Time for some serious thought about Inuvik’s future
When a community icon starts to fade, can the rest be far behind?
It‘s the sad condition of the church’s paint job that catches the eye, that tells you something is wrong.
Once bright white, it is now weathered and grey in the winter light, streaked and peeling, leaving the building looking poor and vaguely abandoned. There’s no warmth or light through the stained glass windows. A snowdrift covers the steps to the inside, although no one is going there tonight anyway.
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The condition of Inuvik’s Our Lady of Victory, commonly known as the “Igloo Church” because of its design, raises a troubling question: When a community icon starts to fade, can the rest be far behind?
Inuvik has always been different, a town designed for the North, planned by government bureaucrats, built according to blueprints and put in its place, on the banks of the Mackenzie River.
Alone among nearly all of the other settlements in the territory, Inuvik didn’t grow out of the land, wasn’t born because of furs or fish or lumber, wasn’t the natural child of ancient Aboriginal hunters and trappers. Instead, one day it wasn’t and then one day it was.
And now we need to consider the possibility that it won’t be there much longer, at least not in any vibrant, life-enhancing way. Not in the way that makes people want to move and stay there, to build their homes, raise their kids, start businesses and go to church.
Inuvik is today being challenged by forces both local and international, by economic stresses far greater than any it has faced before, and its future is, at best, uncertain.
Always a resource town, Inuvik has lived with the ups and downs of the oil business almost since it first drew breath. Its history has been one of pipelines, of oil and gas drilling, methane hydrate research, and all the peripheral activity that surrounds the work of resource development.
A history of promises made and promises broken, of pipelines that never happened, gas fields that went dry and oil companies that simply left one day, never to return.
But those challenges, while they could make grown men weep, were thought of as short-term set-backs that would turn around as the oil business always had and so while the weak ones left, the strong stayed.
This time, even the strong are feeling the pain. This time the town is being squeezed from two sides and that’s a whole new problem.
There’s too much energy in the world these days with oil and gas production in the United States growing to equal that of the Middle East and Russia. Shale gas has become as common as water and the resources of the North are not as attractive as they once were.
Where just a few short years ago, millions of exploration dollars were being spent in the Delta, this year there will be none. As in zero. Next year’s Inuvik Petroleum show has been cancelled for the first time in 14 years.
But, and here’s the truly bitter part, at the same time as all that new-found southern energy is taking away much of the economic future of the town, the cost of that same energy needed to maintain Inuvik is growing, doubling in some cases, pushing the cost of living to a point where residents are having to make hard choices as to food or fuel, of stay or go.
Stories abound of houses for sale, of departing residents, closing businesses and costs that keep going up faster than the locals can earn the money to meet them.
The future seems bleak, especially now with the shorter, colder days of December darkening the sky.
Time for some serious thought about where the town is going.
In the meantime, paint the damned church.
Doug Matthews is a Canmore-based energy analyst who has lived and worked across the Northwest Territories for more than 35 years. He is former director of the government’s oil and gas division.