A group in Baker Lake, Nunavut is hoping to open a thrift store to provide jobs for people with disabilities and give residents affordable options for second-hand clothing, toys and household items.

The idea originated within the hamlet as a way to cut down waste and is being spearheaded by the Nunavummi Disabilities Makinnasuaqtiit Society (NDMS), modelled after the Inclusion Cafe in Iqaluit, where people with disabilities operate a catering service and help cook lunches at the soup kitchen. 

"Culturally we are encouraged to share and this is just one of those natural actions of Inuit where you just give and take and something comes back for you," said Sandy Kownak, a board member with NDMS.

"That whole process of helping someone else save money or getting an important item, it's a perfect combination," said Kownak, who also serves as an adviser for a pre-employment training program for people with disabilities in Baker Lake.

That program is funded by Nunavut's Department of Family Services and is training 16 people with disabilities in the hamlet, unlocking skills within students to help them enter the workforce. 

Baker Lake pre-employment program

Students in the program learn a range of skills to help prepare them to enter the workforce. (submitted by Erin Strachan)

The hope is some of the graduates could go on to work at the thrift store and gain experience, like 18-year-old Christian Tagoona.

"I know it's going to be a struggle finding a job in the future but any little thing that can help, I'm all for it," he said.

Tagoona has been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, something he says can be a barrier to employment.

"I usually get tunnel visioned into my own world and usually get sidetracked for 15 minutes at a time and it gets really hard to pay attention," Tagoona said. But, he says the program is making a difference.

Susan Ukpatiku and Christian Tagoona

Susan Ukpatiku, 50, and Christian Tagoona, 18, are enrolled in the pre-employment program. (submitted by Erin Strachan)

"When everyone's so focused on one thing, it makes me want to be focused on the same thing with them. It makes me want to be on the same path," he said.

The 12-week program teaches resume writing, how to search for jobs and practices interview skills. 

It also connects students with potential employers in Baker Lake, like Agnico Eagle's Meadowbank gold mine where Susan Ukpatiku used to work 12-hour shifts in the kitchen as a chef's assistant.

The 50-year-old had to give it up after fracturing her back and shoulder. Ukpatiku has osteoporosis and found the shifts too much to handle. She hasn't worked in the past three to four years.

Ukpatiku enrolled in the pre-employment program looking for something to do. She's contemplated quitting at times, finding it difficult to work with some classmates. Ukpatiku is the only one to graduate from high school.

"It is hard. But yet again, this is my hometown," she said.

"And I realzied that there's a lot of them that did work but because of the people who intimated them, they stopped working," she said.

Baker Lake pre-employment program

Students of the pre-employment program outside Arctic College in Baker Lake. The 12-week program teaches communication and teamwork skills. (submitted by Erin Strachan)

That's where the thrift store comes in — an inclusive place that provides work and training opportunities, while at the same time providing a service to the community. 

Got plan, need funding

The idea of a thrift store is not new for Baker Lake: decades ago the Women Auxiliary used to operate one out of the Anglican Church hall.

"Everyone we talk to says we need a thrift store in Baker Lake," said Erin Strachan, a project manager for Indigenous capacity building programs with Performance Management Consultants. The Ottawa-based company helped develop the training program for people with disabilities in Baker Lake and is hoping similar programs will roll out across the territory.

With the help of the territory's disabilities society, Strachan is now looking to open the thrift store.

"We have a plan, we have a place to do it, but we are now looking for funding to start up the enterprise," Strachan said.

The funding would go to renovating a house they're looking to rent and covering the wages of the potential employees.
Strachan is also hoping for donations for cash registers and shelving for the store.

"We're hoping that people in Baker Lake will step up and volunteer and do what they have to do to help us make this thing happen because it's going to require a lot of support."