Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A capital ambition

Since 1995, Iqaluit has evolved from air force base to hard-working city

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IQALUIT, Nunavut -- From the moment I first saw Iqaluit from the air, I was intrigued, could not stop marvelling at it, could not stop thinking -- might this be it? Might this be, if not the realization of aboriginal aspiration, at least a shining example of what it might be? An Inuit city in an Inuit territory governed by Inuit according to Inuit principles, and succeeding.

What I first saw from the air was a small city rising as high as eight storeys above a baked-brown, treeless landscape of bulging rock dotted with fall-coloured plants and shimmering pools of water.

Even from the air it seemed to have bustle, and style -- brightly coloured buildings of blue, red, yellow and green, or all of the colours together, made smart and ship-shape with white trim like piping everywhere.

It is not a compact city by any measure, but it has order and density as a result of planned subdivisions and a preponderance of multi-storey, multi-family apartments and condominium developments, some climbing in steps up hillsides, or cantilevered on stilts from rock so as to offer panoramic views of Frobisher Bay.

The downtown, on a flat by the water, is back-dropped by rock hills, along which meanders The Plateau, a high-end housing development now in its third phase where new homes of modern design vie for ocean views and can sell for $500,000.

The average selling price of a single-family residential home in Iqaluit last year was $370,000, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. figures show. The average condo price was $280,000 -- both higher than averages in Manitoba.

Rents ranged from $1,330 for bachelor digs to $2,890 for three bedrooms. The average rent was $2,342.

About 20 per cent of housing is social housing, subsidized by government. The unemployment rate for Nunavut is 15 per cent, twice the national rate but only three points more than in Newfoundland and Labrador.

A total of $69 million was invested in new construction last year, work that no doubt contributed to average weekly earnings of $847, compared with $780 in Manitoba.

Iqaluit looks and feels new. And well it should. Most of it is less than 20 years old and none of it is older than 60.

It didn't exist until after 1942, when the U.S. Air Force decided to build a giant runway and the "upper base" at what now is the north end of town. The activity attracted a Hudson Bay post and some Inuit, who created the first settlement at what was, and what remains, the hamlet of Apex, about three miles down the coast.

As the Second World War gave way to the Cold War, the base was transformed into a major link in the Dew Line, and the town of Frobisher Bay started to take shape between the upper base and Apex.

The evolution of Frobisher to Iqaluit remains hidden in plain sight. Where the original base was, an area sometimes described as the "federal industrial area," there remain all the old government buildings and residences -- big warehouse-style structures that today have been converted, in many cases, to the warehouses they look like. It is there that correctional facilities for women, men and youth are located. And around it all a large, if somewhat haphazard, industrial park has developed, the advantage of which is that, for the most part, blue- and-white collar functions no longer mix so much downtown.

Instead, the downtown is the centre of government and government activity for the whole territory, with the blue and brushed aluminum legislature building and the red and white Government of Canada building dominating the centre. Shops and general stores, good quality hotels, an Igloo-shaped cathedral and housing developments cluster around them.

Streets, for the most part, are paved and laid out in rough blocks, many lined with rocks and pickets that act as curbs. Grass is not an option, and so exposed ground is everywhere. But there is not much litter, and an abandoned vehicle problem was settled some years ago when a shredder was brought in and scrap was shipped out.

There is an abundance of public art, mostly carved rocks and statues.

In addition to The Plateau and The Apex, new suburbs include: "Lego Land," which, as you might expect, is a development of colourful, seeming interlocked housing units; The Road to Nowhere, where development followed folly; and Tundra Valley, a shoreline development that lacks water pipes and is called the "red light district" in reference to red lights on houses that indicate when water tanks need refilling.

Many public buildings, such as schools, appear futuristic -- lunar-module shaped with tiny round windows and standing on stilts.

"I like to think they look like under-sea labs," cab driver Dwayne Caza said, as he took me on a $70-an-hour flat-rate tour of the city. "They look like Jacques Cousteau designed them."

No buildings in Iqaluit have basements and most are built on steel stilts driven like piles into the permafrost.

It is the presence of government that more than anything explains the transformation of Iqaluit, which was selected by plebiscite in 1995 to be the territorial capital, sparking the construction and population booms that made a new city of the old. (And it is, officially, a city, even if long-timers such as Caza can't bring themselves to say it, opting instead to say "so-called city.")

Ottawa spent some $600 million to make the federal presence known in Nunavut, most of it in Iqaluit where federal workers are not only well-paid, they receive northern allowances and often staff housing.

In turn, Nunavut had to create and house a territorial administration to oversee its 10 departments of government, and because it competes for employees with the senior government, it introduced matching perks.

Together, the demands of two levels of government spurred a private-sector construction industry, which in turn needed more and better services from banking and accounting to heavy equipment support and material supply.

John Matthews, the only licensed realtor in Iqaluit, said 20 years ago contractors could not get bank financing for projects because, in a slow-growth environment, there was no assurance they would succeed.

Today, there is so much confidence in the local economy that the thinking is reversed, with construction financing geared to meet expected demand.

"It's 'build it and they will come,' " he said.

Matthews is the only licensed realtor because there is less call for such services than you might think in a booming real estate market. Land ownership remains, for the most part, communal. While some property is owned fee-simple, most is leased and most developments are owned by development companies that have in-house real estate services. As well, it's a small community. Word of mouth often is all that's needed to sell a property, and often newcomers are housed in staff properties owned and operated by employers so as to bring down housing costs.

It's a hard-working town, Matthews said. Given the high cost of everything from shelter to food and energy, it has to be.

"Most people work weekends," he said. "Many have two jobs, the young sometimes two or three jobs. If you go out and hustle, you will find work. And if you stick it (out) for the first few months, you will be noticed and things will open up."

Iqaluit, as I said earlier, is blessed by its status as a territorial capital. The burst of development that government brought, however, has its limits. But the city's future remains bright.

Earlier this month, approval was given for an iron-mining project at Mary River farther north on Baffin Island, a $5-billion undertaking that will employ thousands. And last week, a $300-million expansion of the airport, already necessary but certainly so given Mary River, moved one step closer to start up.

Iqaluit. Might this be it?

Pricey? Take a bite of this

Translating the words "high cost of living" into bite-size pieces:

Breakfast menu at the Hotel Arctic:

-- Yogurt, fruit, cereal, toast, coffee -- $17

-- Bacon and eggs, toast and coffee -- $15

-- Steak, eggs, toast and coffee -- $31

-- Three-egg omelette, toast and coffee -- $19

-- Three pancakes, bacon and coffee -- $20

Some grocery items at the North Mart:

-- Sweet potatoes -- $5.39 a kilo

-- Eight ounces of fresh mushrooms -- $3.65

-- English cucumber on sale -- $2.89 regular $4.89

-- Pack of radishes -- $3.79

-- 10 pounds red potatoes -- $10.99

-- Pork chops -- $11 per kilo

-- Pork loin -- $20 per kilo

-- Lean hamburger -- $11 per kilo

-- Whole chicken -- $9.70

-- Whole rotisserie chicken -- $16.99

-- Milk two per cent -- $6.35,

after $4.90 Government subsidy

-- 12 eggs, large -- $5.65 after $2.76 subsidy

-- Bananas -- $2.49 per kilo

-- Three pounds oranges -- $5.89, after $3.34 subsidy

-- 24 rolls bathroom tissue -- $39.99

-- Bread whole wheat and white baked in house -- $3.29 per loaf

-- Tin of Coke -- $2, 12 for $15

-- 200 gram bag of potato chips -- $4.99

-- Gasoline at any filling station -- $1.16 a litre

Iqaluit bulk buys a year's supply of gasoline. Fuel purchased last year at lower cost has not yet been used up. Big jump in price is expected.


Flagging a ride

Taxis are the only source of public transportation in Iqaluit, and all other communities in Nunavut.

In Iqaluit, you can call a taxi or flag one down. Either way, the fare is $6 from here to there, whether the distance is three blocks or three miles. The cab will pick up other fares en route to your destination and make drops according to a logical progression rather than first-come, first-served.

Should you want to make a stop, to pick up cigarettes on your way to the bar, the fare is $12 -- $6 from home to the smoke shop, and $6 from the smoke shop to the bar.

The cabs are new and old. I was in a 1998 Crown Victoria police interceptor with 330,000 kilometres logged, in a city where the longest drive is four kilometres.

It's a good paying occupation. On a busy day a driver will log 70 fares, $420 and pocket 60 per cent.

One driver I met said he retired from CNR after 30 years and now leaves his grown up family in Montreal to drive eight months in Iqaluit, taking one month off at Christmas and three months off in summer. He said he lives in a company staff house with five other drivers and aims to net $1,400 a week driving long hours, seven days a week.

"I like to be busy," he said. "I would die of boredom if not for this job."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 22, 2012 A17

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