Joe Savikataaq Jr. says it was never his plan to get into politics, and he definitely didn't expect to be leading his community through a pandemic, but he's humbled to be doing what he can as Arviat's new mayor.
"I went from the frying pan into the fire," the former deputy mayor and community conservation officer said of stepping in as the municipal leader when Arviat lost its beloved long-time mayor, Bob Leonard, who died in March.
"I got into this job in an unfortunate way where our previous mayor Bob Leonard passed away just when the pandemic was starting," said Savikataaq Jr. "It has been very challenging and very rewarding at the same time."
CBC News caught up with Savikataaq Jr. in person in Arviat to talk about how the hamlet is supporting residents during COVID-19, and how existing community-focused projects are helping people with their mental health.
Savikataaq Jr. said the community was respectful of strict physical distancing put in place at the beginning of the pandemic restrictions in Nunavut, but that being apart in such a close-knit community was hard.
It has been very challenging and very rewarding at the same time. - Joe Savikataaq Jr., Arviat mayor
That's why Arviat pushed to have fishing derbies in the spring, so that residents could feel like they had a regular activity to do, even if it couldn't be done in groups, he said.
"That was very important as mental health is very huge, and that played a role in easing the minds of people for their mental well-being," he said.
The pandemic also showed how strong Arviat's municipal infrastructure is, Savikataaq Jr. said. With no underground water pipes, known as a utilidor, the community relies solely on trucks for delivering water and taking sewage from homes.
"At any given moment there are six water trucks on the road and six sewage trucks," he said. "There was an increase in water consumption. We were pumping 500,000 litres more a month than normal during the pandemic."
Sports park, drop-in centre support youth
Youth in the community benefited from the community's large sports park this summer. The outdoor space has artificial turf for playing soccer and baseball, and there is also a place for ball hockey and basketball, and playgrounds for the younger children.
"It's very important because the kids have to have something to do. It's mainly for their mental health, also to keep occupied, to have something to look forward to," Savikataaq Jr. said.
A youth drop-in centre is another vital service that the hamlet's wellness division runs. It will be moving into a bigger building soon that was just acquired by the hamlet, he said.
The community's longest road was also important to residents during COVID-19, he said, because it gave families access to get out on the land this summer.
The hamlet has been working to make the 75-kilometre road longer over the years, so people can travel to the lake and to their cabins and go boating and berry picking.
The road is resurfaced each year. That's become easier to do now that the hamlet has a gravel crusher. It means the hamlet can take care of its roads, and it's able to sell the gravel as a product, instead of ordering it from the South.
It's this kind of infrastructure that the hamlet is focusing on in order to be more self-reliant. The community purchased a metal shredder two years ago so it can process and bury metal from the dump — like old cars, which carry contaminates and take up space.
For residents, the hamlet is also bringing in a driving examiner once every two months, so people can get their driver's licenses. This is especially important for those who need licenses for their jobs. The RCMP stopped offering the drivers exam service in communities a few years ago.
Savikataaq Jr. said he doesn't know what the coming months will bring, but he is committed to doing whatever he can to help residents and to carry on the work Leonard was doing.
"When you come in here there's a big sign that says, 'Nunavut's friendliest community,'" he said. "Everyone makes me feel so humble. Words can't explain it."