Monday, September 2

Hospitality with character in Igloolik, Nunavut

Elijah Evaluarjuk proudly displays the narwhal tusk his son gave him, from an animal he hunted.
Anyone who has spent quality time in Canada’s Arctic will appreciate the challenges of running a hotel in a remote setting. It takes determination, and Elijah Evaluarjuk has loads of it. He is the owner of the Tujurmivik Hotel in Igloolik, Nunavut.

“Tujurmivik means 'a place to stay' in Inuktitut,” he explains. “My father started the hotel in 1970 and I started helping him out. He served four terms as an MLA with the Legislature in the NWT days. He needed somebody to take care of the hotel, so in 1985, I quit my job with the municipal government and went to work for him.”

What Elijah didn’t expect was that his father would pass away prematurely in 2002. Suddenly, Elijah found himself in the driver’s seat.

“Cost is a very big thing here. We don’t have roads like in southern Canada. We get our produce by air. Every week we order from a supplier near Montréal. You have to plan ahead. We try to get most of our supplies like dry and canned goods on Sealift, a ship that comes once a year. We make sure that as much of the everyday supplies we need are ordered through that service; enough to last us the whole year.”

I met Elijah at the Aboriginal Tourism Canada Conference in Québec City earlier this year. He is a quiet, friendly man with a generous nature. The way he wears his handcrafted sealskin tie says lots about how he values his Inuit heritage. He is not alone: 95% of Igloolik’s 1600 residents speak Inuktitut. The town is located on a small island just off the Melville Peninsula, to the west of Baffin Island. Igloolik means "a place with houses", probably because of the sod houses Elijah’s ancestors used to build there. “Igloolik is probably one of the oldest communities in Nunavut, dating back 4,000 years,” he proudly claims.

Not surprisingly, the Tujurmikik Hotel had humble beginnings. Elijah recalls: “There were these two old hostel buildings. One was a cookhouse; the other was just rooms with honey buckets (5‑gallon pails with a toilet seat, common in the arctic to this day). We didn’t have flush toilets. We started renovating the place; there are 8 rooms in the hotel now so we can take 15 people all at once. There is a dining room and a nice lounge where our guests can watch TV. We try to make it home away from home.

“We hung these old black and white photos I had from the early 20th century in each room. There is a big Ulu (a women’s knife) hanging on the wall in the dining room. It is a king‑sized one made out of tin. In December, narwhal come close by (about 25 miles north from here) and there are many carved narwhal tusks around. I bought a tusk and I’m going to hang it on the wall so people can see it.”

When the Nunavut government was created in 1999 (the territorial boundaries were set in 1993), and Iqaluit established as the capital, it was decided that instead of having just one location for government offices, they should be decentralized. This is how Igloolik came to be one of the 10 communities where government offices are located, explains Elijah. “We have 5 or 6 departments in Igloolik. But our biggest market is construction workers, usually in the fall. We bring in trades people like electricians and plumbers. Many will stay in our hotel from the beginning of September until Christmas. Plus, we get a lot of government guests and sports hunters (for walrus and polar bear in the spring).

“I have 8 people on my staff. One of my cousins is our chef. My brother works part time here, as does my 12‑year‑old daughter during the summer. I let her work for three hours a week to get the experience. That is how I started in the business when I was 13 years old. I was mopping the floor. I have five kids ranging in age from 5 to 18 years old (3 boys and 2 girls) and 3 of them are adopted. Part of our tradition is to adopt children from relatives; two of my adopted ones are from my sister and one of our daughters is adopted from my wife’s side of the family. It doesn’t have to be from our relatives, but it happens a lot.”

Elijah Evaluarjuk says many people from other Arctic communities look up to Igloolik for the way it is preserving its language and culture. Just call the hotel and you will be greeted in Inuktitut. Elijah is hoping to capitalize on that heritage more and more.

“There are many talented artists and good carvers here. We could develop more tourism products. We have such wildlife, and waters are close by. That is why a long time ago people came to settle here; it was easy living off the land. When guests who come here for business want to stay a little longer, we take them out for day trips to different sites, either by snowmobile or dog sled.”

Finding a local outfitter may involve a little creativity: “When sports hunters come in, sometimes an announcement is made at the local radio station. Anybody who wants to do some guiding or take a dog team out is invited to come forward. From the list of those who answer, suppliers are selected to take them out. Starting in April, we can take people out to the floe edge in 30 to 45 minutes—this is where the water stays open all year around—to wait for the seals to come up. We can use snowmobiles until the middle of June. And then, the snow gets in again at the end of September or at the beginning of October.”

After a day out on the land, guests are invited to sample some of the local treats: “We can serve walrus or seal meat. We wouldn’t necessarily cook it at the hotel, but we can make that available upon request. Our dining room is only open for our guests, but every Friday we are open to the public for breakfast. And just last year, we started pizza delivery in town and that is going over very well.”

Not just any ordinary pizza; arctic char pizza. You see, for the longest time the Tujurmivik Hotel was the only game in town, until a few years ago when the local Co‑op also opened a hotel.

“There are now two hotels in town. What makes a difference for us when it comes to marketing is word‑of‑mouth. We have clients that have stayed with us (since) 25‑30 years ago. They always stay with us regardless of whether there is another hotel in town. I just did a lot of work last summer fixing up the rooms, new paint job, new carpet. I think my father would be happy to see how we are keeping the hotel running.”

There is comfort in knowing that even north of the 69th, success in the hospitality sector still hinges on an operator’s ability to seize new market opportunities without losing sight of the business’ root values. There are a few wisdoms worth exploring at Igloolik’s Tujurmivik Hotel.
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