When it opens next year, the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s (WAG) $65-million Inuit Art Centre will be the largest of its kind in the world.
The reality of that development makes it obvious that Winnipeg has an important connection to the Inuit homeland.
The artistic and cultural traditions of the Kivalliq region of Nunavut, Manitoba’s immediate neighbour to the north, has had a significant effect in this community. But that effect has not necessarily been reciprocated.
Efforts have been made for a long time to establish a trade corridor to the Far North from Winnipeg. The unfortunate disruption of rail service to Churchill — preceded as it was by less-than-ideal service — has made even the concept of the corridor challenging.
But in the past couple of years, including during the time when the rail line was out and the focus was on keeping Churchill supplied, economic growth in Nunavut has been charging ahead. Over the past three years, Agnico Eagle Mining Ltd. has invested more than $1 billion building a gold mine near Rankin Inlet. That was a big contributor to the fact that that the Nunavut economy grew by 10 per cent in 2018.
There is some catching up to do as far as the economic connections between Manitoba and Nunavut go.
To that end, World Trade Centre Winnipeg (WTC Winnipeg) is taking a group of economic development officials from across the province to Rankin Inlet for meetings next week with Nunavut economic development people. It will be followed by a group of Manitoba companies that will attend the Kivalliq Trade Show in September, where WTC Winnipeg will have a booth to promote new business opportunities between Manitoba and Nunavut.
Derrick Webster, the chief operating officer of Eskimo Point Lumber Supply (EPLS), has been urging Manitoba businesses to become more engaged in the region for a long time.
His company operates hardware stores and hotels and other businesses in Rankin Inlet and Arviat, with a shipping and warehousing operation in Winnipeg. He sees far more companies from Quebec and Alberta active in Nunavut than companies from Manitoba.
In addition to the Meliadine mine near Rankin Inlet, Agnico Eagle has another mine near Baker Lake nearing its end of life and is readying another that will extend the mining activity there. There are a handful of other gold mine exploration plays in the permitting phase. And all that economic growth there is triggering more funding from the federal government so that community infrastructure spending is on the rise.
"Manitoba is missing the opportunities right now," Webster said.
And it’s not like the connections are forced, as evidenced by the construction of the WAG’s Inuit Art Centre. Winnipeg has long been the place Kivalliq residents come for holidays and shopping runs.
"Going to Polo Park to shop is the tradition for many people up there," Webster said.
Mariette Mulaire, the CEO of WTC Winnipeg, said there already is a lot of economic spinoff from Nunavut to Manitoba.
"People don’t realize that they are coming here all the time to shop, for health care... they are here regularly," she said.
"But we don’t go there. And there is significant economic growth there and we are going to see more and more."
Chuck Davidson, president of the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce, has spent the past couple of years talking to people about economic development in northern Manitoba, and now that the port and the rail line are back in business, there is more discussion about what the supply chain to the Far North might look like.
"We are having discussions about opportunities in the Far North," Davidson said. "But, to be honest, we have not developed that relationship enough. It’s one thing for people from Nunavut to come to Winnipeg to have those discussions. But it’s another thing for us to go there and see first-hand."
Calm Air runs daily direct flights from Winnipeg to Rankin Inlet, and all those Quebec and Alberta companies have to fly from Winnipeg to get up there. And the further irony for companies like Webster’s is it’s cheaper to ship from Winnipeg to Rankin Inlet via Montreal than to go directly north.
But Kivalliq residents don’t go to Montreal on their shopping trips, and Manitoba retailers are happy to do business with customers from Rankin Inlet or Coral Harbour on big-ticket items, including vehicle sales.
One Coral Harbour resident recently came face to face with the challenges Kivalliq residents have to deal with in getting warranty work done on vehicles purchased in southern Manitoba. Regardless of whether the warranty is covered relative to the extreme conditions of Nunavut winters, it costs several thousand dollars just to ship the vehicle back to the southern Manitoba dealership to get it in the shop.
There’s no question there are hurdles to overcome for Manitoba business to take advantage of the current cycle of development in the Far North. But after being subjected to fly-over status with the rest of the country, Manitoba should be able to leverage its location as an advantage when it comes to developing connections with Nunavut.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.