Social Policy

Transient North: Looking for love in impermanent places

The following is the second in a three-part series exploring the impacts of a transient population on the lives of Northerners in Canada’s territories. Next week’s final piece widens the scope of impact to consider the lasting effects on the Yukon community as a whole. The depth of the pattern will be discussed beyond its cause and effect, and the inherent role of a transient population will be reviewed. Read Part 1 on the impacts of transient populations on the Northern labour market here.

The effects of transient population trends are often discussed casually, at length, but rarely fleshed out and documented. Unlike the Canadian south, all three Northern urban centres experience noticeable population fluctuation patterns as people move to and from the North. While this trend often revolves around efforts to find work, and is more common among young adults, transient population trends and their effects are felt across all demographics.

With the average new Northerner staying for only three years, this frequent population turnover has an impact on personal relationships. When talking to Yukoners who are either “born and raised” or have cultivated real roots in the community, there is no shortage of stories and experiences on what it is like to date and form friendships in a culture where people frequently physically move on.

For Northerners who have built a home and community, the hardship and frustration of saying goodbye to loved ones again and again is taxing.

It is hard to find someone who has called the North their home for a significant length of time who is unaware of the transient phenomenon. But while this trend exists as such a profound part of Northern culture, formal studies and hard data related to the subject are few and far between. Those that do (such as the 1991 community profile for Unalaska, Alaska) still leave difficulties for identifying cultural similarities between contrasting Northern cities.

The following is based on a collection of reported community observations and a defining of the cultural atmosphere surrounding the trend. Additionally, over 20 informal interviews were conducted to support previously held knowledge, and offer unique stories of how community members have been impacted by impermanent residencies.

The most commonly told narrative with respect to the impact on personal relationships is of the heartbreak when people leave. Whether an opportunity in the south arose, or the Northern lifestyle was too challenging or simply did not meet their needs, many newcomers to the North do not stay. One individual shared her rule for dealing with the transient trend: “I don’t bother to learn someone’s name unless they’ve lived here for a year.” At first, the statement might come across as somewhat elitist; however, as more stories of sadness when friends and lovers leave are revealed, it becomes a statement on what it means to invest energy and emotion into a relationship when the odds are not in one’s favour. For Northerners who have built a home and community, the hardship and frustration of saying goodbye to loved ones again and again is taxing. The result is that Northerners can be selective with relationships, which can sometimes come across as unwelcoming to newcomers.

After a romantic partner leaves, the next chapter may include the attempt to continue the relationship over long distance. While long-distance relationships are found worldwide, the experience becomes commonplace when a defined area experiences higher than normal population displacement. Unlike in Canadian cities like Ottawa or Toronto, the long-distance relationship has come to be almost a right of passage in the North, ending more often than not with the transient partner choosing a southern city with more amenities.

While these patterns are often rooted in people moving to the Yukon for work, those who arrive seeking the adventure lifestyle also help to create a unique Northern dating phenomenon colloquially referred to as “Peter Pan Syndrome.” This refers to the common trend of, usually, young men who move to the North with the articulated purpose of accessing outdoor adventure, but who also carry an unwillingness to invest in a life, job, or relationship. In laymen’s terms, they don’t wish to grow up, and the Yukon consistently paints an idyllic backdrop for this lifestyle.

Often the root of the struggle is the unwillingness to sacrifice one’s life in the North for a relationship.

In a perfect world of healthy relationships practicing clear communication, individuals who frequently choose this lifestyle would not have as much of an impact on dating culture. But a frequent result in the Yukon is frustration as one partner looks to commit to a long-term relationship, while the other invests in their independence and freedom from responsibilities.

What’s significant about this trend is the frequency with which it occurs. The North’s social expectations around committing to a long-term relationship are much more liberal when compared to southern communities. While a culture where one is free to choose the relationship style most fulfilling for them should be encouraged, a lack of communication about expectations can have adverse effects for partners on the receiving end.

For Yukoners who have made their home here, investing in relationships is not without risk. There is always the looming possibility that someone will leave, and many often do. For some, this means that it takes much longer to find a partner who is looking for the same kind of commitment. For others, it means a lack of intimate friendships in their life.

Yukoners freely talk about their frustrations related to transient population trends. Notably, the common obstacle shared in all the stories given involves trying to convince the transient partner that the Yukon is where they should establish their lives. But across the various aspects of hardship and heartbreak, there is still an incredibly strong connection to the Yukon’s land and community by those who have made their homes there. Often the root of the struggle is the unwillingness to sacrifice one’s life in the North for a relationship. While this has obvious adverse effects on those who have lost friends and lovers, it means that those who choose to stay have something important to offer the community and, ultimately, an understanding of the profound privilege of being able to call the Yukon one’s home.◉

Photo credit: Anthony DeLorenzo (CC)

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