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‘We don’t want it to feel like a jail’; Aaqqigiarvik correctional facility getting closer to housing inmates

Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit incorporated into design of Aaqqigiarvik
Tables inside one of Aaqqigiarvik’s medium-security living units. Trevor Wright/NNSL photo Tables inside one of Aaqqigiarvik’s medium security living units. Trevor Wright/NNSL photo

The Department of Justice showcased the new $89.5-million Aaqqigiarvik Correctional Healing Facility in Iqaluit on Aug. 26, providing a media tour of the new 96-bed facility that Nunavut’s inmates are expected to occupy in the near future.

The building includes five separate living units organized into minimum, medium and maximum security, a new gymnasium, nursing station as well as an Elders’ space.

Aaqqigiarvik means “a place for help to make progress in life.”

Mick McLeod, the GN’s acting director of corrections and warden of Baffin Correctional Centre (BCC) hopes Aaqqigiarvik will create a more positive environment for inmates and staff.

“We see that it’s very important, in order to be effective in the programming is to create an environment where it is healthy and respectful for them to do that programming,” he said.

Efforts to take a more reform-minded approach started by putting an end to disciplinary segregation at BCC in 2019.

The Department of Justice worked with an Elder advisory committee to ensure Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (traditional knowledge) is worked into Aaqqigiarvik.

“The Elders have been very heavily involved in all of the design, some of the concepts in some of the areas were inspired by their recommendations. Working with (the Department of) Culture and Heritage is also about that too, to try and incorporate all of that,” said McLeod.

Using Inuktitut words for spaces instead of English is one part of integrating IQ into Aaqqigiarvik. For example, instead of kitchen, kuuqarvik will be used.

“We don’t want English on any of the doors,” said McLeod. “All of it is in Inuktitut syllabics — the idea is to have proper terminology.”

Maximum security will be called pigiarvik, which means “starting place,” medium security will be known as makigiarvik (“is in progress to move forward”) while minimum security is aniguilqtuq (“getting close to completing the program”).

This new approach also extends to staffing titles: corrections officers will be known as corrections caseworkers and will look at helping rehabilitate prisoners back into society rather than punishing them for breaking the law.

McLeod added that the existing cramped environment at BCC has not been healthy for inmates and he has seen positive changes in some prisoners who have been transferred out.

“We had some of those guys who were maybe problematic in the old facility. They were less problematic in different environments. I think this new environment will be very conducive to a healthy and respectful path moving forward,” he said.

Aaqqigiarvik presents a brighter, more open environment compared to BCC, with access to air outside being present in each of the five living units. While still secure as a correctional facility, Aaqqigiarvik has a warmer feel to it compared to other prisons.

“We don’t want it to feel like a jail. If you walk around and see it has more of a campus feel in a lot of the areas, that’s the feeling we’re trying to create,” McLeod said.

In March, fire damaged parts of BCC, causing Corrections to transfer 60 Nunavut inmates to facilities in the NWT, Yukon and Ontario, according to officials at the time.

Those inmates and other out-of-territory prisoners are expected to return.

“The plan is to bring our clients back to Nunavut… we do understand there is a lot of value in having them home, close to family, close to all of their supports,” said McLeod.

COVID-19 causes delays

The planning for the new correctional centre goes back to 2015, after the Office of the Auditor General issued a report outlining the deficiencies of Nunavut’s existing correctional facilities, particularly BCC.

The report concluded there was not sufficient planning to house or manage inmates with proper reintegration and rehabilitation requirements. McLeod said BCC was built in the 1980s, when Iqaluit was still part of the NWT and was never meant to be the hold the territory’s inmates long-term.

The Government of Canada announced $57 million in new funding in February 2017 while the Government of Nunavut contributed $32.5 million toward the new correctional facility.

Construction began in May 2019, with May 2021 being the original goal for completion. Due to COVID-19, there have been delays.

The overall cost is yet to be determined as the construction of Aaqqigiarvik itself is just phase one of establishing the new correctional facility.

Phase two of the project will begin this fall with renovations taking place at BCC to turn it from a correctional centre to a programming space, additional offices and a new larger kitchen, which can accommodate the new, larger facility. Aaqqigiarvik and BCC are currently separated by a temporary wall but there are plans bring the facilities together.

Pre-deployment training for new corrections staff will take place over the fall, which will include human resources information, cultural orientation and training on how to manage custody populations. This training will be organized into two cohorts, the first starting on Sept. 7 while the other starts on Oct. 12.