Superman

In 1996, Inuk broadcaster Peter Tapatai traded in his microphone for coveralls and cube vans. Now he’s Baker Lake’s premier logistics man.

Our ride is a little late. My photographer and I are inside a guest house owned by Agnico-Eagle Mines Ltd., waiting to be driven to a bed and breakfast on the other side of Baker Lake. We hear the sound of someone knocking snow off their shoes. The door opens and in walks a man wearing insulated rubber boots, sweatpants and a dayglo safety vest. He looks familiar.

“Are you Peter?” I ask.

“I am if you want me to be,” the man replies.

Like a lot of retired superheroes, Peter Tapatai, our driver, is a little rounder and a little grayer these days. He’s 60. His knees hurt. He can’t scramble up and down heavy equipment quite as nimbly as he used to.

In the 1980s, Chesterfield Inlet-born Tapatai created and played Super Shamou, the world’s first Inuk superhero. The character, dressed in a colour scheme that was inverse- Superman (red tights, blue trunks and cape), appeared on programs of the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation and in comic books, warning Northern kids of the dangers of huffing gas and getting into boats without adult supervision.

Tapatai was part of the first wave of Inuit broadcasters in the early 1980s trained by the Inukshuk Project, a federally funded initiative that saw the establishment of TV production centres in the eastern and central Arctic. Before that, channels in Inuit communities only relayed southern broadcasts – there was no local TV to speak of. Tapatai honed his interviewing and video editing skills, working as a TV host and eventually managing the Baker Lake IBC bureau, until he left in 1996.

“Broadcasting was a small window to promote Inuit language and culture, so it helped to make me understand my values about being an Inuk and how important it was,” Tapatai says. “I think the television and media business gives you a lot of great tools of understanding and really broadens your view about how things are and how things work.”

Since that time, Tapatai has traded his cape, tights and editing suite for coveralls and cube vans. But he’s not sitting around pining over lost glory days. He’s too busy building a new empire: his own.

Tapatai got into the expediting game shortly after leaving the IBC in 1996. He bought out Baker Lake’s previous expediter, Gary R. Smith and Company, and renamed it Peter‘s Expediting Ltd. He got some financing from Aboriginal Business Canada and entered into a joint venture with Yellowknife expediting kingpin Braden Burry Expediting (BBE), which is 51-per-cent controlled by an Inuit ownership group that includes Tapatai. BBE staff taught him everything he knows about expediting, accounting and marketing. It was a free and fruitful education.

Tapatai describes his company’s first decade in business as “difficult.” The company subsisted on local work and services to the juniors who were doing exploration work in the area. But despite entreaties from Nunavut leaders after 1999 that the territory was open for business, exploration in what is still a high-cost region didn’t pick up until the commodity price boom of the mid-2000s.

That’s about when Cumberland Resources Ltd. (later snapped up by Agnico-Eagle) began conducting advance-stage exploration work at the Meadowbank gold property, located 70 kilometres north of Baker Lake. Tapatai urged the company to meet regularly with the community, including the Hunters and Trappers Organization, which had concerns about the long-term health of the Beverly caribou herd. By the time Agnico-Eagle was ready to usher the mine into construction, the community, Tapatai says, was firmly behind the project.

That’s when Tapatai launched a bid for a share of the work unloading 40,000 tonnes of Meadowbank freight off sealift vessels, generally from August to October. “We wanted a small piece of it,” Tapatai says. “We weren’t looking for the whole thing.” The “whole thing” amounts to between 1,500 and 2,000 seacans per season. Today the company also shuttles workers between the airport, Agnico- Eagle’s small guesthouse and local office, and the mine site itself. Local deliveries round out its stable of services for Agnico-Eagle.

These contracts represent about a third of Tapatai’s business, although he declines to put a dollar amount on them, or to discuss the company’s financial information. He will say that he employs 20 people on a full-time basis, almost 100 per cent of them local Inuit. The company has a stable of around 20 vehicles, ranging from forklifts to school buses. There’s a head office in the centre of town. The vehicles are stored and maintained at a corrugated-metal garage and Quonset hut out by the airport. “You want these things busy,” he says of the heavy equipment – otherwise they just sit around costing money.

Tapatai takes the scenic route to the bed and breakfast, offering us a tour of Baker Lake’s outskirts. The hamlet’s population, pushing 1,900, is located on tundra that slopes gently up from the community’s namesake lakeshore, before rolling off into the great expanse known as the Barrens. In 2010, at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Meadowbank, Jose Kusugak, the late Inuit leader, recalled Baker Lake’s status fifteen years earlier – as a place where people were mired in grinding poverty. “People were crying with hopelessness,” he told Nunatsiaq News. “It was perhaps the saddest moment I’ve ever seen.”

While there are a handful of hushed, off-the-record concerns about the mine – that some young mine workers are now earning a bigger paycheque than their parents, for instance – Baker Lake has mostly embraced the big industrial neighbour that lies about two hours from town via an all-weather road. Tapatai, for one, is an unabashed fan. Meadowbank paid its Inuit workforce $12.7 million in wages in 2011. One hundred and sixty workers (who make up 63 per cent of the mine’s Inuit workforce) come from Baker Lake. The rest of the Inuit contingent hail mostly from other Kivalliq communities.

“I’d say the economy’s pretty darn good. There’s not a lot of people not working,” says Allan Hart, one of the owners of Nunamiut Lodge, the bed and breakfast I’m staying at. Demand for rooms increased so much that the lodge undertook a 15-room expansion that wrapped up last May. “I remember when there was 60 to 70 per cent unemployment,” Hart says. “The mine’s made a big difference.”

Tapatai recalls the time shortly after Nunavut came into being in 1999 when the territorial power corporation set up its decentralized head office in Baker Lake. There were 15 good-paying government jobs up for grabs. One hundred and fifty people applied. “Work was extremely hard to come by,” Tapatai says gravely.

The impact of Baker Lake’s new wealth is tangible, particularly if you look at durable goods as a barometer of economic growth. In Tapatai‘s mind, fears about the effects of resource development in small towns – that the money will get frittered away on booze and other vices – are unfounded. And even if they aren’t, he says, don’t Nunavummiut have the right to make the same mistakes as anyone else?

“I’ve been surprised by our young people many times,” he says. “They’re not spending their money foolishly. They are spending their money on buying new snowmobiles, new ATVs, and household items. You know how good a feeling that is? I can’t put it in words, but what a good feeling to know that people are doing things properly.”

Tapatai stops his white workhorse of a truck at a scrap metal dump on the edge of town. A fox eyes us warily, while a pair of snow-white hare scatter. The dump is surprisingly tidy, consisting of a couple abandoned trailers and culverts. Until recently, the same could not be said of the next-door municipal landfill. The site was once laden with countless old car batteries and oil drums filled with who-knows-what. But Baker Lake MLA Moses Aupaluktuq complained enough about it in the legislative assembly that a federal water inspector eventually recommended legal action against the territorial government and the hamlet. Still, nothing happened. Finally, Agnico-Eagle paid to have the junk packed onto empty seacans and hauled away.

Sure, it was a shrewd move to curry goodwill in the community; ditto the company’s donation of Meadowbank carving stone to local artists. But to Tapatai, it’s also emblematic of a larger failure by the territorial government to cultivate economic growth in the private sector, or even deal with local problems in a timely fashion. Beyond the public sector, he wonders, what else will create economic growth? Nunavut’s vast resource potential – the Conference Board of Canada predicts the territory’s mining output will double to $252 million by2020 – is its best chance to lift its youth out of poverty, he reasons.

“People can oppose our resource development, but what else is there? This is new money, new investment coming in. If there was no resource development I think social assistance would be huge around here.” The settlement of the Nunavut land claim created institutions that give Inuit control over the pace of industrial development, and arts and tourism can only create so many jobs, he adds.

And the boom times will end, especially if another mine doesn’t open near the community. With Meadowbank slated to close in 2018 and local activists opposing the proposed Kiggavik uranium project, some possible storm clouds are forming. As a parent of three grown kids, Tapatai worries about what’s coming next for Baker Lake. “The scary feeling is wondering what your children are going to do,” he says. “My children are not going to be carvers. They should have the right to choose.”

Up Here Business magazine, April, 2013

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