Clara Evalik looks onward in Iqaluit’s Aqsarniit hotel during a housing summit. Evalik, a former Homeownership Assistance Program client, says there may not be the skills necessary to run the program again today, but would like to see it return. (Photo by David Venn) David Venn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

At 25 years old, Clara Evalik received materials to build a home in Cambridge Bay. Her six siblings had participated in the Homeownership Assistance Program, too, and she saw it as an opportunity. “It was scary,” she says. “But I always wanted to be independent. And I think all Inuit want to be independent, living in their own communities.”

Evalik’s husband had been working at a Cambridge Bay contracting company and had friends who knew how to plumb and build. She says HAP had been more beneficial for men, but women could access it just the same. Some weren’t as fortunate as her, though, and had to hire carpenters from the south to help.

Evalik, now vice-president of economic development at Kitikmeot Inuit Association, thinks about where she’d be if HAP didn’t exist — “probably still trying to own a home,” she says, more than three decades later.

“I think one of the biggest issues that we’ve faced is that we don’t have enough qualified builders in the communities,” she says. “So we need to invest. We need to invest in the communities.”

There were 1,071 HAP houses built before the NWT Housing Corp. shut down the initiative in the 1991-1992 fiscal year. The government spent $75 million over about a decade, with each house costing about $70,000, or roughly $130,000 adjusted for inflation in 2022, according to 2021 government documents.

“Clearly, this program seemed to have achieved a lot in a short time, in the most cost-effective way,” the documents read. “Many residents today reminisce about this program and how helpful it was for them. The home ownership brought pride and care among the occupants of the units.”

It ended, largely, because there weren’t enough applicants with the skills to build their own houses, “even with additional supervisory and skilled labour assistance, successful completion became a huge challenge,” the report noted.

Thirty years after its end, Nunavut Housing Corp. is working on what a contemporary suite of home ownership programs, including HAP, might look like as part of Nunavut 3000, the government’s pledge to build 3,000 units by 2030, says chief executive officer Eiryn Devereaux.

“We are absolutely excited to think about maybe bringing back a version of the HAP program. Definitely all over that,” he says, adding it’s too early to share details as nothing has been finalized.

However, introducing a program like HAP, which worked three decades ago, may not be so simple.

Some Nunavummiut — especially elders — could not afford repairs and had to either leave their homes or let them degrade; some communities struggle with land availability and municipal service infrastructure; and finally, as the NWT Housing Corp. concluded in 1992, some Inuit may not have the necessary construction skills.

The latter is one issue Clarence Synard, chief executive officer of NCC Investment Group Inc., is working to fix.

Clarence Synard sits in his office at NCC Investment Group Inc. headquarters in Iqaluit. (Photo by David Venn)

Synard fondly remembers one of the first calls he received after earning his Red Seal in carpentry in 2001. A company offered him a job to oversee construction of a fiveplex and sixplex in Kugluktuk. He hung up the phone, shaking, and told himself he wasn’t sure if he could handle a job that big.

“I had looked at my Red Seal and I said, ‘You know what, I really don’t know if I can do this or not but I have a certificate telling me I can, so I better try it,’” says Synard. “So that’s what I’m hoping I can help be a part of in shaping what Inuit throughout the territory [go through].”

NCC recently began offering training programs in the Kitikmeot and Qikiqtaaluk regions. In the summer of 2022, for example, Resolute Bay hosted the High Arctic Training Project, a program NCC says is expected to run until fall 2025.

Under its deal with NHC to build 2,000 of the planned 3,000 units, NCC will offer pre-trades training, including lessons on safety, tools and basic construction. Southern employees now sign a “mentorship agreement” rather than a work contract, so they’re “not just hired to build houses, [they’re] actually hired to build people.”

The company hadn’t held enough training prior to this, and a program of this scope had not been possible in the past because of the precarious nature of contracting, he says. Nunavut 3000, though, provides the longevity needed.

Synard has goals to see NCC’s job sites employ 70 per cent Inuit, rather than its typical 50 per cent. But he says it’s not imperative to retain every Inuk the company trains; any lessons learned in the trades will be beneficial, and if it gives people the skills to build their own homes through HAP then that’s “a win for the territory.”

He also looks at HAP inversely — as a way for Inuit to be worksite-ready without having to go through NCC’s training programs. “It’s just much better every time we can keep that dollar within the territory as opposed to it going south for imported workers,” he says.

Synard says NCC would even be open to working with Nunavut Housing Corp. to develop training specifically for HAP if the corporation wanted. “Housing is to the core of what I think every family, every individual needs. So I think it’s a matter of, how do we develop a program? How do we work with individuals to build up that capacity?”

The percentage of HAP clients who reported having construction skills prior to building their HAP house was 65 per cent in 1984, before decreasing to 58 per cent in 1986, with NWT Housing Corp. staff reportedly being annoyed with the lack of building skills of some clients.

Even several years before the end of the project, HAP evaluator and engineering firm Ferguson Simek Clark said the program had served only 10 per cent of the N.W.T. population that met the monetary requirements, meaning many didn’t fit the skill requirement.

The firm concluded prior to the program ending that residents needed to be trained if HAP were to expand; that at the current rate of decline in skills, the market would be saturated by 1990 at the earliest.

Today, Gabe Kaunak, an elder and former homebuilder who teaches carpentry at Tuugaalik High School in Naujaat, says he believes Inuit have the skills today to build homes. “There are good carpenters,” he says, waiting a beat, “— if you get them to work.”

Naujaat elder Gabe Kaunak shares a smile on a fall evening in Naujaat. He thinks some Inuit have the skills to build their own houses today. (Photo by David Venn)

NAUJAAT ELDER MICHEL KOPAK, 60, had received a HAP package in 1990. Over the years, he says the maintenance of the home had been paramount to the quality of its construction. “I worked for housing association for 40 years. So I know a little bit.”

Beneath dangling retro pop cans strung to his roof (“just for decoration. Why not?”) on a Tuesday afternoon, Kopak says he wishes he could still be working, but he’s sick and it’s preventing him from doing so.

His house now of 32 years has only known one door and one furnace, which he says is at least 15 years past a good furnace run. The home has held up well, better than most, but it needs repairs — furnace, windows, doors, drywall — as the winters are cold and drafty and mould is growing.

“We couldn’t get the parts for it. We’re poor,” he says. “We’re very poor.”

It’s a problem not uncommon among HAP clients when they retire or can no longer work. Some, like Kopak, can’t keep up with the cost of repairs and others, like elder Helen Iguptak in Rankin Inlet, can’t pay utility costs and sell, moving into public housing.

Martha Hickes tells a few stories about HAP owners she knew: one who was an elder living alone in the dark because she couldn’t afford power; another client who never treated the house well, wrecking it.

Hickes took out a mortgage to pay for renovations and repairs and wishes she hadn’t. Now, she and her husband, Robert Hickes, are covered under the Senior Citizens Home Repair Program, through which they received a new furnace.

The program allows up to $15,000 in repairs for elders over the age of 60 who don’t owe NHC money, something Kopak may now be able to access.

Elders Joanna and Michel Kopak look up at decorations hanging from the ceiling of their Naujaat home. (Photo by David Venn)

Separately, some communities in Nunavut lack water infrastructure and available land; they may not have the capacity to handle a program that introduces dozens of new homes in a short time.

Rankin Inlet, for example, couldn’t handle HAP because of its outdated water infrastructure, says Lynn Rudd, hamlet councillor, lands committee member and former small business owner.

Over the past 20 years, the hamlet’s water system hasn’t been upgraded although it’s been “busted so often that they need work from one end to the other,” she says, adding people sometimes see brown residue coming from their spouts.

Hickes, who is also Rankin Inlet’s deputy mayor, says the hamlet is running out of lots, which evaluators of the program noted as a concern in the 1980s.

This map of the Northwest Territories in 1986 shows the different regions of today’s Nunavut. (Screenshot via the NWT Housing Corp.)

Many hamlets had plans to expand roads and municipal services, but few of the plans allowed for an influx of homes. HAP houses, in some communities, began to form their own subdivisions on the outskirts of town. The evaluators wrote that this could be avoided if the housing corporation helped hamlets prepare for incoming houses over the following decade.

Some say that won’t be enough; the federal government needs to fund water system repairs.

There also may be concern over how giving away what is essentially a free home might affect the housing market.

A former Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. manager said, according to a report, that “it’s a mistake to bring this sort of scheme into communities with active housing markets.”

HAP evaluators in 1987 found introducing this program to an active housing market in a larger community — such as Iqaluit — would be disruptive. But this is not likely to affect smaller communities, which typically received more HAP units.

Many clients had no intention of ever selling their house, only doing so if it meant building one that was larger, evaluators found, adding that that would have the positive effect of creating a secondary market. That’s what Clara Evalik did when her family grew, leading her to believe the key to developing a market is by introducing more supply.

Similarly, Devereaux says NHC isn’t concerned about it affecting the housing market in Nunavut because the primary focus is having more supply. “It’s such a unique market. How do you describe a market that’s such a small number of home ownership units?”

Devereaux has been with NHC for about 30 years, first joining as HAP fizzled out in the early 1990s. “I think at some point it kind of just — you know, there’s not an infinite number of families that want to take on the responsibility of building a house themselves.”

Three decades later though the client base has returned, with uncertainty surrounding just how big it is. By spring or summer of this year, NHC will have a better understanding of what program may emulate the old HAP.

“In all honesty, if we introduced a new program similar to HAP where we would say to potential homeowners, ‘We will provide you the material package and a little bit of assistance, you gotta put in the sweat equity…’” Devereaux says, “I really do think that there’s a bunch of people now across Nunavut that would jump on it.”

Lynn Rudd, a Rankin Inlet councillor, lands committee member and former small business owner, stands outside her home. She says even though a program like HAP would be beneficial to Nunavummiut, it would be hard to implement in her community because it lacks infrastructure. (Photo by David Venn)

LYNN RUDD WASN’T ALIVE to watch her elders build homes during the North Rankin Nickel Mine run from 1957 to 1962, but she remembers them talking about it, seeing that the structures are among the sturdiest in the hamlet “because they’re still standing!”

“Elders that have passed on used to say, ‘I helped build those units,’” she says. “And that would come with it: the ownership, the pride that you’ve helped build it and the recognition that people can have and say, ‘People believe in me and I am doing this.’”

It’s a similar feeling that Clara Evalik got decades later through HAP: “It’s an Inuk pride thing.”

They’d both like to see HAP return. And former HAP project co-ordinator Alan Robinson tells tales of some material packages being left out for years, foundations not being laid, or how he’d have to travel to other communities to finish unbuilt houses.

Even with some dysfunction, he supports it.

“This HAP program gave freedom to the people,” he says. “Freedom. Freedom. Freedom.”

By David Venn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Mar 20, 2023 at 05:34

This item reprinted with permission from   Nunatsiaq News   Iqaluit, Nunavut
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