POV co-op destroyed by flash fire

Second major blaze this year causes millions in damage

By JANE GEORGE

The mainstay of economic life in Puvirnituq and a symbol of Nunavik’s co-operative movement went up in flames last week.

“Terrible” was how mayor Paulusi Angyiou described the situation in his community after fire destroyed Puvirnituq’s co-op store and warehouse last Wednesday.

“It happened so fast,” Angyiou said. “We got there in minutes, but it was too late.”

A store employee on his morning coffee break first sounded the alarm that there was fire on the porch between the store and a warehouse.

The fire grew quickly, likely fed by stored items such as naphtha, used as camp fuel, and other flammable materials.

No one was hurt, but two buildings, fresh and frozen produce, merchandise, carvings and equipment — worth at least $2.5 million — were destroyed in the blaze.

Co-op employee Winnie Ittukallak barely had time to run out of the store after the fire was spotted.

“Everyone went out shouting there was a fire,” she said.

Stunned employees stood outside, watching the store become consumed in dark black smoke and flames in what seemed to be only minutes.

Bicycles and mattresses were among the few objects saved — “just to save something.”

Puvirnituq’s co-op store, which last year topped $8 million in revenue, was the oldest and largest co-operatively owned store in Nunavik.

The co-op movement took root in Puvirnituq, then known as Povungnituk or POV, during the 1960s. The first soapstone sculptors’ association, founded in 1959, quickly grew into a thriving, community-owned retail business.

It became the cornerstone of Nunavik’s co-operative network — la Fédération des coopératives du Nouveau-Québec [FCNQ] — which would eventually dwarf the Hudson Bay Company in the region.

Puvirnituq’s co-op movement also provided a base for the community’s fierce and long-term opposition to the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.

Many Puvirnitumiut viewed their large co-op store, staffed entirely by local employees, as a symbol of their community’s determination and independence.

“We are still independent, and we are going to end up stronger than ever,” Angyiou vowed.

The day after the fire, a temporary store was already open in the co-op garage across from the still-smoldering ruins.

Winnie Ittukallak and the store’s other 12 employees were back working at a temporary office in the co-op run post office.

Ittukallak’s husband, Peter, who is president of Puvirnituq’s co-op association, said everyone was “doing fine,” despite the shock of the fire.

Co-op directors, co-op staff, volunteers from the community and workers from the FCNQ began converting a nearby warehouse into a larger short-term store.

Meanwhile, Air Inuit slashed its cargo rates to assist in the recovery effort, while other co-ops in Nunavik offered to charter snowmobiles to transport dangerous goods that can’t be sent by air and other supplies urgently needed at this time of year.

The date for the first sealift into Puvirnituq has also been advanced — and the transport ship will make its first stop along the Hudson Bay coast in the community.

A new shopping mall, co-op store and warehouse should be completed toward the end of this year.

According to the Kativik Regional Police Force, the fire was accidental. But insurance investigators have been on-site in Puvirnituq looking for clues to the fire’s origin.

Some observers speculate the fire was electrical in origin or say a lit cigarette thrown in the wrong place started the fire.

This is the second major fire to strike Puvirnituq within two months. In mid-February, a fire leveled the community’s municipal garage, destroying many of its essential vehicles.

Angyiou said Puvirnituq’s 12 volunteer firefighters once again did their best to put out the fire.

“We do not have enough fire equipment. We know that now. Our truck is very old — it still looks new, but it’s not big enough,” Angyiou said.

Angyiou, who was re-elected mayor last November after a 10-year break from municipal life, said he’s up to the challenge of rebuilding in his community.

“I can’t let this slow me down, ” Angyiou said. “Somebody has to do it.”

He asked the residents of Puvirnituq for their understanding.

“We’re going to have a new store, but we will make do with what we have,” Angyiou said. “Be patient.”

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