Arson in Apex

Old timers in Apex and Iqaluit lost an old friend to arson today. The original 1955 school was destroyed by fire.

Both Nunatsiaq News Online and Igalaaq's nightly Inuktitut newscast initially reported it as the Sir Martin Frobisher federal day school, but that was a different and much later institution located downtown near the site of today's Iqaluit post office.

Along with the Apex Nursing Station, Power Plant and Garage, the victim of today's malicious stunt was the original Two-Room School built during the summers of 1955 and 1956, with strong memories for many survivors.

These four remaining buildings, along with a carpentry shop and other trades facilities were part of a 'Rehab Center' established to help Inuit patients returning from Southern tuberulosis sanatoria. Some had been away for years and the younger among them spoke little Inuktitut. Others had lost parents and siblings to the disease while in the south and faced a difficult transition back to their various communities elsewhere on Baffin Island.

My own extended family attended a heart wrenching memorial service in Hamilton a few years ago when Inuit graves were refurbished and rededicated. It provided some real healing and 'closure' for family members who had never seen where their relatives disappeared to. One was my father-in-law's sister, Aunt Josie, who was also mother to recent Nunavut Commissioner Ann Hanson.

Given this close family and community connection, many Iqalummiut were disturbed when the school building was scheduled for demolition after its last commission as a teaching materials development and resource center for the then NWT Department of Education. When local contractor Rick Guimond began to tear the three exterior porches off, we pleaded with him to allow us to buy it in an attemtp to save the building. I ended up trading an equally surplused old Bell Telephone hydraulic ladder truck for it and he ceased demolition.

There followed many years of trying to assemble a volunteer group of citizens and institutions to manage a project to turn all four buildings into a sort of communal museum and tourist attraction to commemorate the difficult 1950 and 1960 transition years in what was then Frobisher Bay. Despite persistent vandalism and a previous attempt at arson by young vandals, we managed to keep patching the building up and prayed it would survive until the project could be launched.

Due to my age and ill-health over recent years, I passed the torch to my daughter and she was on the verge of great success in recent months, having obtained strong commitments from various agencies and begun preparations to proceed next season. The refurbished facility was to include various art and film studios along with a few single or elders' apartments, the income from which would make the remainder a self-sustaining community arts center.

The school and the neighborhood project had become even more significant as the other buildings passed to private ownership. The power station had served as elder Mary Peters' corner store for some years and was eventually sold by her estate. The nursing station, once part of a volunteer Iqaluit and Apex historical society is now Rannva's private home; and the venerable old garage continues to serve the City of Iqaluit as overnight shelter for water trucks in case of a fire in Apex.

So, it is with tremendous sadness that long term Apex residents watched this historic memento finally succumb to the repeated attacks of very young vandals and the indifference of guardians responsible for them.

The accompanying photographs (with fond thanks to Doug Wilkinson) show the property in its former glory; (a) the school itself in 1956; (b) Maxine Sunderland, the first teacher; (c) Alookie, one of the first students; (d) Billy Joamie, with wonderful irony given the history of relations between Dene and Inuit, reading "Ten Little Indians"; e) Inookie and family returning from a summer hunt with the garage in the background; and (f) today's tragedy.

Perhaps the saddest and most telling comment of all is that for those of us who loved the building most, the predominant emotion after a few weeks might be relief from the constant worry in the pit of our stomachs that someone would be hurt in the next mindless attack.