Northern research behind the scenes [video report]

Looking back at a trip to Nunavik with a Université Laval School of Architecture research team interested in Inuit housing

The temperature is 7 degrees Celsius, a bit chilly for a summer evening. The sun is still high in the sky. Four-wheelers and other off-road vehicles are kicking up a cloud of dust. Smiling kids are playing catch. The atmosphere is just as lively at the wharf, where small fishing boats are busy catching a beluga whale that has just made a surprise visit.

Welcome to Kangiqsualujjuaq, a village of about 900 people on Ungava Bay, where the people live in sync with the seasons and the tides of the George River Cove. It's here in this remote community that the Living in Northern Quebec research team has been conducting collaborative research since 2019, under the direction of Professor Geneviève Vachon.

That's the goal of the researchers and their partners: to think outside the box when it comes to housing for Indigenous communities in the North. In particular, they are working on an «atlas» to serve as a guide to creating living environments in tune with the needs and aspirations of the Inuit of Nunavik.

For the purposes of this project, some of the team was in Kangiqsualujjuaq from June 14 to 21. As you can imagine, a research trip like this takes a lot of careful preparation, and ULaval nouvelles was there for it all.

Discovering the mythical North

Before setting foot in the North, this author knew very little about this vast territory that extends beyond the 55th parallel. Having conducted numerous interviews in recent years with academics who have a keen interest in the North - including Bernard Saladin d'Anglure , Jean Désy , Marcel Babin , Pierre-Olivier Demeules  and Thierry Rodon - I did have some basic information about the place, which I augmented shortly before departure with a crash course on the history, population, culture, and challenges of Nunavik from Geneviève Vachon and her team.

What an atmosphere! That's the first thing that struck us when we arrived in Kangiqsualujjuaq. Our visit coincided with the Napaartulik Music Festival. For four days, local artists and musicians from across Nunavik performed at the community centre. For our researchers, it was a chance to meet the Doing Things Differently project partners, since many were involved in the festival.

After we arrived, one of our first stops was at the community radio station. Radio plays an important role in daily life in the village. Sitting in front of her microphone, Lisatta Obed reports on community news, takes calls from listeners, and plays songs. So it was no accident that Geneviève Vachon went on the radio to announce her team's arrival.

To understand the living situation in Nunavik, it's important to know that most Inuit live in social housing. This housing model, imposed by colonialism, is the antithesis of their traditional way of life in tune with the land. Venture out onto the tundra and you'll see encampments where they fish, hunt, and do all sorts of recreational and social activities, just as their nomadic ancestors did.

The community of Kangiqsualujjuaq is home to many talented builders. Daniel Annanack is one of them. A friendly but reserved man, Daniel immediately lights up when asked about his most recent project, a cabin outside the village where youth can experience the joys of nature.

The atlas that Geneviève Vachon and her team of co-researchers, students, and partners are working on is meant to be a hands-on tool to help Inuit create living environments that reflect their identity. Available online and on paper, the atlas will bring together 25 ideas hatched in the meetings, discussions, interviews, and participatory design workshops held in recent years with Inuit, decision makers, and various other stakeholders involved in the built environment.

« The Architecture team's motto, «doing things differently,» is very interesting and refreshing. You see them doing things differently, approaching their work in a more human and caring way which creates trusting and long-lasting relationships for a better future for not only the Inuit and Indigenous but for the planet as whole. »

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One of the partners of the Doing Things Differently project is the Kativik Municipal Housing Bureau. This organization, which is responsible for social housing and the home ownership program in Nunavik's 14 villages, welcomes such an atlas.

One thing's for sure, the Université Laval team is more than willing to put in the work. Their stay in Kangiqsualujjuaq was a marathon of meetings, discussions, brainstorming sessions, and tours of work sites and other places of interest, sometimes well into the wee hours.

What motivates these researchers to work so hard in a region that most Quebecers know so little about? The answer is simple: the Inuit.

Nunavik by the numbers

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