A Constellation of Support

Nunastar Properties gives back to the North by providing growth and learning opportunities for youth

If you’ve been to Canada’s North, you’ve probably encountered Nunastar Properties Inc., an Edmonton-based company that owns two of the biggest hotels in the region, Yellowknife’s Explorer Hotel and the Frobisher Inn in Iqaluit.

Nunastar CEO Doug Cox, along with his sister-in-law, Janice Kent, bought Frobisher Developments Ltd. in 1998, changing the name to Nunastar. The Frobisher founders were Harry, Ralph, Bob and Jim Hole, who had inspired Cox to see the opportunity. The new name mixed the Inuktitut word “nuna” meaning land with the English word “star,” signaling their commitment to the north.

“Way too many people make their money in business up north or in remote communities and [the money] all ends up down south. Personally, I find this repulsive,” says Cox.

While Kent has long since retired, to celebrate their first decade of success, they committed $1 million to create the Nunastar Fund for Northern Children in 2008. Cox notes that life in extremely isolated northern communities is particularly challenging for youth. “The odds are stacked against them. We hope to improve the odds,” Cox says. “I saw $1 million as a starting point towards something much larger and enduring … to reinvest in communities and individuals in a way that has a meaningful and lasting positive effect.”

“Lasting positive effect” could sum up both the purpose and impact of Northern Youth Abroad (NYA), one of the programs Nunastar now supports. NYA began modestly in 1998, with just 10 participants. This year, the Ottawa-based charity will bring over 50 young people between the ages of 15 and 22 to placements across Canada and Guatemala from remote northern communities. Participants receive high school credits, while committing to 150 hours of volunteer work in southern communities. They also open doors that change lives.

Current NYA Board Chair, Karen Aglukark, is herself a graduate of NYA. Having grown up in Arviat, a small Nunavut community, she always wanted to move south for university. In 2007, NYA brought her to Ontario, where she enjoyed two volunteer placements, first in Ottawa, with a day camp run by Carleton University, then at Canterbury Recreation Centre’s day camp in Orleans.

She recalls that in Arviat people knew and chatted with each other as they walked across town, often in the middle of the streets. In the brief summer children played outside late into the bright evenings, where doors were never locked, their only safety concern being the occasional polar bear.

In Ontario, Aglukark commuted by bus about an hour each way, with multiple transfers, and had to adjust to a quiet commute without interaction.

At first, she says, “all you can see are these differences, but when you become comfortable and you begin to enjoy yourself, you realize that the purpose and meaning of life is the same. It is this sudden shift in perspective that allows you to recognize the challenges and benefits of both cultures.”

Aglukark went on to the international phase of NYA in 2008. This took her to Africa to live and work for two months with the Saan people in the community of Maun. “In Botswana, I became aware of the essential similarities among humanity, the challenges that Indigenous populations face, the perseverance of individual persons in the face of adversity and the quality and effect of cultural preservation and expression.”

Rebecca Bisson, NYA’s Executive Director, says youth come home understanding their own community’s relationship to the larger world, as part of a pattern common to Indigenous people the world over.

Way too many people make their money in business up north or in remote communities and [the money] all ends up down south. Personally, I find this repulsive

The strength of their home communities, who support them throughout the NYA process, also becomes clearer. The youth come home empowered to engage with solid skills to apply in their communities.

In 2014, NYA began partnering with Habitat for Humanity to help build homes in Guatemala. The orientation phase of NYA International now includes a three-week Construction Trades course at Algonquin College in Ottawa. Not only do students gain highly transferable skills in a trade, they also live on-campus, which provides solid grounding for pursuing further studies.

Bisson points with pride to NYA’s graduation rate; a solid 80 per cent of participants finish high school aided by the credit they earn through the program, which is especially impressive when compared to the North’s general high school graduation rate of less than 40 per cent.

And while Bisson says northern life can be challenging, she says there is also amazing strength among those communities. She’s seen that strength played out through the intergenerational support that feeds into NYA’s success. Youth fundraise to contribute to their placements, and everyone buys in; youth reach out to mentors, elders and teachers for reference letters. NYA youth know they go out with a whole community behind them, which motivates them to succeed.

It’s this same spirit of reciprocity that Bisson identifies as a key quality NYA seeks in sponsors. Nunastar, she says, fits that bill. “It’s a dialogue, not just a cheque,” she explains, noting that Nunastar’s support includes travel and accommodation for the NYA program.

In Botswana, I became aware of the essential similarities among humanity, the challenges that Indigenous populations face, the perseverance of individual persons in the face of adversity and the quality and effect of cultural preservation and expression

Meanwhile, in Iqaluit’s Joamie Ilinniarvik School, Nunastar’s support provides access to the larger world via technology. Thanks to the Northern Children’s Fund, Joamie School – which is home to some 225 kindergarten to Grade 5 students – was able to purchase three Smart Boards.

Principal Sonja Lonsdale installed one of those first three Smart Boards in her classroom. She praises the interactive aspect of Smart Boards: “Parents have mentioned that their children come home talking about their experiences using the technology,” she says.

“Joamie’s investment in technology got started because of the generous donation from Nunastar,” says Lonsdale. The Joamie Parent Committee has since been fundraising in support of this investment, which now includes 20 iPads shared by the school. By the end of the year, Lonsdale anticipates there will be a Smart Board in every classroom.

Since 2008, Nunastar’s initial $1 million donation to the Fund for Northern Children has grown to $1.55 million. While seeing the financial benefit in partnering with Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF), Cox also had strong personal reasons for choosing ECF to administer the fund.

“One of my early and great mentors in Edmonton was a wise old South African lawyer named John Slatter, who served as ECF’s first secretary. The rock solid confidence he created in ECF was critical to the initial $15 million investment by the Poole Family and Bob Stollery that essentially gave life to ECF,” says Cox.

When the time came to establish the Northern Children’s fund, Cox reached out to an organization that meant a lot to his mentor. An exceptionally well-respected Edmonton lawyer, Slatter’s work with the foundation ensured it would thrive and provide community support in perpetuity.

Now, the organization means a lot to Cox, too. “When you see children getting inspired and excited by the new technology that the Nunastar Fund brought into the schools, it’s an amazing thing. When you hear about the kids from extremely small northern communities who have never travelled outside their community of a few hundred people, gaining access to incredible leadership and mentored experiences in other parts of Canada, this is also an amazing thing.”