Skip to main content

In Arviat, a facility set to open in 2025 would put Inuit tradespeople to work building modular units tailored to the North’s needs

Open this photo in gallery:

A mother and child sleep side-by-side in this bedroom in Arviat, Nunavut, while four other family members share the second bedroom and another eight sleep on mattresses in the living room. The family is hoping to move into a four-bedroom home.Photography by Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

On the outskirts of the Nunavut hamlet of Arviat, past the polar bear alert signs and the packed-to-the-rafters schools and the community freezer full of caribou meat, lies a gravel pad on which an Inuit company is building something unprecedented.

The pad is the future site of a factory that will produce modular homes for a territory where the housing shortage is so acute that multigenerational families sometimes sleep in shifts on mattresses on the floor.

“We’re in dire need of housing,” said Joe Savikataaq Jr., the mayor of Arviat, a community of about 2,800 people on the western shore of Hudson Bay. “If housing could be solved, that would solve a lot of other issues – almost like a domino effect.”

Open this photo in gallery:

Joe Savikataaq Jr. is mayor of Arviat.

Mr. Savikataaq Jr. is under no illusion that one factory can fix something as daunting as the housing crisis that underlies the poor mental and physical health of many Nunavummiut. In his own community, the person at the top of the waiting list for a one-bedroom public-housing unit has been in the queue since 2007. Sixty per cent of Nunavut Inuit live in crowded housing.

But Arviat’s mayor and other supporters of the modular housing factory – which, when it opens, will be the only factory in Nunavut if you don’t count the fish and meat-processing plants – hope it will be a step toward building Arctic-worthy houses faster and perhaps cheaper than traditional methods.

They also see it as a training ground for Inuit tradespeople that could help Nunavut gradually reduce its reliance on construction workers who fly in from the south.

“As much as it’s bricks and mortar and it’s putting out a housing product,” David Kakuktinniq said of the factory, “it’s also building a work force.”

Mr. Kakuktinniq is the president and chief executive of Sakku Investments Corp., the for-profit arm of the Kivalliq Inuit Association, the land-rights holder for Inuit in central Nunavut. Sakku is partnering with RG Solution, a Quebec modular housing maker, to build the $30-million, 42,000-square-foot factory in Arviat.

Some 18,000 truckloads of gravel, hauled in from a nearby quarry, have already been laid on the marshy site, and a device called a thermosyphon has been installed to keep the ground frozen and stable all year round.

Construction of the factory is slated to start in the spring. If all goes as planned, the plant is expected to employ about 40 people – 15 of them Inuit apprentices in trades such as carpentry and plumbing – and produce 35 housing units a year when it opens in 2025. That may not sound like much in a territory where the government just announced a plan to build 3,000 new units by 2030, but it works out to about a third of the units that the Nunavut Housing Corporation (NHC) built across the territory in each of the past three years.

Open this photo in gallery:

A modular home nears completion in Arviat, part of the Kivalliq Modular Housing Pilot Project.

As a show of support for the project, Arviat’s municipal government bought two five-unit rowhouses, known in Nunavut as five-plexes, from RG Solution’s Quebec plant this year.

They’ll serve as living quarters for hamlet staff, freeing up public-housing units for others on the waiting list, according to Steve England, Arviat’s senior administrative officer.

The modules, complete with preinstalled interior doors and kitchen cupboards, were shipped to Arviat on a sealift in August. Wrapped in white plastic and pulled by tractor-trailers, they looked like “giant marshmallows” as they rolled through the community, Mr. England said.

The two-and three-bedroom units are expected to be move-in ready by December, with local assembly done by a work force that is 90-per-cent Inuit.

That’s a sea change from minimum Inuit labour benchmarks in the range of 30 per cent for tenders issued by the Nunavut Housing Corporation, although the requirement varies depending on the nature of the project and where it’s being built.

“Contractors typically come in from the south, they set up here in the community and build. They do have some requirements on Inuit hiring content embedded in the contracts, but it’s nowhere near as high as we would like to see,” Mr. England said. “One of the reasons the hamlet mayor and council fell in love with the Sakku project is that it’s going to reverse that trend.”

Arviat is a Hudson Bay hamlet of about 2,800 people where, as in other parts of Nunavut, people can sometimes wait years for housing to become available.
Arviat has no sewage lines; instead, tanks underneath the houses collect black and grey water. Kevin Malla delivers water to 60 units per day.
Large structures to keep the ground frozen and stable surround the site of the planned modular home factory. A mechanical room will supply heat and power to the homes.

Another reason is the prospect of a housing factory rising in a place where the need for housing couldn’t be plainer. Arviat has one of the highest birth rates in the country, and more than a third of the population is younger than 14.

The housing supply hasn’t begun to keep pace. As of March, there were 289 individuals or families waiting for public housing in Arviat, according to NHC, second only to Iqaluit, the capital. By October, Arviat tenant relations officer Homer Obszarski counted 317 applicants on the list, excluding those looking to transfer to bigger units.

Tanya Sewoee, 40, is among those desperate to move.

She lives in a two-bedroom house with her husband, 10 of her children and two grandchildren. Her oldest daughter, Pauline, 22, shares one room with 11-month-old Lisa, the baby Pauline adopted, in the customary Inuit way, from a younger sister. Ms. Sewoee’s oldest son and three of his brothers share another room that is piled with mattresses during the day. At night, they drag the extra mattresses into the living room, next to a couch with a missing cushion, for everyone else to sleep on.

“There’s 14 people living here. One emergency door,” Ms. Sewoee said as she sat at a table sewing a pair of mittens. Down the hall, a washing machine chugged away next to a mound of clothes taller than most of the children who darted in and out of the house.

“We need to have more rooms so we can live in peace.”

Open this photo in gallery:

Tanya Sewoee looks forward to a day when her multi-generational household has more living space.

Pauline keeps baby Lisa in her arms because there’s nowhere safe to set her down at home. The young mother finds respite by taking part in an early years program run by Ilitaqsiniq, the Nunavut Literacy Society, which offers group gatherings and weekly home visits by other Inuit women who support young mothers and help them keep their babies healthy. Pauline prefers coming to Ilitaqsiniq’s bright and airy office for her weekly visits. “It’s nice and quiet here for my baby to calm down a bit and play with toys,” she said one day in October after taking part in a cooking class. Pauline and the other mothers left with a recipe and bag of ingredients for making shepherd’s pie.

Arviat’s overcrowded housing is a significant contributor to health and social struggles in the hamlet, including violence, addiction, suicide, respiratory illness and tuberculosis.

Arviat’s main family doctor, Carl Le Roux, said the housing crunch was one of the main reasons the hamlet suffered the first large outbreak of COVID-19 in the far north in November of 2020.

More than 300 people tested positive, two were admitted to hospital and one died. As the case count grew, outsiders accused Arviat residents of breaking the rules, said Mr. Savikataaq Jr., the mayor. But overcrowded housing made the rules impossible to follow.

“When you get someone with COVID, and they have to isolate in a two-bedroom with 17 people, how is that possible?”

Open this photo in gallery:

Pauline Sewoee, right, prepares a shepherd's pie at a cooking class with Malaiyah Voisey, left, and elder Margaret Aulatjut, middle. The class is part of a program offered to mothers by Ilitaqsiniq, the Nunavut Literacy Society.

Arviat’s housing crisis is far from unique in Nunavut. There are just over 3,000 Nunavut individuals and families on the waiting list for public housing, according to NHC, and there is an overall shortage of about 4,000 units of all kinds across a territory that has just under 12,000 units now.

The reasons for the shortage are straightforward enough. The population is surging in a place where it’s difficult and expensive to build. Most construction materials must be shipped on annual sealifts to communities that aren’t connected to the outside world by roads. Construction seasons are short, with workers racing to close in buildings before the blizzards, -50 Celsius temperatures and near-perpetual darkness of winter set in. It usually takes 16 to 18 months, or two construction seasons, to complete a single-storey five-plex, the most common configuration for new social-housing units.

COVID-19 made everything worse. Construction ground to a halt during the worst of the pandemic, then supply-chain disruptions, rising fuel prices and inflation prompted construction companies to submit eye-watering bids that forced NHC to postpone a slew of housing projects. Public procurement for the construction of a typical unit in a five-plex ballooned to an average of $923,447 in 2021-2022 from $379,780 five years earlier.

“We just can’t afford to build at $1-million a unit,” said Eiryn Devereaux, the president and CEO of NHC. “We have to try to figure out ways to build more affordably.”

One way could be shipping prefabricated homes to Nunavut from elsewhere. But that idea is controversial. When, in 2019, the business arm of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association built a hotel in Iqaluit using block-style rooms imported from Shanghai, Lorne Kusugak, the territory’s then-minister of community and government services, warned there would be an “uproar” if the government bought modular homes from overseas.

“I assure you,” Mr. Kusugak told the legislative assembly at the time, “if this government built homes in China to bring to all the homeless people in Nunavut, everybody would be opposed because there are no Inuit building those houses.”

Mr. Kusugak is now Nunavut’s Minister of Finance and the minister in charge of NHC.

Open this photo in gallery:

Jacques-Yves Blanchet gives a tour of one of the Quebec-built modular homes.

Given the political toxicity of importing buildings, Sakku isn’t the first to float building a modular home factory inside Nunavut. In a June, 2021, report on construction costs commissioned by NHC, the commercial real-estate consultancy Colliers raised and then batted away the idea, declaring local prefabrication too complex and costly for a market as small (only about 40,000 people) and remote as Nunavut.

Guillaume Guida, the vice-president of Sakku, said his company and its Quebec partner have crunched the numbers and believe they can produce five-plexes for a price that is competitive with or slightly cheaper than the going rate for a unit in the north. That remains to be seen, said Mr. Devereaux of NHC, noting Sakku’s plans are preliminary, and construction of the factory has yet to begin.

In the end, the real advantage of a factory is likely to be that it puts a roof over the head of construction projects in the Arctic, eliminating weather delays and turning seasonal construction work into a year-round prospect in which multiyear apprenticeships for local Inuit make more sense.

“If we bring the factory to the north,” Mr. Guida said, “then we can do training in the proper environment, 12 months month a year – a nine-to-five, standard job, where you don’t have to worry about temperature.”

Now seems as good a moment as any to try. Last month, Mr. Kusugak and Premier P.J. Akeeagok travelled to Rankin Inlet, a regional hub north of Arviat, to unveil Nunavut 3000, a plan to build 3,000 new housing units of different types by 2030. The following week, Mr. Akeeagok and Aluki Kotierk, the president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the main Inuit organization for the territory, were in Ottawa pitching the plan to Prime Minster Justin Trudeau.

Back in Arviat, Mr. Savikataaq Jr. said he hopes the two modular five-plexes that the hamlet has already purchased will be a beacon for residents suffering in overcrowded homes. The factory plan, he said, should “give them hope that there’ll be more houses here that are locally built, that they could move into themselves and have a much better, healthier lifestyle.”

Open this photo in gallery:

Caribou hides and bikes hang off a porch railing in Arviat.

Nunavut: More from The Globe and Mail

The Decibel podcast

Finding assisted living for seniors is especially hard in Nunavut, where fly-in communities have few options except sending family members away to distant cities. Kelly Grant went to Nunavut to investigate. Subscribe for more episodes.

More from Kelly Grant

The Globe and Mail’s health reporter Kelly Grant is taking an in-depth look at health care in Nunavut and the challenges its residents face accessing it. If you have information to help inform The Globe’s reporting on Nunavut, please e-mail

Mental-health support is scarce in Nunavut, but an Inuit-language counsellor training program could change that

In Nunavut, a push to blend traditional Inuit birthing practices with modern doula care

Nunavut Premier P.J. Akeeagok on growing up in Grise Fiord, bringing elders back home

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe