Master igloo-builder Solomon Awa waits to be passed another block of snow on the third day of building a 700 square-foot igloo in Iqaluit, Nunavut on Thursday March 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Emma Tranter

Master igloo-builder Solomon Awa waits to be passed another block of snow on the third day of building a 700 square-foot igloo in Iqaluit, Nunavut on Thursday March 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Emma Tranter

‘It’s going to come down to one block’: Building an igloo for Nunavut arts festival

Solomon Awa, now in his 60s, is considered a master igloo builder in Nunavut

Solomon Awa thinks he’s probably built about 150 igloos, or igluit in Inuktitut, over his lifetime, starting when he was 15.

Now in his 60s, Awa is considered a master igloo builder in Nunavut.

On a sunny afternoon in Iqaluit, he slices a long, thin knife through blocks of solid snow, carving them to fit snugly in an igloo’s walls. He steps back, squinting in the warm sun, to eye his progress, a thin layer of frost on his face.

Awa says igloo-building is traditional knowledge that has been passed down through generations of Inuit. There’s no blueprint.

“It’s all up here,” he says, poking a finger at his head beneath his sealskin hat.

But Awa has never built an igloo this big.

Last week, he led a team of 12 men in building a 65-square-metre giant igloo, called a qaggiq or gathering place, over four days. It’s about as big as a studio apartment.

The qaggiq was built to hold a two-day music and arts festival that took place over the weekend. The festival was hosted by Qaggiavuut, an Iqaluit-based organization that is advocating for the creation of a performing arts centre in Nunavut.

“I’ve never done anything like this before,” said Awa, balancing on a folding ladder and shaving the top off a snow block he’d just added to the wall.

Alex Flaherty, owner of the Iqaluit guiding company Polar Outfitting, recruited his team to help Awa and Qaggiavuut. In total, Flaherty thinks they cut out about 700 blocks weighing about 36 kilograms each.

“At one point we just lost count of how many we cut out,” he said.

The structure of an igloo is sort of like a snail shell, Flaherty explained. It starts with thicker blocks at the bottom and spirals into thinner ones as it gets to the top. The blocks are sealed together with ice by adding water in the cracks and smoothing it down.

“Eventually it’s going to come down to one block.”

Flaherty said no one in the group had ever built anything of that size.

The qaggiq is about 14 blocks high. At one point during building, the walls got so high that regular ladders wouldn’t reach, so the men stacked their qamutiik, or traditional sleds, and climbed up.

Pitseolak Pfeifer, Qaggiavuut’s executive director, said a qaggiq is a place of celebration. It’s the perfect venue to not only share performances, but also to welcome spring.

“It’s a place to hold a festival, to share culture as Inuit,” Pfeifer said.

Artists from all over Nunavut performed over the weekend, including drum dancers from Cambridge Bay and a theatre group from Pond Inlet.

Looee Arreak, a singer-songwriter from Pangnirtung and the festival’s artistic director, said it was the first time the artists would have performed in a qaggiq, although the idea isn’t new.

“These traditional songs, the drums, the throat singing, were first introduced in a qaggiq. It is very special,” Arreak said.

“It kind of makes me emotional. The architecture of the igloo itself brings so much pride to our culture.”

Pfeifer said he never thought holding a festival inside an igloo in the middle of a pandemic would be possible.

He said Qaggiavuut received permission from the territory’s chief public health officer. There are no cases of COVID-19 in Iqaluit.

“This might be the only place in Canada where we’re able to hold a festival,” Pfeifer quipped.

“If we have to play outside, perform outside, we can do it. But Nunavut deserves a performing arts centre. Inuit are amazing performers. It carries us through our lives.”

Back at the qaggiq, it’s -45 C with the wind chill outside, but Awa and his team are laughing, facial hair turning to icicles as they build higher and higher.

Emma Tranter, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Members of the community garden hosted their first seed swap and fundraiser at the Greenwood Mall in Sparwood on Monday. (Scott Tibballs / The Free Press)
Sparwood Community Garden hosts first seed swap

Work on the garden at Engelmann Spruce Drive will begin soon

Crews and volunteers responded to a four-hectare wildfire on the lower half of the Aqam community lands near Cranbrook on Friday afternoon. Trevor Crawley photo.
Wildfire season gets early start in the East Kootenay

Fire crews, volunteers respond to two local wildfires, while prescribed burns turn weekend skies smoky

A conceptual image of a multi-family housing development envisioned by Abugov Kaspar Architects to go on a lot in Castle Mountain in Fernie. (Image courtesy of City of Fernie)
City defers zoning decision

A zoning change would permit a development with 15 percent rental tenure residences in Castle Mountain

Rob and Jennifer King run Sasquatch Cyclery out of their garage. (Soranne Floarea/ The Free Press)
‘Hop on it now’: Parts crunch hits cycling

New bikes are hard to get and used bikes are selling at a premium this year

Michel-Natal-Sparwood Heritage Society runs a museum that was established to display the heritage of the "no-longer towns" of Michel and Natal, and the Elk Valley Area. Photo Submitted/Monica Beranek, Artifact Curator
Sparwood Museum requests a leg up to stay open full-time

The museum is volunteer-run, but needs a full-time employee to be able to snag much-needed grants

Pub patio in Victoria reopens with widely spaced tables, June 2020. Restaurants and pubs across are restricted to take-out and patio service only until May 25 at the earliest. (Tom Fletcher/Black Press)
B.C. extends COVID-19 indoor dining, group fitness ban until May 25

Don’t travel outside your region, Dr. Bonnie Henry warns

Carver Ken Sheen had almost finished work on a large cowboy carving commissioned by the City of Williams Lake to replace the original overlooking the Stampede Grounds when fire broke out Friday, April 18 at his property between Williams Lake and Quesnel. (Pine River Carving Facebook photos)
Cow boss statue destined for Williams Lake Stampede Grounds goes up in flames

Carver Ken Sheen lost the statue, all his tools and his shop in the blaze

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains. (Hansard TV)
B.C. moves to protect employee pay for COVID-19 vaccination

Most won’t need to take time off work, labour minister says

New figures show Canadian housing prices outpacing those in other developed countries. (Black Press Media file photo)
Canadian housing prices fastest rising in the world

Relative to 2000, housing prices have risen by a factor of more than 2.5

Russ Ball (left) and some of the team show off the specimen after they were able to remove it Friday. Photo supplied
80-million-year-old turtle find on B.C. river exciting fossil hunters

Remains of two-foot creature of undetermined species will now make its home at the Royal BC Museum

Joudelie King wants to get out and live life to the fullest, but there are places she can’t go because they don’t meet her accessibility needs. (submitted photo)
New online tool provides accessibility map for people with disabilities

The myCommunity BC map provides accessibility info for nearly 1,000 locations in the province

Most Read