Science at Nunavut’s Canadian High Arctic Research Station awaits wake-up call

Main science building features luxurious, but empty, facilities


CAMBRIDGE BAY—The Canadian High Arctic Research Station looks like a facility on standby—maybe for an army of scientists working on a topic of national or international importance, such as a biochemical threat, a new disease or the landing of an alien spacecraft, or perhaps to house the entire top leadership of the federal government in an emergency.

Martin Raillard, the chief scientist at CHARS in Cambridge Bay, says he has a more down-to-earth dream: to see the 7,900 square metres of the main science building bustling with activity, with 100 researchers at work.

But, for now, reality does not resemble Raillard’s vision.

A recent tour of the still-closed copper-coloured building revealed numerous expansive offices, a boardroom fitted with a long enough table to seat 28, and immense, stainless-steel laboratories.

These include a necropsy laboratory for dissections, genomic laboratories and spaces that look like biochemistry labs, all equipped with decontamination showers, and all looking as if they’ve never been used.

An open area for staff, only accessible with a pass, is also spotless, silent and nearly empty.

That’s remarkable because Arctic scientists can be a messy gang, roughing it out in the field to collect rock, wildlife or vegetation samples, much like Raillard, who spent much of his long scientific career gathering musk ox clippings around the Arctic, did.

In the front of the main science building you can find many works of Inuit art, but only two display boxes of Arctic insects, neatly pinned, give any indication that any conventional Arctic science has taken place from the building.

Raillard said researchers from eight countries did come to CHARS in 2018, amassing 2,200 research days. A pamphlet from Polar Knowledge, the government agency that oversees CHARS, shows projects funded for 2017-19 took place all over the North.

In an interview, Raillard also mentioned a few Cambridge Bay-based projects, such as one called the Experimental Reference Area, which is taking a three-dimensional look at the 400-square-kilometre area around the community of about 1,900.

There are also plans to establish a DNA reference library, develop local waste management and clean energy projects, and monitor lemmings, birds and permafrost.

Specimens have been collected for a “bar code of life database,” which will collect genetic mapping of Arctic wildlife and vegetation and fungi.

And CHARS local outreach activities include a camp for Canadian Rangers, a summer science camp for youth and activities with Nunavut Arctic College students.

Raillard said there’s a commitment by Polar Knowledge Canada “to really want to give back” to the community.

Next door to the main science building at CHARS is the even-larger maintenance building, full of vehicles, but Nunatsiaq News was not able to look inside this building.

Apart from the oversized-look and specifications of the science building’s super-sized labs—about which Nunatsiaq News requested information from the architect Alain Fournier, but did not get—you’re left wondering what’s going on or will take place at CHARS.

One thing is certain: there is lot of taxpayers’ money sitting now in CHARS.

Announced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2012, CHARS cost $142.4 million to build, $46.2 million to ramp up, and now costs about $7.1 million a year to operate, rolled into Polar Knowledge’s budget of about $29 million.

But since Ottawa’s turnover to the Liberals, CHARS appears to have fallen into sleep mode, although it’s so far from the south (3,000 km northwest of Ottawa), that few are reminded of this.

Security analyst Rob Huebert from the University of Calgary’s Centre for Military and Strategic Studies attributes this to a pattern of government inaction in the Arctic.

In December 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said a new Arctic Policy Framework would be co-developed in collaboration with Indigenous, territorial and provincial partners but there have been no round tables since last March and no new policy.

“What has Trudeau done? I don’t see anything being delivered,” Huebert said.

Meanwhile, most of Polar Knowledge’s staff still live in Ottawa, with fewer than 20 actually living in Cambridge Bay, of the 50 to 60 who were supposed to be in place by 2018-19.

David Scott, the president and CEO of Polar Knowledge, was supposed to be based out of Cambridge Bay, according to the posting for his job that boasts an salary of up to $173,000, without benefits. The position is a governor-in-council appointment.

A spokesperson for Polar Knowledge said Scott “currently divides his time between Ottawa, the CHARS campus in Cambridge Bay, and other locations, based on operational needs.”

Earlier this year, the National Observer and the Toronto Star reported allegations against Scott involving his conduct toward Raillard, which were investigated at the request of the then-Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.

In September 2016, Scott told Nunatsiaq News that he couldn’t comment on whether Raillard, who had left Cambridge Bay, planned to return.

Raillard did return, but is still waiting for CHARS to wake up.

Delays in moving to an official opening for CHARS earlier included a major administrative and legal complication. One Polar Knowledge employee said they didn’t know what the problem was now; another suggested it was “something with the pressure system” for the big complex.

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