The Canadian Arctic
February 15, 2011 12:30 PM   Subscribe

Nunavut, Nunavik and the NWT: What's it actually like living and working there as somebody from "the south"? For positions in various fields that require 10+ years of experience and educational qualifications, the salaries seem high, but I'm aware the cost of living is also high.

I know about the high cost of groceries and other costs related to anything that's imported from the south. For anyone that's lived and worked there, how did this affect your lifestyle? Did you ever order a huge batch of stuff and wait for the once-yearly sealift (see: How did that work out?

There's probably a huge difference in lifestyle between living in Yellowknife or Iqaluit and smaller locations that have populations of only 500 people.

Cost of travel seems high. Round trip tickets between Yellowknife and Hay River are something like $300 for a 45-minute flight. I'm sure it costs quite a lot more to fly from a place like Resolute or Cambridge Bay to Winnipeg. The sheer size of the place and widely distributed population seem daunting. In Nunavut, There's less than 45,000 people living in a truly immense area. I'm assuming this means that if you live in a small town as an imported foreign technical specialist on some specific topic that it's absolutely essential to get along with all of your neighbours.

The perpetual sad status of natives in the Canadian arctic is something I'd like to get more information about. I'm aware of the much higher than average rates of alcoholism, and health problems that the government hasn't yet managed to fully address. Did you know that Nunavut has an ongoing TB problem? I'm wondering how the lack of economic opportunities and societal issues being faced by the native people of the area affect the communities as a whole, when you live there for a year or two. How does this affect day to day relations between the "foreign" southern Canadians and the native people of the north? What exactly is going on with the Harper government's "arctic sovereignty" program of an increased military and government presence up there?
posted by thewalrus to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Never been to NWT, but I did spend almost two years on the far northwest coast of Greenland, at Thule AB: a small piece of advice for those spending lots of time that far north (or extremely south!) is to have an alarm clock that specifies AM and PM --- when it's 24-hours of daylight or dark, you can't tell if it's 8am or 8pm otherwise......
posted by easily confused at 1:06 PM on February 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I actually just got back from a month in Inuvik, NWT -- I don't live up there, but this was my third one month working stint in the past year, and my work also takes me up to smaller "neighbouring" communities (scare quotes because I'm not sure a 2 hour flight north counts as neighbouring anywhere except in the Arctic) like Ulukhaktok and Sachs Harbour for a few days at a time. My experiences are all in the Western Arctic -- I haven't gotten out to the eastern half yet, and based on what I've heard from colleagues who have worked in both, there are some differences, primarily in regards to administrative and government stuff, so bear that in mind. As far as my experiences go, I really love working in the north -- the population is smallish (somewhere around 4000), but outsiders who go up tend to be young and adventurous or old and eccentric, which makes for a ridiculously fun community of people. The phrase commonly used by outsiders to describe themselves is "misfits, malcontents, missionaries, and mercenaries," which is meant to be a joke, but more or less covers things. Like in many small towns, the size of the population means that you will end up befriending people that you wouldn't normally get to know -- in Inuvik, most of the southerners under the age of 35 or so all kind of end up lumped into one big social group -- which I find refreshing. You'll probably find that a lot of the southerners are well-travelled people with interesting stories to tell, and always up for an outdoorsy or cultural adventure.

As far as relationships between southerners and the Gwich'in and Inuvialuit people who have traditionally lived in the area, I find that there's a bit of a "two solitudes" thing going on. The native people in the area are bonded by generations of close family ties, and to become a part of that close-knit society is obviously difficult for an outsider. However, people meet over things like curling or school events, and it certainly is not impossible for friendships to spring up between the two groups -- it just takes more effort.

The social problems in the north are real and heartbreaking-- sometimes it feels like the roots of the issues of addiction, family dysfunction, and poverty go back so far (and are so socially loaded due to the residential school horrors) that they seem impossible to improve, especially as an outsider. Frankly though, as an outsider, I don't know how you would be affected in any way in your day to day life -- you haven't been through that tragedy, and no one would expect you to understand, and unless you are working in a position (health care, social work, residential school settlement negotiations, etc.) that specifically requires people to open up to you about it, you will not hear a lot about people's private suffering. Moreover if you're not living in the north, it can seem like this is all there is to these northern communities -- certainly those are the only stories we ever hear about in the Canadian south. In reality, these small communities have been incredibly strong and good in the face of immense adversity -- the amount of tragedy people have been through is shocking (a single person can often rhyme off a list of horrors starting with early physical or sexual abuse and ending with the loss of multiple family members to suicide or terrible accidents), but people really pull through, banding together to raise the children of extended family members, working on community initiatives to get people back out onto the land or into healing centers, and generally trying hard to improve things for the next generation. You *will* probably notice that there is a fair bit of alcohol use that happens, but I don't think this is enormously different than any other economically depressed small town (and frankly, there is quite the culture of alcohol consumption amongst the young southerners as well). So I guess my point is, yes, there are a ton of problems, but right now, I think a lot of your impression of the place is defined by the problems you've heard about, whereas once you actually live somewhere, you may find that you develop a more nuanced view, and the tragedies will be only one part of the picture you see.

Things *do* cost a lot in the north, but you also receive hefty northern allowances which tend to make up for it. I think the main difficulty is just the lack of availability of a lot of little luxuries -- fresh fruit that doesn't look creepy, nice restaurants, any sort of fancy retail good (although the cafe in Inuvik has an espresso machine now, which is oh so incredibly delightful). I should specify that you actually *can* get many things you wouldn't expect to find in the Arctic -- kiwi fruit, tofu, kale, fancy(ish) cheese -- it's just that availability is extremely spotty (there are days when there are literally no milk products on the shelf in the supermarket; everyone just patiently waits till they come back) and quality will clearly not be as high in the south. Most outsiders tend to make a good enough salary that they leave several times a year (if only to go as far south as Yellowknife or Edmonton) to stock up on stuff and get a little taste of city life -- of all the problems southerners have in the north, not making enough money is definitely not one of them, and with most jobs, you will probably be able to treat yourself to expensive produce and quarterly trips south while still saving much more than you would if you were living in any other Canadian city. In fact, it is not uncommon for people in some fields to work half time in the north and spend the other 6 months of the year doing *anything they want* in the south. Further compensation for your material deprivation comes in the form of adventure: dog sledding, hunting, fishing, hiking, and other outdoors pursuits (plus northern lights!), as well as the daily exciting frontier-town feeling of life in a small town in the north. There are so many opportunities available -- a lot of the nurses who work in the hospital Inuvik (young, adventurous types, but not particularly ginormously muscled or anything) have joined the volunteer firefighting squad in town, where they get to train on the fire equipment and learn skills they might never otherwise get to acquire. Other people have taught classes or started various clubs or community organizations -- basically, there is such a need for skilled and enthusiastic people in any field that you can put your skills to use in a way you might not get to elsewhere.

So in a nutshell, I'd say that life in the Western Canadian Arctic feels a bit to me like a last frontier -- there's a Wild West, can-do, improvisational kind of spirit to it that appeals to me, and as a bonus, if you make friends with Gwich'in or Inuvialuit elders, you can learn all about living on the land and traditional hunting and crafts and suchlike. The down sides are what you'd expect in a tiny, economically depressed small town (lack of anonymity, lack of consumer goods, higher incidence of alcohol abuse and the related fights and depression). I don't know if I'd move up there permanently if my personal circumstances allowed for it -- I know I'd definitely be tempted, but I *do* like my urban southern luxuries -- but I'm definitely super happy to be one of the many people that commute north for at least part of the year. It really feels like a privilege to get to live in a part of the country that exists in the Canadian cultural mythology, but that most people will never get to see. To be paid (and paid generously) for that privilege feels nearly absurdly lucky. I highly recommend it.
posted by TheLittlestRobot at 3:07 PM on February 15, 2011 [104 favorites]

Oops sorry -- when I say that the population "there" is around 4000, I mean Inuvik, not the entire friggin' Western Arctic.
posted by TheLittlestRobot at 3:08 PM on February 15, 2011

I only worked in the Arctic for a couple months but I've had family and friends that have lived, and still live there.

A couple questions for you - where are you located? By your mentioning $300 for Yellowknife to Hay River, I'm guessing you don't live in Canada? Or you don't fly to distant areas a lot? Sorry, I'm totally not meaning to be rude but that actually sounds like a pretty good price to me. My flights from Ottawa to Iqaluit were ~$1800 and that was a three hour flight.

Also, the problems in Arctic communities have gotten a fair amount of attention in the Canadian media although maybe that's just the crises situations. Maybe try listening to CBC North to get some local information?

Things are expensive there ($2.50 for a can of pop and $30 for watermelon) but you get paid a lot. I don't think it is too bad. The Northern Allowance thing means that you might be able to save some money even. Though you'll probably want to allow at least a couple trips down south or South every year (at least judging by my friend's Facebook).
posted by hydrobatidae at 3:12 PM on February 15, 2011

I have a friend who taught high school in one of the outlying isolated communities in Nunavut. She loved it but of course it has its pros and cons. A few things she mentioned as cons:

Expenses - flights are very expensive, as is food etc -- planning ahead to take advantage of the sealift, and bring stuff up with you in the first place, yes. Less fresh produce and dairy, less specialty items like fancy marmalades or whatever, more ingenuity in combining ingredients. Salaries are higher, and there is less to do in terms of nightlife/restaurants so she definitely was saving money over working in the south.

Housing choice is typically pretty limited, so you may end up being housemates with someone you are not wild about. (This might be a teachers only thing.)

Infrastructure can be spotty, and as permafrost breaks down with warming, there will be more problems along these lines. (Eg look at stories about the bridge/etc damage in Pangnirtung a few years ago)

Alcohol - some communities are dry (though she said southerners could still bring their own as long as it was very much private-party, inside the house stuff) so you'll want to check. She was in a non-dry community and it was really tough, there was a lot of the bad stuff you can imagine from severe alcohol abuse, violence, suicides etc. She later went to a dry community and it was a lot better in terms of those things. Do your homework ahead of time on this.

Suicide and violence, youth despair - even in the relatively healthy community she went to later, there were still more social problems of this type than you might see in a random small town in the south. My friend may have seen more of this because she was involved with the students, so she was feeling this keenly, and if you weren't so hands-on with the kids it might be less of an everyday thing? Not that this is an overwhelming thing, but it hits people in different ways, so something to be aware of.

Some of it is stuff that's true in any small isolated town:
Gossip - people were very forward and very gossipy. She had people ask questions that would be way too intrusive elsewhere, and she constantly had people spreading stories about her, who she was sleeping with (fake stories), etc. She had to grow a thicker skin.

My sense from her is that you won't ever gain "insider" status in the community if it's a community of mostly native people and you're coming from the south. You can obviously have good relations with people, but still -- just as with any small community with locals and newcomers -- it can be sort of a bummer to be a perpetual outsider. You'll likely need to make your "real" friends from among the other outsiders in town, and they can be a mixed bag. My friend encountered a lot of people working up there for money, but also plenty who were working up there because they didn't fit in easily in the south for one reason or another.

Of course, the dating scene is *extremely* restricted, and everyone will know immediately.

Still, she loved it and had a lot of great experiences there and chose to go back/stay for a number of years.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:02 PM on February 15, 2011

Another thing was that dogs are not very well-treated. They are workers and not family pets, and the standards of treatment are just different. This was something that bothered her to see.

But I should say that TheLittlestRobot captures my friend's experience - the southerners who were up there were from varied walks of life and all hung out together and had a good time, she had great stories, they drank a lot, they had outdoor adventures. And she loved her students, and had good relations with the locals in general. In general she loved being up there even despite the cons I mentioned.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:10 PM on February 15, 2011

There are so many different questions in here. I think your best bet is to make some acquaintances in the areas you're interested in (through Facebook or wherever) and then ask them questions or have them tell you about their lives.

I live in Yellowknife, so I'll try answering some questions about it, specifically. Aside from my post-secondary education and a couple years after, I've spent my entire life here, so I can't really tell you what it's like as an outsider, but I can give you my impressions.

Salaries and cost of living are both relatively high, yes, but if you're vacationing and retiring elsewhere then your savings go a lot further. Job opportunities are also better in general; requirements aren't as high and there are fewer applicants. On the flip side of things, certain fields are rare or non-existent here, especially in the smaller communities.

In Yellowknife, we generally don't have trouble with obtaining groceries or other goods from down south. Twice a year when the ice on the Mackenzie River crossing is too thin to drive on, but the ferry cannot cross, there is an interruption usually lasting a few days. This past November, water levels were very low causing the ferry to be out for a lot longer than usual. The grocery stores had to fly in groceries and the gas stations were running out of regular gasoline.

Grocery prices here are comparable with prices down south, for the most part. Mefite lbo drove to Yellowknife from Salt Lake City and had this to say: "The second night we actually went to the grocery store to get dinner and we were stunned at how awesome the selection was. It was better and less expensive than our grocery stores in Salt Lake City."

Travel can cost a lot, but it has been a hell of a lot cheaper in Yellowknife since WestJet started offering service and made things a bit more competitive. Ten years ago when I was traveling to New Brunswick for university, the Yellowknife to Edmonton leg was damn near half of the cost of my entire trip. If you're flexible on dates and such, then Air Canada has some travel passes that can be a good value.
posted by ODiV at 4:11 PM on February 15, 2011

I have never ever been that far north, but I spent my childhood a stone's throw away from the polar bears in a town with a population of 1600 at the time. No roads going in or out, but a small airport and a railway and a Sears. One TV channel. A small library, no bookstore, a book fair once a year and Scholastic Book Services every semester. None of this business with choosing schools in the right area for little Tarquin, because there was only one school.

It really was tremendously isolated and it sounds like a bustling metropolis compared to where you are going to be. To go outside, you will need opaque tights, long johns, pants, ski pants, woollen socks, a body warmer, a parka, a scarf wrapped around your face, a toque that covers your ears, snowmobile boots, and mittens (not gloves) that go up to the elbow. It will still be very very very cold. You will never wear skirts in the winter, you will wear them only in the summer, if there is anything there that's recognizable as such.

Check on the broadband speeds before you go because you will need your eBay and... and... I'm sorry, what? A sealift once a year? A YEAR?!? Better be very very very sure that you have all the supplies you need before you set out, and you'll still forget something.

If you have pets, there may be no veterinary care. You'll obviously have to be careful about letting an animal outside in that kind of cold.

I think you should go there. It will be a great experience. But have an exit plan and expect to stay for two years, then move on. I'm a big city girl now, suffice to say.
posted by tel3path at 4:19 PM on February 15, 2011

I lived in Tulita for a year and a half, Inuvik for one year. It is what you make it, as TheLittleRobot put it so eloquently. My wife and I were loners, didn't get out much but enjoyed the solitude. Besides the experience, we did get a nice nest egg out of it. Even with the high cost of living, you can save a lot if you're frugal and don't fly south every chance you get, as many do.

Inuvik in particular has many more creature comforts than other rural places I've been. A decent grocery selection, a great library, and an awesome magazine stand.

Harper's military chest-thumping is mostly for show. We had CF-18s flying above town now and then. There's little to no substance.

Even without being social butterflies, we met lots of great people, made life-long friends, and will carry the memories forever. There is nothing like going for a walk at 40 below with the northern lights dancing up above. There is nothing like reeling in ten-pound trout after ten-pound trout, and everyone in the boat is complaining they're too small. It is your last chance to live in a frontier.
posted by Brodiggitty at 9:41 AM on February 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Recent CBC North article on cost of living:

Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq says decisions by retailers, not a federal food subsidy program, are responsible for exorbitant grocery store prices in Canada's High Arctic.

Aglukkaq was responding to photographs released last week of $29 jars of Cheez Whiz, $27 tubs of margarine and $77 bags of breaded chicken that were recently photographed on the shelves of the Northern Store in Arctic Bay, a community of 700 in Nunavut's High Arctic region.

posted by Rumple at 8:10 PM on February 16, 2011

« Older Help for a kid with anxiety and distorted thinking   |   Am I being too sensitive? Valentine's Day... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.