Our Home: Building people, building homes

Part 3: Under HAP, ‘they built the damn stuff and they were proud,’ ecologist says

Elders David and Susan Nuluk sit with their great-granddaughter Cassidy Katokra (left) and granddaughter Clara-jo Kringayark, one evening last fall in Naujaat. (Photo by David Venn)

By David Venn
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

‘Our Home’ is a four-part series examining the old Government of the Northwest Territories Homeownership Assistance Program and the economic and social benefits of Nunavummiut building their own houses. Read more:

Part 1: When northern hands build northern homes
Part 2: The high cost, low return of public housing

Returning from an afternoon on the land in Naujaat’s early fall, elder David Nuluk sits at his kitchen table in a government-owned house with his wife, elder Susan Nuluk, and two boxes of Pilot crackers. He built this house and several others as a young man decades earlier with nine other Inuit, and maintains they are among the best built in the community.

Nuluk can recall the site details as if he had spent the previous summer building. The floors had no insulation, which would have helped, but they could stay warm throughout the winter because of the way they were pieced together “like puzzles.” Houses were built in one season before the snow or rain came and, he says, mould only grew if water spilled during truck delivery.

He and his fellow workers built the “Inuk way,” as he calls it, which is preventive, quick and with care.

The Nuluks live in this house — one of the several that David Nuluk built in the 1970s for public housing. (Photo by David Venn)

The world he lived in had changed rapidly from his early years, before he settled in Naujaat. He had been used to travelling by dogteam, spending his summers in sod houses, winters in igloos — one of which he was born in, proudly exclaiming today, “I’m an Inuk! I was born in an igloo. Born in an Igloo is my stripe to be Inuk.” He went from having a canoe to a 225-horsepower motorboat, to sleeping in cabins and riding snowmobiles.

“Back in 1968, they first started building houses here in Naujaat. That’s when I learned how to build iglo—” he corrects himself, “the houses.”

Contractors had chosen Nuluk to work when he was just 16 because of his ability to speak English. Ten years later, he became the first mayor of Naujaat and worked under contractor Peter Katokra to build five houses near the Northern, with hopes of buying a snowmobile for hunting.

He says he was so poor when he got married that he and Susan, his wife of 50-plus years, couldn’t afford a ring.

In 2020, the Government of Nunavut’s Department of Family Services found there were 1,200 workers from the south — carpenters, cooks, heavy machine operators — who travelled to Nunavut to work on 50 construction projects spread over 24 communities that cost a combined $600 million. These were jobs Nunavummiut could have done, the department stated.

Among the reasons the jobs weren’t filled by Nunavummiut is that there’s no training offered in Inuktitut, no one is qualified to teach in smaller communities, and southern contractors do not try to bridge the cultural divide, tending to believe Inuit who aren’t certified in the trades can’t work on a jobsite, the department found.

David Nuluk recalls the days when many Inuit were building homes, inside a home he built and now lives in. (Photo by David Venn)

Nuluk built a livelihood around building homes. And some see the Homeownership Assistance Program — where people built their own homes with government-provided materials — as having that same effect. The initiative has been noted to promote individual pride, grow local economies and increase construction skills for potential employment outside of the program.

William Rees found most of this to be true in his March 1990 research report, co-authored with David Hulchanski, on HAP in Fort Good Hope, N.W.T. He concluded the program was “widely perceived to have improved not only the quantity and quality of local housing, but also to have contributed to community pride, independence and self-esteem.”

In the 1980s, Fort Good Hope, a predominantly Dene-populated community on the Mackenzie River near the Arctic Circle with about 590 residents at the time, faced housing issues similar to what many Nunavut communities deal with today.

It had houses that were designed poorly, facing north with a lack of insulation that led to water tanks freezing and falling through floors, and with other issues surrounding permafrost, according to Rees’ report. There had been overcrowding, a vacancy rate near zero per cent, and a lengthy waitlist for government housing. Many units were in poor shape and rents were high.

Most hamlets had HAP units allocated to them by the territorial housing corporation. However, leaders in Fort Good Hope were displeased with the way a previous housing program had been operated and wanted to receive money so that decisions could be made locally rather than in Yellowknife.

After several years of the program, 32 per cent of Fort Good Hope’s housing stock was a HAP or Small Settlement Home Assistance Grant house, freeing up public housing units. (SSHAG was HAP’s predecessor and some statistics lump them together.)

In his own words 33 years later, HAP “was an opportunity for people to seize control of their lives a little bit.

“They hung their hat on the pride that they took in this self-motivation, the fact that they themselves made the decisions,” Rees says. “They built the damn stuff and they were proud.”

Robert Hickes, a Rankin Inlet elder who built his own HAP house, says he felt a sense of accomplishment from finishing the home. Helen Iguptak, another Rankin Inlet elder, says her husband, elder Jackie Iguptak, and others were proud of the work completed.

“They would be proud to have finished the whole house when the men built it. They would feel better about themselves because they built the house,” Iguptak says.

John McLeod stands at the front of a Nunavut Arctic College Sanatuliqsarvik trades school classroom, writing fractions and their corresponding whole number on a whiteboard. (Photo by David Venn)

“GOOD WEEKEND? BAD WEEKEND?” asks carpentry instructor John McLeod to an open classroom at Nunavut Arctic College’s Sanatuliqsarvik trades school. He gets little reply, except for a mumble on a quiet and snowy morning in Rankin Inlet.

If not for a certified roofer’s delayed arrival in Rankin Inlet, the students might already have been at a job site building a practice house and gaining experience to join Nunavut’s construction industry.

But the roofer has not arrived, and so McLeod has his 14 students converting fractions. “Math here, same as everywhere, nobody can do math.” He places a piece of wood with marked measurements on his desk and asks his students to write the fraction and its corresponding whole number.

Students Kululaa Kolola, left, and Douglas Nanordluk write down fractions on a Monday morning at the Sanatuliqsarvik trades school. (Photo by David Venn)

… It’s gotta be an even number …

… Divide by 12 …

McLeod describes this program, which gives Nunavummiut hands-on experience and a toolkit, as a “pathway to apprenticeship.” The lack of worksite experience is why contractors don’t employ many Inuit, McLeod says, and even if they do get hired companies often don’t train them. This leaves many Inuit to work as labourers.

Sanatuliqsarvik is near capacity, but this isn’t the only way to train Inuit for potential employment.

“HAP houses, man,” says McLeod, who lived in Nunavut throughout the 1980s and ’90s and has 40 years of homebuilding experience. “They should go back to some kind of program like that. It gets people out of [public] housing, it gets people skills, they can use those skills while they build a house to go find work.”

McLeod, who owned a HAP house himself, says they are better quality than many other homes in communities. “So you gotta ask yourself, why is that?”

Aspiring tradespeople used to be able to apprentice with the government for four years until they were a certified journeyperson, McLeod says, but those days have ended alongside the emerging privatization of constructing social housing.

“Things have to change,” he says. Then, clapping between each word for emphasis, he adds, “They have to start training people.”

That’s why he looks at HAP as beneficial for Inuit who get trained and companies that get to fulfill local hiring obligations.

Engineering firm Ferguson Simek Clark, which evaluated HAP in 1987, stated the program presented a number of skill-building opportunities, not only in construction but also in administration, supervision, design, inspection and teaching.

If HAP were to operate again, the government should formalize training by having supervisors document clients’ work on HAP houses, the firm found.

There were employment opportunities that came with operating the program, such as shipping jobs, and local businesses were noted to have made a profit when many HAP units were built in a community. In 1986, each HAP client would spend on average $11,000 to cover costs like tools and some materials which, if spent in the community, could help the local economy.

Rees speaks wonders of the program’s effects in Fort Good Hope: people who gain administrative and construction skills through HAP have a chance to find employment outside the program; fewer residents would leave the community on account of it offering little opportunity; and people take better care of property if they built it (“I mean, if you spend lots of sweat equity on the construction of your house, you’re far less likely to burn it down the following winter”).

  • NWT Fort Good Hope - Aug 1988 - Hulchanski -016(1)
    Three red houses (rental units) and a blue house (privately owned but since destroyed), sit in front of a brown third- or fourth-year HAP house near Fort Good Hope’s Chief T'Selehye School in 1988. (Photo courtesy of David Hulchanski)

A few of the benefits Rees points out are particular to the case of Fort Good Hope, which was one of if not the only community in the Northwest Territories to have control over funding. In fact, some N.W.T. staff had said no communities above the treeline — the Qikiqtaaluk region, specifically — could work co-operatively to accomplish HAP’s goals in the 1980s, even though several had expressed the desire to.

NWT Housing Corp. staff were reluctant to believe some of the program’s ancillary benefits, saying it couldn’t sustain local businesses, and most materials were bought outside communities, according to Rees’ report. The staff also said some economic benefits in Fort Good Hope could have been due to local labourers getting paid to build HAP houses with external funding — a circumstance not available in every community.

Ecologist Bill Rees was in Fort Good Hope at a time when the community had taken over funding from the NWT Housing Corp. to run the Homeownership Assistance Program by itself. He says the results were staggeringly positive. (Screenshot via Zoom)

And although HAP presents itself as a good opportunity to increase skills in the trades, evaluators of the program in 1987 found many clients didn’t care about training and looked at building their house as a one-off event.

Rees reported that a manager at the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., which helped pay for the initiative, thought HAP was much too generous, saying of the program, figuratively: “It knocks me out.”

HAP being a handout may be true, but it’s less a handout than the government hiring people from the south to come and build housing for communities, Rees says.

He’s always looked at the housing crisis in the North as a result of colonization and multiple levels of government failing to provide support for Indigenous people.

HAP, at least in Fort Good Hope, redistributed power to the communities the program meant to serve, and built up people through housing.

“If you’ve got a nanny state, you know, doing everything but wipe your nose, what good are ya?” he says. “HAP got away from that. HAP gave them that opportunity. Even though it’s a handout, it’s a hell of a lot better handout than if government was doing the whole job from the top down.”

Part 4: HAP’s end, and prospects for a new legacy

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(3) Comments:

  1. Posted by Taima on

    Hey! GN Cabinet. Are you listening?
    HAP offers a way out of Nunavut’s housing crisis.
    Nunavut 3000, if it is 100% successful, will leave Nunavut worse off than it is today.

    • Posted by crock on

      Anyone in their right mind that thinks Nunavut 3000 by 2030 is possible is out of their mind lol. That was a political announcement with no grounds to back it up. Why are people still getting excited when they talk about it.
      Take Rankin Inlet for example: They say that they allocated 289 units to Rankin. That means starting this year they need to build 42 new houses/units…Do you see any plans for that many this year? No the water/sewer infrastructure isn’t even in place. Wake up people – tell your kids to move south or you’ll end up in a 15 person, 3 bedroom social housing unit.

  2. Posted by Sam on

    Best program ever, but the civil servants killed the program, quote why should they get free houses, these houses are the best built, Inuit have remarkable hands on skills, and these houses are standing the test of time, SHAME

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