Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Personal Reflections on the Northwest Territories

Last summer I toured around the NWT a bit with my family, here we are at the border.
For the last twenty months the Northwest Territories has been my home. Strange as that is it is the truth and I'm not sure that I ever really thought that it would happen. Indeed, I considered living here for a while during my undergrad and wrote my Master's paper on its history but I never thought I'd move here. Regardless, events conspired in a strange way that ended up with me living in Fort Smith. 

I have had a complicated relationship with this place. The South Slave is probably the nicest place to live in the entire territory. I have greatly enjoyed working with the school board here and I feel confident that my colleagues are doing their utmost to deliver quality education to the people here. It has been quite inspiring, to be frank. I came up here pretty green, but I have learned a lot and have had some pretty strange experiences. Some of the things I enjoyed most were relatively simple, like visiting the schools and taking photos.

A herd of bison on Highway 5.
I'll miss the schools and the students I got to know. Part of me will miss driving hundreds of kilometers down lonely highways waiting for wildlife to manifest on the side of the road, long, thin birch trees stand up like fine white hairs on either side. And then there are the seasons. It's not just the weather, though I will get to that, it's the change in the length of the day. It's only April 28th and already the sun lingers in the sky for many, many hours. The strangeness of the Northwest Territories summer triggered some part of my brain to reel at its unnaturalness (at least to a boy born and raised in southern Ontario). The dark, bleak winters were trying to say the least. Walking to work in the darkness and the sun setting at 3:30 PM certainly made November and December difficult.

On occasion the weather in the Northwest Territories was very punishing, but one adapts surprisingly well to -30 Celsius (or colder) over time. The first winter I was here was, if the news reports are to be trusted, the worst one in decades. A parka will take you a good bit of the way towards comfort, or at least avoiding tragic death. I do dread confronting the Ontario summer and how my acclimatized body will respond. I will miss the mild, pleasant springs and summers here, though I will be pleased to avoid the massive hordes of bugs.

The pair of moosehide moccasins with beaver fur trim I had commissioned.
One of the things that shocked me was how normal the Northwest Territories is. I expected to be stepping into another world entirely, and in some ways I did. I recall standing in the gymnasium at Paul W. Kaeser High School in my first month here and kids were screwing around and playing with their phones and doing what teenagers anywhere in the country might be doing while impatiently waiting for an assembly to begin. The people here were good to me. Fort Smith is a small town with just 2400 people. After being here a while I became enough of a regular to be recognized and make small talk. Except that according to some I look like one of the pilots in town so I am sometimes confused with him, which I find objectionable.

I cannot say that I know the people here particularly well. I can tell you I have met people who are forthright, earnest and passionate. They are dedicated to the place they call home and want the best future possible for their children and grandchildren. I saw that a lot working for the school board. The Council is composed of a remarkable group of women representing Hay River, K'atlodeeche First Nation, Fort Resolution, Lutsel K'e and Fort Smith. I won't generalize too much because it will only come across as pandering at best and stereotyping at worst.

I have had my share of strange experiences while living here; acting as the SSDEC liaison to the Prime Minister's advance and security teams when he visited in August, driving through a snowstorm and almost hitting snow-covered bison, living in a town briefly visited upon by wolves, the croaking and quorking of the ravens, driving over ice roads, staying up 24 hours during the longest day of the year, driving through a forest fire and later seeing all the damage, ATVing through the bush, flying on tiny little planes, visiting Lutsel K'e to launch their indigenous language dictionary and running out the door at maximum speed to try to limit my mosquito bites to only a few dozen. My favourite though might be the northern lights. There is something about the aurora that is simply breathtaking. Coming back to Lutsel K'e one night the sky was alight with them on all sides.

On the plane to Lutsel K'e for the Dictionary Launch.
Living here for as long as I have I have come to care about this place. I worry about its future. Trying to make the vast Northwest Territories prosperous, peaceful and equitable while respecting the tradition and rights of its peoples is a daunting challenge. It will take the commitment of leaders for generations to steward this land its people to a brighter future. It has no shortage of problems, but there is also a deep and almost unimaginable well of potential this place can draw on. I will be following how it goes, I have no doubt about that.

Unfortunately the sad truth is that I failed at making this place my home. Despite a fantastic apartment (which is a serious issue given housing in the North), an excellent job with co-workers I like, I failed to build a life for myself here. To be clear I only hold myself responsible for this. I tried from time to time to make friends here, but I'd be lying if I said the efforts were not half-hearted, or at the very least guarded. I am a shy person by disposition and I am slow to warm to people. Plunging head first to a place where I don't know anyone was too difficult, and trying to join existing cliques was overwhelming. My profession also made my relationships with other people, at least in my mind, more complicated than what they probably are. My desire for professional distance that typifies life in the south helped fuel what can only honestly called a lonely existence. Before I draw out my tiny violin I will say that friends appeared in my life in surprising places and ways to help fill the gap, hence my trip to Korea last summer. Also a few colleagues at work have become good friends, and I hope to keep in touch with them for years to come. But the truth is that is not enough sustenance to feed the human soul. Living here has taught me that I am a city boy at heart, but what I want most is to sit across the table from one of my friends and share a nice meal or a drink. It's that simple pleasure I miss most, and that's why I am going back to Ontario.

The Northwest Territories is a special place. Living in the vast boreal forest in an environment that chill most to the bone with just the thought of it is a rare badge of honour. Despite the difficulties I had here I remain open to the chance to return. Perhaps I will grow restless in Ontario and I'll find myself casting my eyes to the northwest where the land and sky seem limitless.

Northern Lights over Fort Smith.

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