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Building a Home for Labrador’s Inuit Cultural Revival

Construction is wrapping up on the Illusuak Cultural Centre, a striking wooden structure being built on the shores of the North Atlantic in Nain, Canada, to celebrate the region’s Inuit heritage.

Written by Susan Nerberg Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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The Illusuak Cultural Centre in Nain, Labrador, Canada, is seen while under construction in the summer of 2016. The undulating exterior has since been clad with wooden siding. (Photo by Susan Nerberg)Photo by Susan Nerberg

One of the first things you’ll see when you fly into Nain, in northern Labrador, Canada, is a building that could make the cover of an architecture magazine. Rising proudly on the shore of the Labrador Sea, it seems to wave to you, its undulating walls inviting an image of a kayaker’s billowing spray skirt or the Northern Lights. What you’re seeing is the brand new Illusuak Cultural Centre. It’s a striking welcome to Nunatsiavut, the self-governing region of the Labrador Inuit. But even more, the wood-wrapped building is an emblem of Labrador Inuit reclaiming their heritage and a home for sharing it with locals and visitors alike.

Coincidentally, or perhaps ironically, construction of the Illusuak Cultural Centre is finishing this fall and move-in starts in October – in the same year that Canada celebrates the sesquicentennial of Confederation. In this context, Illusuak seems to say, “Yes, the country as we know it today is 150 years old, but Labrador Inuit have been here since time immemorial.” It’s a culture that has thrived in a harsh climate for millennia, and the center aims to reinvigorate and showcase the ingenuity and traditions that have made that possible.

Johannes Lampe, the president of the Nunatsiavut Government, stands inside the Illusuak Cultural Centre. (Photo by Susan Nerberg)

“The Illusuak Cultural Centre was built by Inuit, for Inuit – but everyone is welcome,” Johannes Lampe, the president of the Nunatsiavut Government, tells me as he gives a tour of the unfinished building on an August afternoon. Around us are piles of wood paneling and drywall, circular saws and tool boxes, and if you look toward the light streaming in from the tall windows that let in views of Unity Bay, you can see drywall dust floating in the air like snow. Even though construction isn’t complete, Lampe’s excitement is palpable. “Imagine, here on the entrance wall, there will be portraits of Inuit, young and old,” he says, sweeping an arm in a wide circle around the wall. “For the first time, we will be able to see ourselves.”

While Nain wasn’t put on the map for positive reasons – it was permanently settled in 1959 after Inuit had been forcibly removed from Hebron, a Moravian Church mission supported by the government – today, the town is becoming visible to the world thanks to Illusuak. Designed by Todd Saunders, the Newfoundland-born, Norway-based architect perhaps most famous for Fogo Island Inn and the Fogo Island artist studios, it might, if you dream big, become the Guggenheim Bilbao of the Canadian north. “People travel to see Todd Saunders’ buildings, so we hope it will be a big draw,” says Jim Lyall, the minister of Culture, Recreation and Tourism. Still, Illusuak is about Inuit becoming visible to themselves.

“The center will teach the younger generation about our history,” says Lyall. “We’ve lived successfully on this land for thousands of years in harsh conditions, but many of our young people are not aware of that history.”

There will be displays and exhibits that explain the past and show traditions. (While located in Nain, Illusuak represents and will showcase all five communities in Nunatsiavut: Nain, Hopedale, Makkovik, Postville and Rigolet.) The finishing touches are being put on a 75-seat theater that will screen films and host live performances. There will also be a cafe serving traditional foods and spaces for Inuktitut language classes or just getting together and sharing stories and discussing ideas. “We’re providing an opportunity for youth and elders to sit down in a comfortable area, as opposed to a stiff boardroom, to talk,” says Lyall.

Megan Dicker, who just left Nain for St. John’s, in Newfoundland, to study at Memorial University, is looking forward to Illusuak’s opening. “We’ll know more about our culture and develop pride in who we are,” she says. “”But we’ll also have a place where we can start conversations we haven’t had.

“It’s late, but not too late, to recognize and acknowledge the past,” she adds, referring to colonialism and the loss of language, culture and traditions. “We can’t undo that past, but we can use it to bring about change and move forward collectively.”

Illusuak, then, is a mirror and a microscope, but it’s also a way to put Labrador Inuit into a broader context. “It had always been a dream of mine that we would have our own cultural center to celebrate our heritage,” says Gary Baikie, a Nain resident and the superintendent of Torngat Mountains National Park, which opened in 2006, the year after Nunatsiavut was created. (Baikie was part of the committee that spearheaded the idea for Illusuak in the early 2000s, when the project went by the name Torngasôk.) “With the political boundaries created after European contact, Inuit were separated into different regions,” he explains, “but with Illusuak, there’s an opportunity to show that Inuit are one people. It’s similar to what we’ve been able to do with the national park, where we’ve already started erasing the boundary between Nunatsiavut and Nunavik [in Quebec] through exchange programs. Illusuak will show how Labrador Inuit are part of the circumpolar north.”

A view of the main street in Nain, Labrador. (Photo by Susan Nerberg)

The project hasn’t been without challenges, including where to put the building: There are bogs and permafrost, so flooding and heaving are constant concerns. The final spot is on the ocean; with the building hovering on stilts, it’s high enough to not get flooded or topple over with freeze-thaw cycles that are getting more and more erratic with climate change. “The building will be flooded – with people,” says Lampe optimistically. Another challenge was the short construction season, so the official opening date has had to be pushed at least once (while move-in starts this fall, the official opening is planned in the fall of 2018). And in light of a shortage of both housing and jobs, some residents have been reluctant to see the center is a good idea. “The fact is, money for Illusuak comes from Heritage [Canada] and was earmarked for the center,” says Lyall, explaining that funds for housing and employment programs would come from different departments and budgets. “When you rebuild pride by celebrating your own history, traditions and worth, other positive developments might follow.”

As for what outsiders can learn about Labrador Inuit, Megan Dicker puts it succinctly. “We are here!”

Johannes Lampe stands by the shore near the Illusuak Cultural Centre. (Photo by Susan Nerberg)

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