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CHARS steamrolls into Nunavut’s Cambridge Bay

Canadian High Arctic Research Station creates a cascade of new infrastructure


When the sun goes down, the lights on the new

When the sun goes down, the lights on the new “Polar Iconic Structure” outside the Canadian High Arctic Research Station in Cambridge Bay go on. From the front, you can see the maple leaf and from the side the copper pipes look like the northern lights. The installation, designed by Edmonton graphic designer Wei Yew, reportedly cost about $1 million, which attracted attention from people in Cambridge Bay, one of whom rushed to take this photo. (SUMBITTED PHOTO)

The main science building of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station features lights on the outside which are meant to evoke the northern lights. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

The main science building of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station features lights on the outside which are meant to evoke the northern lights. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

If you live in Cambridge Bay, you haven't even seen the inside of the new science building of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station because it's not open to visitors, but a photo posted on Twitter Oct. 29 shows the building's

If you live in Cambridge Bay, you haven’t even seen the inside of the new science building of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station because it’s not open to visitors, but a photo posted on Twitter Oct. 29 shows the building’s “public space,” inspired in shape by the round shape of a ceremonial qaggiq snow house. It features a light, bright space that reaches high up into the building’s tower. The art designs set into recycled flooring is similar in style to that you see that the airport in Kuujjuaq. That’s not a surprise, because the same architect, Alain Fournier, designed the two buildings. (PHOTO/GOV. OF CANADA/TWITTER)

CAMBRIDGE BAY—”A snowball” that gets bigger and bigger as it rolls: that’s how Jim MacEachern describes the growing impact of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station on the western Nunavut town of Cambridge Bay.

Its main castle-like science building is so large, at 52,000 square feet, that you could fit more than 50 of the town’s small public housing units inside it, and so tall that its round turret peeks above roofs around Cambridge Bay where you least expect to see it.

MacEachern arrived in 2008, two years before the federal government selected this community of roughly 1,700 people as the site of its future research centre. The other communities then under consideration were Pond Inlet and Resolute Bay.

MacEachern, hired to help promote the selection of Cambridge Bay for CHARS, came to town on a two-year contract, but he’s still here, now serving as assistant senior administrative officer at the hamlet, where he remains responsible for CHARS liaison.

When you ask MacEachern about CHARS, first announced by then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2007, he has only praise for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada and Polar Knowledge Canada, the Ottawa-based federal agency now responsible for advancing Canada’s knowledge of the Arctic and CHARS.

The growth due to CHARS—$142.4 million to build, $46.2 million to ramp up and then, from 2018-19 onward, $26.5 million a year to operate—has already transformed Cambridge Bay, he said.

With CHARS, “suddenly Cambridge Bay became a priority” for new insfrastructure, such as the $11-million new hamlet office which opened in 2015.

It also led to a new water treatment system, tank farm, airport expansion, and, shortly, will help bring in a new garbage truck, sewage truck and fire truck.

“It’s a snowball [effect],” MacEachern said of CHARS. “The indirect benefits far outweigh the direct ones. It’s not just the 50 jobs. It’s not just the $200-million building. It’s all of the services coming in.”

Benefits include more housing construction, new bed-and-breakfast operations and restaurants, a Northern store expansion, and more tourists.

“All of them would have happened, but everything came all at once because CHARS was coming. It’s all linked,” MacEachern said.

CHARS will also see many new people coming into the community to fill jobs.

“A lot of those are scientific, with a very specific skill set. So we’ve known that a minimum of 30 of those positions would need to come from down south. There are some local hires. So I don’t want them to look like they’re not hiring local Inuit, because they are,” MacEachern said.

In the leadup to CHARS, a community-based committee also looked at how the project could benefit local business development. Its members agreed that there would be three requests for proposals to build the new housing required for CHARS hires.

“The two main goals were a) don’t take up our existing supplies and b) don’t put it out as one single RPF so our local contractors have the possibility to participate,” MacEachern said.

Which is what happened, he said, although a local contractor and hamlet councillor, who also sat on that committee, has complained CHARS opened Cambridge Bay to speculators and has taken control over development out of the hands of local people.

Now that construction is wrapping up, CHARS wants to transition its focus to its scientific activities. The main science building, with its huge qaggiq-inspired, art-decorated public space, is said to be experiencing sprinkler issues, and is still not open to visitors.

The official opening for CHARS, first set for July 1, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in attendance, was delayed first to October, and then to November after the Nunavut election and now perhaps to February, when the Kitikmeot Trade Show brings people into Cambridge Bay.

Meanwhile, there are plans to get the community more involved in the science flowing from CHARS. A recent story on the discovery of a tiny, monster-like crustacean out in the the bay came as a surprise to people in town who had no idea this research had taken place until they read a story in Nunatsiaq News.

That lack of communication is something often mentioned when the topic of CHARS comes up.

At the Kitikmeot Inuit Association and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.’s recent annual general meeting in Cambridge Bay, people criticized CHARS.

Charlie Lyall, the KIA’s vice president for economic development, said CHARS officials should have visited his community of Taloyoak because people there, and in western Nunavut’s other smaller communities, have something to contribute.

“They’ve had eight years to come and talk to us. But they haven’t done that,” he said at the KIA’s meeting.

There’s also local patter about staffing problems and workplace conflicts within Polar Knowledge—the chief scientist hired in 2014 left abruptly and his position has not been filled permanently.

Up to 23 new employees are coming in by the end of the year, but some of those here already are seen as “unfriendly.”

That’s because they “don’t wave,” said one resident, who didn’t want to be named, and who hadn’t heard that the hamlet is planning to produce a video with youth called “Why we wave in Cambridge Bay,” explaining more about the community’s friendly ways.

Another resident, who also did not want to be identified in this story, said he worries CHARS is on its way to being an “us and them thing,” where operational strings will be pulled in faraway Ottawa.

That could create a kind of “disconnect and irrelevance” in CHARS, similar to that found in the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, he suggested.

Another resident reflected that CHARS has already created another layer above the haves and the have-nots in Cambridge Bay with CHARS people who have better housing, benefits and more discretionary income than those with a limited income.

Overall, the lack of communication is fixable, MacEachern said.

Public meetings are planned so scientists can tell people more about their work, while cultural awareness materials will help newcomers embrace their new home.

“This is a very new transition. Now they’re ramping up. There are a lot of new people in the community, and they’re just getting their feet wet,” MacEachern said. “People have to give them a little time to adjust to the new community and figure out what they doing and how they’re going to do it.”

In the meantime, residents continue to be surprised by the changing landscape linked to CHARS.

That includes the recently-installed 5.5-metre, copper-piped “Polar Iconic Structure” in front of CHARS by Edmonton graphic designer Wei Yew, that incorporates a maple leaf—to symbolize Canadian sovereignty over the North—and is intended to conjure up the northern lights. It reportedly cost about $1 million.

Many said they were surprised to see the work, which is lit up during periods of low light, after it was installed last week. They had no idea was it was all about.

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