New mayor vows to strengthen Kuujjuaq

Water emergency, youth problems among early challenges for municipal leader


KUUJJUAQ — When Larry Watt learned that he won last month’s municipal election and was on his way to becoming mayor of Nunavik’s largest community, he was delighted.

“I have the passion to do that job, so it was a celebration for me,” Watt said, smiling and chuckling over his Nov. 2 win.

Before entering the mayor’s race, Watt, 36, had prepared himself for the challenge of running Kuujjuaq.

He arrived at town hall armed with a social sciences degree from Dawson College and a degree in political science from Concordia University.

Watt, a long-time Kativik School Board commissioner, also picked up professional experience from positions at the Kativik Regional Government and Makivik Corp.

Now that he’s mayor of Kuujjuaq, Watt has a clear vision: to maintain a close relationship with his municipal staff, with the rest of the community’s organizations, with Kuujjuaq’s 2,000 residents, and to create a stronger community.

“If we have the proper planning and cooperation, good things can happen,” Watt said in a recent interview. “Kuujjuaq is still a small town in many ways. People have that community spirit. We have to keep the small community spirit in Kuujjuaq. I think that’s the key.”

As mayor, he’s determined to prove Kuujjuaq’s worth as a community.

“We have our elders to consult with and we have a large youth population that we should invest in. I think Kuujjuaq is stronger than we think, although we have social problems,” Watt said.

On his first day in office, Watt had to get to know his staff and supervisors — more than 140 full and part-time employees. As he settled in for his real first day at work, later that week, a crisis hit: the municipal water plant had shut down for repairs. This was the beginning of a busy month.

After only two weeks in office, Watt convened a special meeting with parents, students, social services, youth protection and police because some students had been disturbing teachers at night.

“It might have begun as a fun game, but at the end it was becoming a serious problem.”

This meeting was a step in the right direction, Watt said, because it encouraged his belief that everyone will continue working together to deal with incidents that affect the entire community.

A break-in at the community’s youth centre was among Watt’s other initial tests.

“We took immediate action to deal with the youth who were caught,” he said.

Watt also jumped into special municipal council meetings to progress on urgent business — including the election of a deputy mayor, Sarah Tagoona, choosing a regional councilor, Michael Gordon, and naming appointees to other organizations’ boards.

Watt will also serve on the board of the Isuarsivik Treatment Centre, which closed down abruptly this autumn when the director was dismissed and is now restructuring.

“It’s a facility that’s needed by the community. People need a chance to go that route with the proper services,” Watt said.

Kuujjuaq’s municipal council is only supposed to meet once a month, but Watt said there are additional special meetings called “because we have to do more.” The average meeting runs four and a half hours, as the council approaches each item on the agenda “methodically,” Watt said — without rushing.

Watt also wants to tackle Kuujjuaq’s “substantial” deficit — which some estimate is as least $5 million — and “get to the bottom” of how it developed.

“It’s very rare for a municipality to go into a deficit like that. If there’s a deficit, there must be reasons and a proper recovery plan,” he said.

Ahead, Watt faces some potentially divisive discussions: one municipal councilor was elected on a campaign promise to open a beer store in Kuujjuaq.

“First, I’d have to find out if people really want it. It’s been talked about a lot, but I don’t think the population has been given the chance to talk about it, head-on,” Watt said. “It can be a touchy issue.”

Dog control is another pressing issue. Many residents say it’s gotten out of hand since the body of a man, which had been partially gnawed by dogs, was found two and a half years ago in town.

Since this grisly discovery, Kuujjuamiut have occasionally taken dog control efforts into their own hands, shooting dogs they don’t like or are afraid of — even when they are tied up.

Watt wants to find a better way to control the dog population. His campaign platform included a call to set up a dog pound, but this will have to wait until next summer, he said. Meanwhile, Kuujjuamiut are supposed to tie up their dogs: “Or they will be shot if they pose a danger to the community.”

But Watt emphasized that the decision to shoot a dog is not, and should not be, a “unilateral decision.”

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