After 45 years, Bob Rae returns to Kuujjuaq
“What strikes you is that these are problems that can be addressed”
Bob Rae, the interim leader of the federal Liberal Party, worked on the Fort Chimo airstrip for three months in 1967 as a summer student worker, living in the bunkhouse that has since become the Isuarsivik treatment centre.
Since then, the town has acquired a new name — Kuujjuaq — and its population has grown to more than 2,000 and is now the largest community in Nunavik.
The community also suffers from a lack of housing and a high cost of living. Rae wanted to see that for himself during a 24-hour visit that started when his First Air flight landed Oct. 12 near the runway he helped build.
“What strikes you is that these are problems that can be addressed,” Rae said, saying also that these concerns aren’t heard by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.
During a hearing on housing issues at the Kativik Regional Government building, which the housing activist association FRAPRU organized, Rae heard testimony about Kuujjuaq’s chronic lack of social housing.
And in talks with the leaders of Makivvik Corp. and the KRG, he learned also about the social impact of the housing shortage — and the responsibility these organizations feel the federal government has neglected by not building more social housing.
Rae has a theory about how this happened.
Nunavik is in a unique situation because it’s governed by two governments, federal and provincial, Rae noted in an Oct. 13 interview from Kuujjuaq.
That means politics in Nunavik are very complicated, he said. This causes “a problem about who’s supposed to do what and who pays for what.”
“In some ways, that’s a benefit because both governments are concerned to do what they can, but it also allows for a lot of finger pointing in terms of people saying that’s your job… stuff just doesn’t happen,” he said.
But Rae said the housing shortage “clearly has to be addressed.”
To observe food costs and “to understand the impact of the new Nutrition North program,” Rae stepped into a local grocery store, where he checked out prices and bought food for a local food bank.
“The cost is really unbelievably high compared to the South,” he said, adding that this is an ongoing issue that Ottawa will have to address.
Rae didn’t totally reject the unpopular Nutrition North program that replaced the former food mail program, which he described as “well- intentioned.”
“Because the government is saying ‘let’s focus what we can on food that’s relatively nutritious,’” Rae said.
But Rae did say that an “alternative” needs to be found because “the problem is that there is a lot of other things that people need.”
“The prices become absolutely prohibitive,” he said. “And you’ve got to recognize that every kid likes to eat Kraft dinner and every kid needs dried pasta, and it’s not unique to the North.”
To see the challenges facing youth — who comprise nearly two-thirds of Kuujjuaq’s population, as is the case in other Nunavik communities, Rae visited Jaanimmarik School.
There, he toured the school with award-winning teacher Etua Snowball, listened to students Jessica Ningiuruvik and Victoria Tukkiapik throat sing and took in a mural commemorating three students who died by suicide last year along with a display of students’ “contracts to live.”
The Liberal party takes social issues, the lack of housing and high cost of living “seriously,” Rae said.
Asked what the solution is, “there has to be a new deal in the relationship between the governments,” Rae said. “It’s going to be critical for our government to be at the forefront of that debate and those issues.”
Among the possible moves that Ottawa could take to “aggressively” alleviate the high cost of living: look at “things that are already in place,” like the tax benefits and tax credits to northerners.
However, as it stands, Nunavik is often left out of the debate on northern and Arctic issues because it’s not “north of 60,” Rae said.
People in Nunavik are “not getting the kind of attention they need,” Rae said, before he started his morning tour of Kuujjuaq’s marine infrastructure, paid for with federal money, and its Service Canada outlet.
Following on the heels of the election of the Parti Québécois government last month, Rae’s visit to Kuujjuaq was also symbolic: to remind people in Nunavik the federal government is still around and that “we’re very interested in making sure we stay on track.”
When he gets back to Ottawa, Rae promised he’ll consult his notebook from Kuujjuaq, filled with what he learned, then start to write letters on behalf of the region and lobby for its needs in Parliament.