours (which comes with a travelling museum of dinosaur fossil replicas). “He [Nibourg] was very knowledgeable and, even then, you could tell he was passionate about Creationism and what it meant,” recalled Nelson.
Nelson and Nibourg became quick friends, and along with Ian Juby, they formed a partnership to spread Creation Science. Nibourg and Nelson began work on designing the museum, which they saw as a series of plaques and display walls that would run clockwise from end of the museum to the other. Nelson and Juby helped Nibourg purchase thousands of dollars of fossil replicas (they were cheaper than real fossils), and also helped with writing the majority of “scientific facts” that adorn the matching plaques. “Some of the fossils were loaned from other Creation ministries from the United States,” admits Nibourg. The work and the costs kept rising, with Nibourg working up north and then usually four days straight of backbreaking labour on the museum. He says that it took a lot out of him, admitting that if he had known then what he knows now about how difficult it was to build the museum, he would have never gone through with it. “Those were some dark times, let me tell you,” Nibourg says. “I thought to myself, ‘What have you gotten yourself into.’” All it took to change his mind and redirect his energy back into the museum was the chance to open the eyes of people whom he calls “blind to God’s truth.” The work continued on for months at a time, with locals from Big Valley pitching in when they could. Some would help with the plumbing; some cut wood, while others or poured concrete.
A former machinist, Lee Ross, now retired and settled in Big Valley, remembers when the walls of the museum started going up. “We all knew Harry and we liked him,” says Ross. “Some of us didn’t agree with his strict beliefs, but he’s a good guy.” Darby Gibbs, a big rig driver in Big Valley visiting his folks, vaguely remembers the museum going up. “They were like one big family,” Gibbs recalls.
The work went so well that after four months, Nibourg, Juby and Nelson went down to Tuscan, Arizona, for a vacation and what Nibourg calls, “an evidence tour.” They bought dinosaur fossil replicas by the bulk so they could save money. “We got a good deal down there,” Nibourg said. The museum took about eight months to build and another year to fill with fossils and displays. The museum costs more money to operate than it brings in, admits Nibourg. “We can officially be declared a government now, since we lost money last year,” Nibourg says. Nibourg is resigned to the fact that he will most likely never make his money back on the project.
Nibourg and I leave the coffee shop and quietly walk back to the museum. Nibourg wipes a bit of sweat from his upper lip with his shirt collar and takes a look at the sky. “It’s still a nice day, so I’ll probably keep the place open for a while longer.” Inside the museum, Collins looks to Nibourg and points to a man in the back, standing next to a display. Nibourg introduces himself to Carl Mittemeyer, a roughneck from Fort McMurray, and for the next 20 minutes, both men discuss their beliefs in God, the meaning of life and the expansion of the universe.
t’s an odd sight: dressed in jeans, t-shirts, and trucker hats, they look nothing like academics or scholars, but they could care less. I say goodbye to Nibourg and leave. On my way out, Collins gives me a stack of books, pamphlets, and brochures – all sponsored by Nelson’s Creation Truth Ministries and ICR.
Driving out of Big Valley, with the sun setting just beyond horizon I recall what Nibourg said to me before we left the coffee shop: “If what I believe is wrong, then I would still be able to say that I lived a good, Christian life. But, if I’m right, you’ll have to spend eternity in Hell.”