“It’s like winning the lottery”
Mining windfall sparks spending spree in two Nunavik towns
The Northern store in Salluit tries to offer its customers just about every anything they could possibly want: fresh produce, flat screen televisions, gleaming new kitchen appliances, or all-terrain vehicles, freighter canoes and outboard motors.
But for most of the summer, the store's shelves were almost bare.
That's because a profit-sharing bonanza has seen millions of dollars flow from Xstrata's Raglan mine into the pockets of Salluit and Kangiqsujuaq residents – then flow right back out again.
The Raglan Agreement, the Inuit impact and benefits deal for the nickel mine, gave $23 million to the two communities closest to the mine, out of a total of $32.5 million handed over to Makivik Corp. last April.
After Salluit's $14 million share was divvied up among its 1,100 beneficiaries, each adult got $15,000 and every child received $3,500. Many families ended up with more than $50,000.
"It's like winning the lottery," one man told Nunatsiaq News.
Big ticket items and many foodstuffs vanished from the store, because starting in late June, Salluit residents, flush with hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, went on a buying binge. When the shelves were restocked, they shopped again.
The money allowed people to buy boats, pick-up trucks, snowmobiles, computers, lumber to build camps, and vacations to Montreal, Quebec City, Niagara Falls and Marineland – in short, to do and buy "anything and everything they've always wanted to do," said Putulik Papigatuk of Salluit.
Some put part of their money away into registered pension or education plans. Others opened accounts at the local Nunavik Financial Services credit union.
Many tithed 10 per cent of their windfall to help support their churches. Social housing tenants who owed back rent paid off their arrears, with more than $400,000 returned to the Kativik Municipal Housing Bureau from Kangiqsujuaq and Salluit.
"This share of profits from the mine has done more positive than negative to the people of Salluit," Papigatuk said.
Big line-ups at the Salluit airport counter were normal throughout July and into August, as many decided to spend part of their money on holiday trips, showing up with no reservations and thick rolls of cash to pay for tickets to Montreal.
Many waited days to get out, and, at one point, there was a standby list of about 50 passengers eager to return from Montreal.
While many left the community, construction on Salluit's new co-op store and the renovation of 10 social housing duplexes failed to attract local workers. The 14-bed Sapummiviq Rehabilitation Centre for young offenders, where no one was left to answer the telephone, is said to be closing down due to a shortage of staff.
The Northern store also faced a shortage of staff – a challenge shared by the local co-op store, which shut down sometimes when no one showed up to work.
"So many people got so much money that it's hard to find people to work. That's part of the reason our shelves are so bare, too. We can't keep up with staffing," said Brian Lunn, the manager of Salluit's Northern store.
The staffing crisis may end in the autumn when the new owners of the 40 pick-ups and SUVs due to arrive on this year's sealift in Salluit have to put gas in their tanks.
The arrival of these vehicles also has some people in town concerned about more collisions between powerful vehicles on streets where there are few traffic signs and speed limit postings.
Drunk drivers already proved to be a hazard this summer. Some people riding brand-new ATVs smashed into obstacles like fences and occasionally slammed into each other.
Two medevacs took injured patients out to hospital in a single 24-hour period last week.
People in Salluit may normally bring in $75 worth of alcohol a month each, just about enough to buy four mickeys of spirits and a 12-pack of beer.
But many who went to Montreal sent back extra shipments of booze-filled boxes via air cargo for personal use or resale, pumping the consumption of alcohol in the community.
A bootlegged mickey went for up to $500 on the street this summer, depending on the amount of alcohol available for sale. But there was usually more than enough booze to go around, with drunks even staggering around inside stores.
The police station's three cells crammed in 17 detainees on one particularly busy night. Police admit they were "busier than usual" all summer, starting about a week after the first profit-sharing cheques arrived.
A Montreal pusher was reportedly selling crack cocaine in town, a development one man found "scary, scary, scary."
Other drug users stuck to marijuana, easy to find because there are "so many dealers in town that every second house is a dealer," according to a local resident.
Despite the influx of drugs, the Kativik Regional Police Force's acting police chief Jobie Epoo said to his knowledge that no significant drug seizures had been carried out in Salluit over the summer.
In Kangiqsujuaq, beneficiaries, about 520 in all, received cheques for $4,700, with $4,000 from Xstrata and $700 from the profit-sharing pot split between all of Nunavik.
Many people in this community also went straight to the store.
"It was nuts," said John Wilkinson, manager of the Northern store in Kangiqsujuaq.
Remembering the previous year when the checkout line snaked around the entire store and they stayed open until midnight, Wilkinson lined ATVs up outside.
All nine were sold, along with three dirt bikes and two pint-sized kids' dirt bikes.
The co-op store was just as busy.
"When the money arrived there were no more ATVs, there were no more bikes, there was no everything," said Aipili Qumaaluk of the Nunavik Financial Services branch at the co-op store.
The credit union typically has a daily deposit limit of $5,000. The week the profit-sharing cheques were handed out they upped it to $50,000.
Qumaaluk and his wife combined their money and bought a new ATV, which they ordered from down south. Others went to Montreal, returning with clothing, computers and flat screen televisions.
"Some came back with a nice little bottle of something," said Qumaaluk.
Three of his five sons purchased new vehicles, some second-hand.
Sixteen more vehicles are expected on the next ship, due in sometime this month, said Lucassie Pilurtuut, president of Kangiqsujuaq's Nunaturlik Landholding Corp..
Also aboard will be several brand new freighter canoes, which cost about $7,000, and engines, an additional $7,000.
The landholding group received $11 million, which has gone for various projects: $200,000 went towards the completion of a new elders residence, $300,000 for a community pool and a small amount went to complete a new hotel, which cost $1.7 million and boasts a $400-a-night suite.
Asked if he's worried that the profit-sharing windfall would lead to laziness or misuse, Pilurtuut said that depends on who receives it.
"If you're responsible enough to spend it wisely, the money can be helpful," said Pilurtuut. "But we shouldn't depend on it. You never know when the mine's going to close down or the price of nickel will drop."
At a meeting last spring, Salluit beneficiaries decided not to spend their $14 million of annual profit sharing from Xstrata on infrastructure, like a fire engine or helicopter, in favour of cash payouts.
However, they may face hard financial times when tax time rolls around next spring, unless similar cash payouts are made.
The payouts, which are taxable, will also cause payments to those on welfare to be cut off if they can't prove they invested money on items like furniture or a vehicle.
With files from Justin Nobel in Kangiqsujuaq