Nunavut to sell thousands of inuksuit at 2010 Vancouver Olympic games

GN carves out an Olympian soapstone deal


Nunavut's carvers have a new market to hawk their wares, after the Vancouver 2010 Olympics agreed last week to license thousands of soapstone inuksuit as official souvenirs.

The deal, between the Vancouver Olympics Committee and the Nunavut Development Corp., was hailed by MLAs as a publicity coup for Inuit.

For two and a half years there's been interest in finding an Olympics tie-in for Nunavut, ever since the Olympics committee unveiled its logo – an enormous, multi-coloured inuksuk that some Inuit say bears a closer resemblance to Pac Man than a traditional trail marker.

Anywhere between 6,000 to 40,000 inuksuit are hoped to be sold over the next two years, said Brian Zawadski of the NDC. As many as 1,200 carvers from at least 14 communities are expected to be involved.

Zawadski expects to begin purchasing inuksuit by May. Carvers interested in cashing in should approach the operators of NDC-owned businesses, which exist in five of Nunavut's communities, or their community's economic development officer.

While the size and cost of the carvings has not yet been finalized, there are currently plans to sell inuksuit in two sizes.

Small ones, between three and four inches tall, would be marked for sale at about $75. Big ones, between seven and eight inches tall, would be marked at about $150.

Those are suggested retail prices. Stores and stands selling Olympics memorabilia would likely mark up these prices further.

Carvers would receive about 25 per cent of the suggested prices, Zawadski said. That means a carver would receive slightly less than $20 for a small inuksuk, and a bit more than $30 for a big one.

The humble inuksuk occupies the lower rungs of modern Inuit art. Once a trail marker, they're now a trinket for tourists, often roughly hewn from soapstone chunks.

In Iqaluit, it's hard to eat a meal in any restaurant or bar without being offered one for sale. The town is awash with them.

Zawadski said the NDC's buyers would only purchase the "higher end" of available carvings. Unique designs are encouraged, although he said, laughing, "we don't want a three-headed one, or a six-legged one."

Some have worried the Olympics contract will lead to assembly-line production of inuksuit. But Zawadski says he's ready for this, and that anyone who shows up with a bag of identical carvings would likely be rejected.

"We don't want any mass production," Zawadski said.

He admits it's anyone's guess how popular the inuksuit will be among Olympics-goers. "It's never been done before," he said.

But he hopes the carvings may turn thousands of Olympic spectators into fledgling Inuit art collectors.

If this does happen, the NDC may face another challenge: a shortage of soapstone, which is in low supply.

Premier Paul Okalik flew to Vancouver to sign the deal Wednesday last week. Upon his return he faced flak from Hunter Tootoo, MLA for Iqaluit Centre, who asked whether it was necessary to spend $43,000 on the charter flight.

Okalik responded that he needed to return from the signing ceremony to Iqaluit quickly because the legislature is in session.

Levi Barnabas, MLA for Quttiktuq, was also on board the flight. He responded in defense by saying, improbably, that the deal is "the biggest arrangement ever signed that will help stimulate the economy and help Nunavummiut in every community in Nunavut."

"The 2010 Olympics will be the greatest marketing opportunity that Inuit have ever and had."

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