Former camp comic controls destiny of hundreds of units to be constructed in Nunavut

Ex-clown juggles shipping logistics

By JOHN THOMPSON

Nunavut's sealift shipment of housing supplies, after being bungled last autumn, has been entrusted to a blue-haired clown in charge of an abandoned chocolate factory.

Strange, but true.

Brian Cox, who has since hung up the clown wig, is the CEO of Illamar Marshalling Inc., the company that won the contract, worth $2 million over two years, to pack and crate material to build hundreds of housing units in Nunavut.

Illamar is based out of the old Nestlé plant in Chesterville, southeast of Ottawa.

Today, Feb. 8, the plant that once produced chocolate drinks, coffee and other confections will officially re-open as the staging ground for shipments of material for the Nunavut Housing Corp.

It's a big deal for Chesterville, a little town that lost about 300 jobs when the plant closed several years ago. The town mayor, the member of parliament and local members of the Ontario provincial legislature are all expected to attend.

The opening also holds promise for Nunavut, if it means the shipment of housing supplies goes smoother than last autumn, when the last boats bound for Nunavut left port outside Montreal with much housing materials left in the dockyard.

The screw-up put the Nunavut Housing Corp. six months behind schedule in its plans to build several hundred social housing units across the territory, and could cost as much as $2 million, said Peter Scott, president of the housing corporation.

Some supplies were airlifted to Nunavut communities, while others were driven to Hay River and brought in by barge.

More is on the way, so that construction can resume as early as April. "The units on the ground now, we need to get finished before the next sealift," Scott said.

Enter the clown.

Prior to getting into the marshalling business, Cox ran a children's camp, called Upper Canada Campground, where he wore the blue wig and make-up while amusing kids. He says that's where he learned the skills needed to run a marshalling business: each day had a new theme, and required material packed months in advance.

"The methodology is extremely similar," he said.

Maybe. But packing everything required to build several hundred homes, from the lumber and nails to the heating systems and windows, is a project of an entirely different scale than organizing kids' boat races, Halloween parties and mud-wrestling contests.

It's a lot of stuff. Everything needed to build about 220 housing units weighs 7,200 metric tons, and takes up 25,000 cubic feet. Packing it requires a lot of space, which, thankfully, the massive Nestlé plant has. It's about 400,000 square feet, and Illamar is using about one-third of the facility.

Cox says his staff includes experienced electricians, roofers and other tradesmen, and that their experience in the construction industry will help them sort, pack and deliver the housing materials on time.

The plant also has a rail line and docks nearby, making it well-located to receive supplies. The packed goods will be trucked to docks near Montreal.

Last Friday, Cox was busy managing about 30 employees as they packed a warehouse full of insulation into crates.

When fully up and running, Illamar is expected to employ between 70 to 90 people. Cox expects business to pick up in about two weeks, when more supplies arrive, "and then all hell is going to break loose."

Cox says he plans to employ four Inuit. He's been in contact with the Tungasuvvingat Inuit organization in Ottawa, and has a housing unit set aside for several Inuit trainees at the company.

Contrary to some reports, Scott said the sealift fiasco never meant entire housing units being left behind. But it did mean nearly all the units to be built that year were missing parts, such as heaters, boilers and air ventilation systems.

Scott estimates "less than 10 per cent" of last year's sealift material remains in the South.

As well, Scott said some materials ended up in the wrong communities. He's still trying to decide if these materials should be shipped out to the right place this summer, or simply left in place until they're needed for newer projects.

Last year's sealift of housing materials was the biggest and most complicated shipping project that Nunavut has ever handled.

That's because 2007 was the first big construction year for social housing units built using a $200 million contribution that the federal government announced in 2006.

That $200 million fund is expected to pay for at least 725 new social housing units in Nunavut.

The housing corporation tried to save money by purchasing building materials itself, rather than passing this job on to a contractor, as it did in the past.

Those materials were then supposed to be packed and delivered to the docks by a marshalling company. But the chain broke down, and many supplies never made last year's sealift.

Scott said the ensuing fiasco effectively wiped out the millions of dollars the housing corporation hoped to save.

Last year's marshalling contract was handled by Aaruja Development Corp. of Clyde River, which partnered with a marshalling company in Montreal to make the winning bid.

Scott said the housing corporation has refused to pay the remainder of what it owes on the contract, and is currently in mediation with the company to settle the dispute.

A shortage of skilled labour in Nunavut also slowed construction in some communities, Scott said. Social housing construction in the Baffin was delayed because the installation of pilings was done late, while in the Kivalliq, work on gravel pads was late.

The housing corporation has adjusted its schedule, which called for a big spike in building for 2008, of around 325 units. Those plans have been scaled down to about 220 units this year.

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