“What brought you North?”

Robin Young

Robin Young

Robin Young

The day I moved to Yellowknife my friend Janna brought me to a popular downtown pub called the Black Knight. The place reminded me of bars back in Halifax — with lots of warm lighting, wooden surfaces and live Celtic music. The only real clue that outside a Northern winter brooded were the bulky parkas hanging over the backs of almost every chair. Janna led me to a small table where a group of her friends were sipping beer. She introduced me as “Robin. My friend from back home and a really great guy.” The group greeted me with a few casual waves and then someone asked, “So, Robin, what brought you up North?”

I paused. Despite months of preparation before moving here, the question somehow stumped me. I tried to untangle the mix of reasons that made moving to Yellowknife — and, perhaps as crucially, moving away from Halifax — so important. Eventually, I fell back upon the expected response.

“You know. A job, a chance to get my foot in the door, a hope of paying off my student loan before I turn 30,” I said.

The answer seemed to satisfy everyone at the table but me. In reality, the job was a means to an end and not the end itself. So, what was I really searching for when I came to this cold, isolated place far away from family, friends and those long East Coast summers?

Over the course of the next six months I fell in love with the North for the same reasons that many do — the awe-inspiring winter nights, endless wilderness, and a community that quickly makes you one of its own. And yet I continued to grapple with the same question I’d pondered my first night in Yellowknife — what brought me up North? — so I looked outwardly for an answer.

The North’s population is composed of many different types of people, some who have lived here their whole lives and some for whom the North is only a pitstop. Aboriginal peoples, many of whom have called the North their home for countless generations, make up over half the population of the three Northern Territories. That said, the North is also home to a large and vibrant transient community — people who’ve come North seeking something. Even if, like me, they don’t always know what that something is. It’s within this group that I sought to find an answer to my question.

I found my first subject in the form of Shauna Morgan, an analyst with the Pembina Institute in Yellowknife. A mid-30s, off-the-grid activist originally from Toronto, Shauna had moved up North on a four-month contract but ended up staying. Shauna found a different way of life here, one that saw her living in a shack with no electricity and biking to work at minus 40 in the dead of winter.

“I grew up in suburbia and didn’t have to do anything. I didn’t know how to unplug a toilet if it was clogged, I didn’t even really know how to garden, didn’t walk or ride a bicycle anywhere… When I moved up here I started to see the potential of learning to do things for myself and realizing how empowering that feels.”

For Shuana, moving North was all about becoming self-reliant. She left Toronto as a true city slicker but over the course of her time here grew into a hard-nosed Northerner. The North didn’t just help her discover who she was, it molded her into that new person.

And me? Was I seeking that Northern do-it-yourself lifestyle when I headed to Yellowknife? I didn’t think so. I’d spent a good part of my childhood on ahomestead in the country picking weeds and chopping wood, so getting my hands dirty was not a new experience. Then again, some of my most memorable moments since moving up were in that kind of spirit — building a hockey rink on a frozen Yellowknife Bay, performing a children’s play in the Snowking’s snowcastle, and sitting around giant pallet fires during freezing cold nights in the middle of January. Maybe I hadn’t changed as a person the way Shauna had, but the grassroots culture certainly was one of the most special parts of the North for me.

A few weeks later the topic of moving North came up during an unexpected conversation at a friend’s house party. That conversation was with Younes Oudghough, a tall, handsome Moroccan man with an easy smile.

With great earnestness, Younes told me the story of how he came to Canada as an international student, and then how he came to live in the North. Younes first came to Montreal and found it a challenge adjusting to the Canadian way of life. The weather was colder, the food was plainer, and the Quebecois accent was almost impossible to understand. Despite all this, Younes excelled in his new environment, achieving good grades while learning English and working 20 hours a week to support himself.

The real problems came, Younes told me, when he applied for a working visa — the document that would allow him stay in the country, get a full-time job, and, hopefully, lead him to becoming a permanent resident. The first application he sent was somehow lost along the way and the second was rejected outright because one of the agents he had spoken to at Immigration had given him the wrong information about how to apply. A letter came along with the rejected application that said Younes could not reapply and that he had one month to leave the country.

“It was a very very dark time. I was broke and didn’t have any help from anybody and not knowing the laws or the government or how they operate. I was going through the government website and looking for the laws and what’s there and how I could go around this and restore my status and stay in Canada. It took me so much time, looking day and night looking through all these papers.”

Younes’s saving grace came with the realization that his phone call with the agent who gave him the wrong information was recorded. So Younes called Immigration back once again.

“I told (the agent), ‘do you have a pen and paper?’ I said, ‘here’s the date, the hour the minute with the phone number I called from.’ She was surprised. She said, ‘is all this information accurate, really?’ And I go, ‘Yeah, really. Because this isn’t just a phone number or information. This is my life. This is the future of a person. No, not just one person, a person and his family because they sold everything to allow me to come to Canada and they rely on me to make myself a life here, and stay here and help them out in the future. That was the whole purpose of me coming here.’”

After the agent found the recorded phone call, Younes was allowed to reapply and after three weeks he received a letter saying his application had been accepted and his status restored.

A few months later Younes packed up his bags and moved to Yellowknife. He chose the Northern city, he said, because the job market was good and he couldn’t afford to spend months waiting to get his first paycheque. Within a week of arriving in Yellowknife Younes had signed a lease for an apartment, joined a soccer team, and been hired on at a local IT company.

“I remember getting my first paycheque. It was for 19 dollars an hour and in Montreal I’d been working for 8 dollars and hour, 9 dollars an hour. It felt like it was so much money. So I went to the grocery store and I remember feeling so happy to buy something that wasn’t pasta or rice. I bought fruit, I bought ice cream! It tasted so good.”

Younes spent months fighting to stay in a country whose government, it seemed, only wanted to see him go. After this ordeal, the North was exactly what he needed — a place that would welcome him with open arms. My reasons for coming North are not the same as Younes’s, but I did feel the same openness that made his transition so easy. People are friendly and welcoming, jobs are easy to come by, and there are lots of groups to become involved with. The place feels like a haven for those who never found their place elsewhere.

But was this why I had come to Yellowknife? For its openness to outsiders? Integrating into a new community was one of the most daunting things I faced moving away from Halifax, and Janna told me that I might have an easier time in Yellowknife. That said, if I wanted to move somewhere based purely on how easy it was to put down roots I should have just stayed in Halifax. There was something else that had drawn me here.

I realized, at this point, that many of the truths I was throwing around were gathered solely from Yellowknife experiences. I decided I would call up my friend Tessa, a laid-back hippy girl living in Whitehorse, who’d moved up North two years before me.

On the phone, I asked Tessa about her move and how she’d handled it. Speaking with the hesitation of someone who rarely complains, she said it was a bit of a struggle at first, especially when it came to making friends. She met a few people when she moved up but didn’t find anything close to the friendships she had in Halifax.

When I asked her if she regretted her move, though, she made it clear that she was happy with her decision. After all, she said, Whitehorse helped her figure out what she wanted to do with her life.

“The great thing about the North is that you get the opportunity to try things out you never would have been able to. I feel like here employers are way more willing to take a chance on you and trust that you’ll be willing to work hard. Down South I would have never gotten the job I have now.”

Tessa’s job now involves working with children as a recreational program coordinator. It’s a job for which she had little relevant experience when she was hired. Tessa does have a degree in theatre, but upon her arrival in Whitehorse she found opportunities in that field were few and far between. So, instead, she was hired to organize a gymnastics summer camp. That led her to the job she has now which helped her to realize that she wanted to work with children.

“I’d been thinking about becoming an elementary school teacher for a while, but that experience really confirmed my decision. I’m going down to Vancouver to get my teaching degree in the fall.”

I could relate with Tessa’s story too. I had certainly felt the Northern effect while looking for jobs in Yellowknife. Fresh out of school, I’d applied to countless positions in Halifax and the best I got was a call for more information that led nowhere. By contrast, in Yellowknife, I had been interviewed by three of the four companies where I’d applied and one of those companies, a communications agency, offered me a position.

But I hadn’t come here looking to explore a new field. I knew what I wanted to do, didn’t I? Considering how easy it was to get a job that you, as Tessa put it, “would have no chance at getting down South,” I couldn’t deny that the thought of trying something new had crossed my mind. Maybe if I started working at the newspaper that would lead me to becoming a writer, a profession I’d been idolizing for the past year. But these were only daydreams and who knew if I’d ever end up following through.

Even after these conversations, there still seemed to be a side of the North I was missing. A factor I had not taken into consideration.

I asked some of my friends but had no luck, so I turned to Edge_YK, Yellowknife’s local alternative magazine, to see if their extensive archive of Yellowknife profiles might hold the answer. After skimming through numerous articles with no luck, I came upon the profile of Derrick La Saga, a serious-looking fuel truck driver and poet originally from Stephenville, Newfoundland.

As a young man, Derrick moved from Newfoundland to Ontario and back again, while battling alcohol abuse and mental health issues. Around the time Derrick moved to Yellowknife, in May 2010, his relationship with his girlfriend ended with a break up that he says left him feeling like “his heart was being ripped out his ass.”

After reading the article I contacted Derrick to try and find out more about his move and the reasons behind it. Derrick told me that moving up to Yellowknife was the biggest step he had ever made towards becoming his own person.

“The first year was the hardest period of my entire life. It was a time when I dove headlong into my talents and interests (weightlifting, writing) so I could avoid focusing on my feelings of isolation and culture shock. Yellowknife is a place where only the strong get anywhere because of the cost of things up here. (But) it was through finding out my personal identity and feeling my way around the job market here that I discovered and trained in the profession I love.”

Despite the initial struggle, many good things have come to Derrick since his move. It’s here that he met his wife Lynn, sought to confront his difficulties with alcohol and mental health and published a book of poetry.

Derrick’s reasons for coming to Yellowknife, it seemed, spawned from a search for something new, but also a need to escape. Moving to Yellowknife, he left behind the ghosts of a difficult upbringing and past relationships. Maybe those were things he needed to get away from to find himself. Is it possible that his old life was pushing him away, as much as Yellowknife was pulling him? I asked Derrick if the details of his past encouraged his move, but he was hesitant to talk about it.

Even so, this new thought reminded me of stories I’d been told about Yellowknife and Whitehorse as frontier towns. When they were still developing and difficult to access, the Northern cities served as havens for those trying to get away from something, those with a chequered past and, sometimes, a chequered present. It felt like Yellowknife had preserved some of that same spirit in the modern day. What better a place to run away to than an isolated town where you could very quickly put down roots and you wouldn’t stick out as an outsider.

I wasn’t sure whether that was the case for Derrick but it begged the question, had I been running away from something when I came to Yellowknife?

In the years before my move, my family had leaned upon me heavily for support. My sister and brother struggled with mental health issues and, because of strained relationships between them and my parents, it often fell upon to me to try and pick them up when they fell down. When things got bad between my siblings and parents, I did my best to get them to reconcile, though it didn’t always work.

Yellowknife, July 2014.

Yellowknife, July 2014.

My family was also a source of joy, love, and support. But the pressure and stress I felt from always being the listener, the sympathizer, the one who everyone would go to when they were dealing with something difficult, felt suffocating. I was 24 and had dreams of writing a novel and starting a business and so many other things, but I worried none of that would happen if all my energy was being spent at home. I had been given the responsibility to keep everyone sane and together and, in truth, it was not a responsibility that I wanted.

I realized now that I had been running when I came here. And not just running away, but running away from those I loved and who loved me. Was I a coward because I couldn’t handle the responsibility of supporting my loved ones? Those who needed me most? How could I separate cowardice from the need to find my independence?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. But I know that like so many others who have come here, moving to the North has been an exceedingly positive experience for me. I have found that independence that I was lacking before my move and have begun working towards some of the dreams I put off. Even back home in Nova Scotia, things did not crumble without me there as I worried they might.

I can’t be sure that running was the right thing to do, but I am sure that North was the right place to run. The North accepts all who come, no matter their reasons for coming. ◉

Robin Young is a communications professional and writer living in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. He moved from Halifax in November 2014 and plans on staying in the North for, “the next little while, at least.” Robin was published in LifeRattle’s 2014 Totally Unknown Writers Festival anthology, a collection of creative non-fiction by new writers. His other written work can be found at his writing blog, robinsritings. tumblr.com.

The publication of this work was supported by the Emerging Northern Writers and Artists Fund.