As Tuktoyaktuk gym closure drags on, residents find new ways to be active

Noah Gruben, second from left, with his basketball team from Tuktoyaktuk. The group has been driving to Inuvik once or twice a week to play while renovations drag on at their local gym.  (Submitted by Noah Gruben - image credit)
Noah Gruben, second from left, with his basketball team from Tuktoyaktuk. The group has been driving to Inuvik once or twice a week to play while renovations drag on at their local gym. (Submitted by Noah Gruben - image credit)

Noah Gruben used to play basketball at the Mangilaluk School gym in Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., three times a week.

The 36-year old father has been playing basketball since he was a teenager, and says the sport is important to his physical and mental health.

"When you're on the court nothing exists, you're just there having fun. There's no time. There's no worries," he explained.

But it's been years since he was able to play in his local gym.

First, access was suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and then in 2021, when renovations at Mangilaluk, the community's only school began. Since June of 2022, it's been closed altogether.

In Tuktoyaktuk, the school gym is the only gym, and one of few public spaces for recreation, in the community.

Jenna Dulewich/CBC
Jenna Dulewich/CBC

Since February, Gruben and four other men from the community have been driving almost two hours to Inuvik once or twice every week to play in a basketball league there.

At first, they got $1,500 in gas vouchers from the Tuktoyaktuk Community Corporation, but the players used up all the vouchers about halfway through the season.

The players are now paying the $150 in gas for each trip themselves.

"We're trying to find funding and nobody's responding so we're just doing it out of our own pocket," he said.

"It's tough. Especially with the prices living up here, raising a family."

'Communication has been broken'

Planning for the Mangilaluk school renovations has been in the works since 2012. The newly renovated facility will have an extra 1,300 square metres of space, with a brand new gymnasium. The old gym will be turned into a kitchen, library, and high school lounge.

Construction on the facility was slated to begin in 2020, but renovations on the school were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and didn't start until January of 2021.

As of January 2021, the plan was for the new gym to be completed by the beginning of 2022.

But the old gym has been fully closed since June of 2022, and residents have no information about when the new gym will open.

Erwin Elias is the mayor of Tuktotaytok. He said that he's been trying to get information from the N.W.T. government about when the gym will be reopened, but hasn't been successful.

"Right from day one the communication has been broken… it's really just been frustrating," he said.

"At the end of the day… we have minimal resources in the community, minimal infrastructure. You take something this big away, it's got a huge impact on the community."

Jenna Dulewich/CBC
Jenna Dulewich/CBC

When Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson posed questions about the timeline for the renovations of Mangilaluk School in the legislature this week, Infrastructure Minister Diane Archie said they were working with the contractor for the project to give the community a more detailed timeline for the project.

One source of holdup for the project is that students are still being taught in the school while it is under construction.

When construction on the gym is finished and construction on classrooms begins, the plan is for classes to move into the gym, which would mean the community would wait longer to get it back, or to move classrooms to other facilities in town such as the hamlet office or the youth centre.

Jacobson says that instead of taking up the community's public space, the government should bring in portable classrooms for students.

"If we could do it for down in Yellowknife, we could do it for up in Tuktoyaktuk."

Making do

Losing access to the gym is also having a big impact on kids in the community.

In addition to playing basketball himself, Gruben has two kids at Mangilaluk school.

He says that without the gym, his kids don't have a chance to be active at school on days when it's too cold to go outside for recess.

"They just talk about wishing this gym was done or wishing they could have more stuff to do at school," he said.

Despite the challenges of driving out to play in Inuvik himself, he's just grateful to be getting a chance to play basketball again.

"It's helped in so many ways," he said. "Physically and mentally."