Nunavut construction

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Far north provides incredible potential and great challenges for regional construction businesses and newcomers

Canadian Design and Construction Report staff writer

Nunavut is a land of great potential and huge challenges for life, work and play. Opportunities for development and exploration abound.

However, the far north has special challenges.  Costs are much higher and skilled labour shortages add complexity to new projects and initiatives. You need a frontier spirit and willingness to brave isolation, delays and sometimes harsh weather conditions to do business here.

Nunavut is both the least populous and the largest in area of the provinces and territories of Canada. One of the most remote, sparsely settled regions in the world, it has a population of 31,906,mostly Inuit, spread over an area the size of Western Europe, Wikipedia reports. Nunavut is also home to the northernmost permanently inhabited place in the world, the Alert military, and the most remote civilian community and tourist destination, Grise Fiord,on Ellesmere Island.

Gary Collins, vice-president for Nunavut of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut Construction Association, says distance and technology provide real challenges for the association and industry.  Satellite bandwidth is too slow to accommodate video conferencing and trips between even major centres are time consuming and costly. “Most everything we do gets done by phone,” he says. “But even that presents challenges because we’re dealing with three different time zones.”

Association priorities include safety training and encouraging people to work together, Collins said.  “There are a lot of big projects coming our way so one of our big pushes will be getting contractors working with each other, instead of competing against each other, so they have a chance to take part in these jobs. When the boom hits, it’s going to hit so we had better be ready.”

The projects Collins notes are the $142 million Canadian High Arctic Research Station announced in August by Prime Minster Harper and the proposed (still awaiting ministerial approval) multi-billion dollar Mary River iron mine project on Baffin Island. “Our members do have the capacity to be involved in these large projects,” he says. “It may mean not a lot else gets done but there is opportunity here.”

Collins says often large projects such as the Arctic researh station are beyond local trades’ capacity because they are sourced by government funding and therefore must be done within short timeframes, shorter than contractors with limited staff can handle, which results in companies from outside the area being awarded the work.

Collins is hopeful both of these projects play out, however, as the economic spin off potential through hotels, restaurants and other services would be worthwhile. “The full time jobs created by the projects will bring new people and families into the communities and hopefully money that will filter into the communities.”

The association also works with businesses to manage the northern bureaucracy.  “There is a really complicated system of paperwork here that was created 30 years ago or more, and some people just aren’t equipped to handle it,” he said. “We see enough of it that we can help them work through but really, there should be a simpler way.”

Labour shortages are a special challenge in the far north, he said. “While we do have apprenticeship programs and there are benefits to employers to take on apprentices, it is difficult to complete the hours of work required and the system isn’t well organized,” says Collins. “Work needs to be done and people here need work but if they lack proper training opportunities, people are brought in from outside who are and then we still have people needing work but now there are hard feelings involved…. It’s a hard cycle to break.”

Ric Bolivar with Northern Canada Ventures Corp. agrees. “In small communities it’s hard for an apprentice to complete the required hours because there are a limited number of projects happening where they are. They have to be willing to leave their family and travel but even when they are, there has to be an employer on the other end willing to pay for that travel to get them to the project site and home again.”

“The cost of travel here is about 10 times what it would be anywhere else and then there are huge regulatory hurdles to go through when it comes to exploration and development of mining projects so while there is potential for the industry, some would say it isn’t worth the effort,” Bolivar said.

Nevertheless, despite these barriers and challenges, potential resources and opportunities still create attractive opportunities for entrepreneurs committed to northern opportunities.

Collins said the Yellowknife-based Northwest Territories Construction Association was established approximately 30 years ago, but recently Nunavut  services have been enhanced with a branch office in Iqaluit and the territory’s own vice-president, reflecting its needs.  (Nunavut was established in 1999.)

For more information visit nwtca.ca.

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