It may not be finished, but the Canadian High Arctic Research Station is ahead of schedule

While the federal government hasn't set a date for a grand opening, the CHARS main research facility is weeks away from completion.

Researchers began occupying the Cambridge Bay facility in 2015

According to the project's chief engineer, CHARS is within weeks of being fully operational. (Jimmy Thomson/CBC)

Final inspections for the Canadian High Arctic Research Station's main research facility are still weeks away, but that doesn't mean the facility is behind schedule.

Previously, the facility was expected to open in 2017.

Matthew Hough, chief engineer for the Canadian High Arctic Research Station, or CHARS, said not only is the project on time and on budget, it may actually be a bit ahead of schedule, depending on how you look at it.

Researchers from Polar Knowledge Canada, a federal government research organization created to operate within CHARS, started work in the facility's two triplexes in November 2015 and field and maintenance buildings in March 2016.

"We often talked about operation of CHARS starting July 1, 2017, but we beat that by quite a bit," he told CBC last week.

The grand opening of CHARS has been delayed a number of times by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, which is managing the facility's $204-million construction. That date is now set tentatively for sometime in March.

CHARS is a project that sat at the centre of former prime minister Stephen Harper's Arctic strategy, first brought forward in 2007 as a line item in the federal budget. The facility is located in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, which gives scientists a high-Arctic base for their research.

Keeping the project on budget

When it's complete, the main research facility will open to the public during regular business hours.

Matthew Hough is the chief engineer for the Canadian High Arctic Research Station. (Government of Canada)

"[There will be] opportunity for people to drop by, to have a coffee, sit in the multi-use space or on the display space area," said Hough.

"And to interact directly with polar researchers and visiting scientists is a really exciting part of the campus itself."

While there were some changes to the design of CHARS as the project moved forward, Hough said most of those changes happened during the design phase, which kept costs within the project's $204-million budget.

Last minute changes have been minimal, he said, relegated to issues such as sprinkler heads or how art will be mounted.

Hough said he's expecting the project to come in under budget. 

Right now, about 20 Polar Knowledge Canada researchers are in Cambridge Bay, but that number is eventually expected to grow to 50 as CHARS moves closer to being fully operational in the coming weeks.

Partnerships with Inuit

The community has been waiting patiently for the final announcement of when the station will open.

Mayor Pamela Gross said she is "not 100 per cent sure what's going on," a feeling echoed by the Kitikmeot Inuit Association (KIA), which represents Inuit from across the region. But both are sympathetic to the delays.

Regardless of the timeline, Polar Knowledge Canada researchers have been working with Inuit — with and without formal scientific training — to take advantage of the facilities that are already complete to get started on projects.

'I think a lot of community members are excited to take part in research," says Mayor Pamela Gross. (Jimmy Thomson/CBC)

One such project is called SmartICE. It's a collaboration between Inuit who travel on the ice, gathering data, and Polar Knowledge Canada researchers, who can cross-reference that data with satellite imagery to help create maps of safe travel routes. Another project is partnering with Inuit for community-based monitoring of plants and wildlife.

The recently elected Gross will serve her term as the station ramps up to its full capacity. She said it's an exciting factor for the community, economically as well as culturally.

"I think a lot of community members are excited to take part in research," said Gross. "They're hiring youth, and we have the environmental tech program in the community, so students from that program often get hired to work as researchers within Polar Knowledge."

The Kitikmeot Inuit Association hopes the collaborations will continue as CHARS develops. 

"We're trying to get them to do more research into things like dust control," said Fred Pedersen, communications and planning manager for the KIA.

Cambridge Bay, like most Arctic communities, has dirt roads. In the dry summer months, that can create relentless clouds of dust.

"People are breathing in a lot of dust throughout their life and we feel that dust could be a contributor to a lot of the health issues we have up here."

Pedersen said CHARS has plans to incorporate the dust issue into its next five-year research plan.

With files from Walter Strong