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A Town on the Move

A Town on the Move

With construction booming, Cambridge Bay deals with its growing pains
By Herb Mathisen
Feb 11
From the February 2015 Issue

It’s Boxing Day afternoon and no stores in town are open. Every building and vehicle (or object left outside for that matter) looks like it has freezer burn. The colours of the homes, deep greens or bright yellows in summer, are paler due to the frost that seems to have been blasted into them. It looks as if the entire community of Cambridge Bay was just recently buried in snow before it all blew away. The odd snowmobile rips by, while water and sewer trucks move from house to house, dealing with a backlog of fill-up and pump-out requests. It’s been pitchblack since 3 p.m.

It’s five o’clock and owner Keith Lear pulls up outside Kalgen’s Dis & Dat. There’s a small, patient group lined up outside. Lear unlocks the door to his tiny shop, then puts his shoulder into the door to push through the ice that’s built up since the door last opened. “How was your Christmas?” he asks no one in particular, like someone who is always doing more than two things at a time. But it still comes off as genuine. Two teenagers start unloading cases of bottled and canned pop out the back of the truck. We wait outside until we get the go-ahead to come in. 

A derelict building covered in a thick layer of frost during the brief daylight hours in late December. Photo by Herb Mathisen

The shop is usually open from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., and a neighbour says it’s always busy. When the store closes though, “this street is dead,” he says. We get waved in and huddle inside the snug hut stuffed with candies and chips, pops and chocolate bars, toiletries and knick-knacks. It’s packed with just six people inside. And more people keep arriving.

The guy in line in front of me asks for Neo Citran. The flu’s been going around. “Neo Citran… Neo Citran…” Lear repeats, scanning the shelf beside the till, full of Tylenol, Aspirin, Benylin, but no Neo Citran. “I’m going to have to put that on my list,” he says. The guy leaves with four Sprites, four packs of beef jerky, two surprise goodie bags and some chips. There must be 15 people crammed into the shop as I squeeze my way out.

“Nice night,” says an older fellow named George, who stops to chat along one of the town’s main drags, Mitik Street. It’s hypnotically quiet and the stars in the sky are lit up bright, so I suppose he’s right, even if it’s -36C with a stinging wind. I ask what’s going on tonight and he tells me the Christmas games are being held in the high school gym. I’ll see him there.

Stocking up at Kalgen’s Dis & Dat Convenience. Photo by Herb Mathisen

CAMBRIDGE BAY has always been an important place. As far back as 4,000 years ago, Pre-Dorset and Dorset peoples travelled through the area, leaving behind artifacts like carvings and old stone longhouses. The area is flush with Arctic char: the hamlet’s name in Inuinnaqtun is “Iqaluktuuttiaq” meaning “good fishing place.” Inuit have long hunted seal, caribou and muskox, and fished for char from the surrounding region. With its natural harbour, Cambridge Bay later became a vital port for European explorers and traders. More recently, it’s become the hub of Nunavut’s Kitikmeot region: an important stop for medical travellers, cruise and research ships and various government events.

David Kaniak sips his coffee at a Sunday brunch held in the Luke Novoligak Community Hall. He tells me about moving to Cambridge Bay from the Bathurst Inlet area with his family as a nine-year-old in the 1950s. A government official had come around promising “good jobs, good houses,” he says. At that time, the DEW (Distance Early Warning) Line was being installed in Cambridge Bay to monitor Canada’s Arctic air space during the Cold War and there was work to be had. The trip by dogteam took three days. “Now today, it’s one day by Ski-Doo.” Half of the Bathurst families went to Cambridge Bay, the other half to nearby Kugluktuk, he says. His father took a job with the government.

She got caught once speaking Inuinnaqtun at residential school and was forced to brush her teeth with a Sunlight soap bar. But that didn’t stop her: she just made sure she didn’t get caught.

Kaniak is part of the generation of children that came off the land and grew up in these new settlements. Their parents took jobs in town, forgoing a more nomadic lifestyle, while they were taken away from their families to attend residential schools. Though they received a formal education, they were also assimilated into “Western culture,” punished for speaking their language, and often abused. Yet, many children managed to retain some of their mother tongue.

Kaniak’s worried youth in Cambridge Bay aren’t using Inuinnaqtun as much these days. A few years ago, he hosted a program on the local community radio and he’s hoping to do that again, to restart the conversation in Inuinnaqtun.

Another afternoon, Jessie Lyall, an educator who grew up around Wellington Bay (40 kilometres northwest of the hamlet) before her parents moved to Cambridge Bay, told me she got caught once speaking Inuinnaqtun at residential school and was forced to brush her teeth with a Sunlight soap bar. But that didn’t stop her: she just made sure she didn’t get caught. She’s now devoted her life to teaching her language to youth.

Jack Ekpakohak labours over an ulu in a makeshift workshop in his home. Photo by Herb Mathisen

“SOME PEOPLE USE NAIL POLISH to shine it,” says Jack Ekpakohak, as he smoothes out the muskox antler handle of an Eastern Arctic style ulu. “That’s cheating.”

Ekpakohak is hunched over in a cluttered room in his home, surrounded by bone, metal scraps, and general household detritus. He files, grinds, sands and then buffs the piece of antler before drilling a hole into it, where the stainless steel ulu blade is attached. He's made 17 or 18 ulus for Christmas and has a backlog of 20 to 30 to make for people around the region. He’s worked holes through a pair of gloves from all the filing he’s been doing. Every so often, after some labourious filing, he rubs his thumbs. They’ve developed arthritis. “I’ve got my A535 here,” he says. Despite this, he turns to me every few minutes, more concerned with my own comfort. “Are you sure you don’t want some tea or coffee?“

Ekpakohak works at the metal dump during the days, but in the summers he’s a commercial fishing boat captain. Arctic char has been a staple of the local diet forever—and the local economy since the 1960s—and Ekpakohak will go out twice to harvest. He’ll go once in the spring, for 10 days, and then again later in the fall, for almost a whole month, catching more than 50,000 pounds of char in total. Planes will fly the catch back to the town’s processing plant, making multiple trips each day. In the fall, he says, the char is red and the meat is nice and fat.

Things aren’t so healthy with the muskox harvest. In past years, he says, they’d get 250 animals, but now muskox herds are found farther away from town. “Too many people catching them too close,” he says. (A wildlife officer I talked to later said there’s also been a nasty lungworm disease—caused by muskoxen ingesting a slug—that's hurt populations on the island.) Kitikmeot Foods, the local distributor, hasn’t had a commercial harvest since 2012.

Ekpakohak sharpens the ulu blade and then shows it to me. I thank him for letting me watch him work. Before heading out in the cold, we watch a few minutes of the Toronto Raptors game on TV with his son. “They’re good now,” says Ekpakohak. “They used to be underdogs.”

Her family protested that she was limiting her son’s options. But far from it, she says, as he’s been able to travel overseas on school trips and even meet the Prime Minister. His world got bigger by moving to Cambridge Bay.

CAMBRIDGE BAY IS BOOMING. The $142-million Canadian High Arctic Research Station, currently going up on the outskirts of town, promises to attract international scientists to conduct Arctic research in the community. But CHARS is far from the only project in development: the Nunavut Arctic College is building a daycare centre and residential units, and a new hamlet building is also under construction. Jim MacEachern, the hamlet’s economic development manager, says there are more than $400 million in infrastructure projects being built between 2012 and 2017. And that doesn’t include private projects. The most recent stats from 2011 peg the population at 1,608, but MacEachern thinks “boots on the ground” it’s more like 1,800.

“A lot of the local companies are seeing a lot of benefit from the infrastructure projects,” he says. That’s not just construction companies. Hotels have been full and there are spinoff opportunities, such as catering, around the hamlet. If the community is to truly benefit from the boom, locals have to be in a position to take advantage. When I ask whether positions are being scooped up by workers from out of town or locals, MacEachern says it’s both. But, he adds, if people are coming up to work, that means they might stay. 

One woman I spoke to moved up with her teenaged son roughly five years ago from the Maritimes. Her family protested that she was limiting her son’s options. But far from it, she says, as he’s been able to travel overseas on school trips and even meet the Prime Minister. His world got bigger by moving to Cambridge Bay.

A line of houses on a snowy road. Photo by Herb Mathisen

The hamlet is looking to help create opportunities for its people. There are hopes that a heavy equipment-training program will start up in Cambridge Bay’s college, as residents currently have to leave the community for such courses. And it has created an environmental studies program, with the first cohort expected to graduate in 2017, when CHARS is set to open.

Some of the elders I spoke to worry that youth are just not interested in working, and also expressed misgivings that problems with alcohol and drugs (and not just marijuana) have become more pervasive in the community. But isn’t that what every generation says about those that come after? In the week I spend in Cambridge Bay, I see kids still coming around asking to shovel after it snows. Young people work the cash, fill up shelves at the local arcade and convenience stores, and clean rooms, serve tables and cook meals in the hotels and restaurant.

“Boring,” is how one 18-year-old woman I met describes Cambridge Bay. She's excited about going back to high school—she dropped out the year prior—so she can get her equivalencies to allow her to pursue post-secondary studies. She doesn’t know what program she wants to take, but is thinking about going to Rankin Inlet or Iqaluit, although she claims the capital is “scary,” citing a recent bomb threat at a school.

Many people I meet tell me I should come back and visit in the summer. That’s when the birds come back, and I could marvel at the 24-hour daylight and how the land explodes with colours.

A BLIZZARD BRIEFLY BLOWS IN and the plane can’t land. With the reduced holiday schedule, the next flight from Yellowknife doesn’t arrive for three more days. (Cambridge Bay is closely tied to the NWT capital, due to its relatively Western location. It was one of only two communities, along with Kugluktuk, to vote against the creation of Nunavut in a 1982 plebiscite.) With the extra time, I bundle up and endeavour to do some exploring. I walk across the bay ice to look for the Maud, Roald Amundsen’s ship that’s been grounded here since 1930, but can’t find it amid the expanse of snow and ice. This is the same bay where hunters catch seals; the same bay where, a couple years ago, a pod of narwhals showed up, spurring a chaotic hunting frenzy.

Many people I meet tell me I should come back and visit in the summer. That’s when I could fish, or hike over to Mount Pelly and take in the view. That’s when the birds come back, and I could marvel at the 24-hour daylight and how the land explodes with colours, reds and oranges, like what I see in the sky during the short hours saddling noon at this darkest time of year, in the sunrises and sunsets where the sun never breaches the horizon.

I’d like that, I say.