North·NWT Votes 2019

In Nunakput, residents grapple with the N.W.T.'s most complex challenges

Whoever is elected in the N.W.T.'s Nunakput riding will be tasked with addressing high cost of living, inadequate housing, and distance from government services that are supposed to help people living in the riding.

'How do we survive? Honestly, I don't have an answer,' says dad working to put food on the table

Jody Illasiak sits with his family in their home in Paulatuk, N.W.T. He makes sure to be home for lunch every day. When he brings home a caribou he says he feels like the 'king of the world.' (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Lunchtime is sacred at Jody Illasiak's place in Paulatuk, N.W.T. 

Every day, he comes home from his construction job, his kids come home from school, and they sit together over a bowl of caribou stew or something else his wife Janet whipped up for them. 

"I wouldn't miss this for the world," he says sitting at his kitchen table, while his daughter sits on his knee, slurping spoonfuls of broth. 

These are the good times; when his family is together, eating the food Illasiak brought home for them.

"When I bring a caribou home, I feel proud, like I'm the king of the world," he says. "If I can afford pizza pockets or a carton of milk, I feel proud. It's an overwhelming feeling sometimes."   

The dark times come later, after the kids are asleep. That's when he'll sit with Janet at the same kitchen table, figuring out how to stretch out his paycheque so no one goes hungry. 

"How do we survive? Honestly, I don't have an answer," he said. 

Illasiak isn't alone in this situation. Families in all four of the Arctic communities that make up the Nunakput riding find themselves in similar situations as they deal with the high cost of living, inadequate housing, and distance from the government services that are supposed to help them. 

Six candidates are running to represent Nunakput in the Oct. 1 territorial election: Annie Steen, Jackie Jacobson, Alisa Blake and Holly Campbell from Tuktoyaktuk; Sheila Nasogaluak from Sachs Harbour; and Herb Nakimayak, the incumbent from Paulatuk. 

Whoever is elected will be tasked with addressing the complex issues families like Illasiak's face in the territory's biggest and most northern riding. 

George Krengnektak, 72, goes out as often as possible to bring home meat and fish for his children and grandchildren. A harvesting trip often costs more than $2,000. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

High prices, high unemployment

Nunakput is made up of Tuktoyaktuk, Ulukhaktok, Sachs Harbour, and Paulatuk — some of the territory's most expensive communities.

In Paulatuk, flour sells for $23.79 for a five-kilogram bag, a two-kilogram bag of sugar costs $10.29, and a kilogram tin of coffee sells for $30.99. In Yellowknife, the same bag of flour was $8.99, the sugar was on sale for $2.50 and the coffee was $18.99.

Getting out on the land isn't cheap either with trips often costing $2,000 or more, explained George Krengnektak, a hunter with one eye and tobacco stained hands. 

"I don't want my family, my grandchildren to go hungry," Krengnektak, 72, said. "I bring food for them all the time. I don't like to see them hungry for meat and fish." 

Eddie Dillon is the chair of the Tuktoyaktuk Community Corporation. He says housing remains a key issue for his community. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada )

Slow economic activity in the region compounds this problem. 

Unemployment across Nunakput is 24 per cent, three times the N.W.T. rate. Nearly half of workers work part-time or only part of the year, while only one in four are employed full time year-round.

Oil and gas exploration and extraction remains stagnant in the region, and many work a few different jobs to make ends meet.

"The oil companies all pulled up their stakes and went south, you've got no one in the region right now," said Eddie Dillon, the chair of the Tuktoyaktuk Community Corporation. 

Talk of splitting riding

Three of the four communities are fly-in only for the entire year, and Tuktoykatuk is still getting used to having year-round highway access. 

It's been nearly two years since the $300-million Inuvik Tuktoyaktuk Highway opened, but people in Tuktoyaktuk say they still aren't seeing the transformative changes that were promised. 

Tourism has increased, though it isn't driving the economy in a meaningful way, and the community isn't getting the support it needs to care for tourists who come, Dillon said. 

The Tuktoyaktuk shoreline in September. The Nunakput riding is made up of Tukotyaktuk, Paulatuk, Ulukhaktok and Sachs Harbour. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada )

"It's nice to talk about tourism, but we haven't gotten the dollars to upgrade the facilities to meet the tourism needs," he said. 

But some are worried that even if the road hasn't changed things yet, it may in time become a wedge between Tuktoyaktuk and the coastal communities, simply because Tuktoyaktuk is no longer isolated.

The road gives Tuktoyaktuk the ability to control costs in a way that the other communities, who rely solely on barges and airplanes for re-supply, can't.

"The reality of living in Tuk is different than the reality of living in Sachs Harbour," said Vernon Amos, the chair of the Sachs Harbour Community Corporation. 

Everything comes down to housing, it's a bigger issue.- Eddie Dillon

"There's a core set of problems that are common in all communities, but each community has its own unique set of problems."

For example, while all the communities are dealing with the effects of climate change, in Tuktoyaktuk, homes are about to fall into the ocean, with community officials crying out for relief from the federal and territorial governments. 

People have started talking about splitting the riding, with one MLA representing Tuktoyaktuk and another representing the coastal communities. 

"Family-wise we're still connected, whether there's a road or not. But it's a valid point," said Merven Gruben, the mayor of Tuktoyaktuk. 

'Nobody was listening' 

Even if the road does change the relationship between the three communities, housing will remain a common problem. Leaders in all four communities say it constantly tops their list of issues to solve. 

"Everything comes down to housing, it's a bigger issue," said Eddie Dillon of Tuktoyaktuk. 

Throughout Nunakput, there aren't enough places for people to live, and many of the homes that are available are unfit for the number of people living in them.

Josie Green is working as an environmental monitor, but even with steady work, she's homeless and is moving from house to house. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Josie Green is working a steady job as an environmental resources monitor in Paulatuk, but she's homeless. She blames a housing official for giving her wrong information, which forced her to leave her home.

"You can't get any answers from the [housing] board here," Green said. "It felt like nobody was listening." 

Green is one of many on the housing waitlist across the riding — which is also a larger issue throughout the Northwest Territories. Some have been waiting years for a home, or are forced to deal with inadequate, mouldy units. 

  • Local authorities call the NWT's housing policies 'paternalistic' here's why 

Mayor Laverna Klengenberg sees the same thing happening in Ulukhaktok, and blames bureaucrats in Yellowknife for shutting local leaders out of the decision process.   

"They don't seem to know what it's really like in the smaller northern communities," she said. 

Jody Illasiak says whoever is elected as Nunakput MLA needs to pick up the phone, listen to residents and follow through on their promises. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Others have echoed these concerns, saying they feel local officials are unable to get things done. Instead, they're left to navigate complex bureaucratic systems, often alone. 

Back at his kitchen table, Illasiak has some advice for whoever wins the seat on Oct. 1: pick up the phone, return emails, and listen to the people living in the riding.

"Don't say you're going to be there for the people," he said. "Don't say you're going to pick up the phone unless you're actually going to do it." 


  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Holly Campbell is from Fort McPherson, N.W.T. In fact, she's from Tuktoyaktuk.
    Sep 26, 2019 8:48 AM CT

With files from Mackenzie Scott, John Last and Mario De Ciccio