The Inuk who will build Nunavut
Tagak Curley is no stranger to boardrooms, negotiating tables and backrooms.
One of the Keewatin’s wiliest politicians, over the past 20 years Curley has survived political triumphs, disappointing losses, and personal upheavals.
Curley was a founding president of the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, a chief negotiator of the Nunavut land claims agreement, a former economic development minister with the GNWT, the past president of the Nunasi Corporation, and a former Liberal Party candidate.
Along the way, he picked up a few political and personal skills he’ll need if he’s to survive in his new job as the president of the Nunavut Construction Corporation.
A hunter at heart
“I’m really just a hunter,” Curley says with a laugh in the sparsely-decorated makeshift NCC offices in Iqaluit.
One of Curley’s first tasks will be to wade through a pile of newly-arrived resumes and pick the people who will help him build the corporation that will manage between $100-120 million worth of construction projects over the next four years.
It’s a safe bet that some of the people filling those jobs will be Inuit.
“I’m an Inuk. I believe in having Inuit employed. I believe in promoting Inuit to jobs. Why not?” Curley said, adding that Inuit must benefit from the millions being spent to prepare for Nunavut.
Curley says NCC wants to have 50 per cent Inuit employed for the 1997 construction season, and by 1999 their labour force should increase to 85 per cent Inuit. That’s a level that reflects the makeup of the population in Nunavut.
Helped win contract
As Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.’s manager of business development, it was Curley who helped orchestrate the deal with Ottawa that will ensure that a coalition of Inuit birthright development corporations will build, manage and own the houses, buildings and office space needed for Nunavut’s government.
Convincing Ottawa to go it alone with Inuit-owned birthright corporations was no small feat.
The territorial government was crying from the hilltops insisting it should be they that build and manage the infrastructure.
Inuit saw that coup as a major victory, because for years they argued the GNWT didn’t implement and respect the provisions of Article 24 of the Nunavut land claims agreement.
Article 24 is the clause that is supposed to provide preferential treatment to Inuit-owned firms bidding on government contracts in Nunavut.
NCC won’t apply Article 24
Ironically, Article 24 won’t apply to the sub-contracts that NCC will soon be putting out for tender.
Ottawa has insisted that the contracts be let publicly which means Inuit-owned companies won’t get any preferential treatment.
The subcontracts will be advertised in Nunavut, the bids will be opened publicly, and the lowest valid bid will win, an NCC official explained.
But bidders will have to abide by the terms and conditions set up by the general contractor NCC.
Those conditions will include requirements for Inuit hire and the need to use and train Inuit on the construction projects.
Ottawa has agreed to spend millions of dollars over four years on those training programs. Curley says the trainees will likely be hired by NCC and will be sent to work on various infrastructure projects.
Work spread out
The construction work in the communities is also being staggered over several years so that local people can continue their training during several construction seasons.
But as the ink dries on freshly-signed multi-million contracts with Ottawa, NCC is already facing challenges from inside and outside the soon-to-be mega-corporation.
Curley dismisses the rumours of problems and dissension from some of the NCC partners.
He says there are some problems in the Baffin region, but the other NCC partners are cooperating. If any one partner pulled out, he said the corporation would continue.
Curley’s approach to Inuit economic development hasn’t won him unanimous support among Inuit.
Small companies complain
Some small Inuit-owned companies say they fear being squeezed out by the new mega-sized Inuit corporations.
People like Pond Inlet businessman Simon Merkosak and others have publicly challenged the ideology of the birthright corporations and others have complained about the secrecy in which they seem to operate.
Merkosak argues that if the big corporations take all the lucrative contracts, smaller construction companies fighting desperately to stay alive and prosper in Nunavut’s smaller communities could go under.
It’s an argument that the birthright corporations haven’t been able to dismiss outright.
But Curley says it’s too late to unravel what’s already been done, and the corporation has to forge ahead with its work.
“We are beyond that now. I don’t have time for that. That’s for Tunngavik and the cabinet to worry about,” Curley said.
In theory, all Inuit beneficiaries in Nunavut own a chunk of NCC. The ownership is split four ways between the Nunasi Corporation, the Kitikmeot Corporation, Sakku Investments Corporation and the Qikiqtaaluk Corporation.
Promised Inuit jobs
But some beneficiaries have asked how the average Inuk benefits if a giant corporation they belong to gets wealthier.
For Curley, building the infrastructure means Inuit will get jobs, training, and experience.
All Inuit beneficiaries also collectively own the buildings and will continue to make money from them over the years by leasing them back to the Nunavut government.