Sunday, October 28, 2012

It's the little things

People are always asking me what it's like to live here in the Arctic.  I tell them 'hard' but that hardly covers it.  So I've compiled a list of things that make it hard and the reasons why the people who move north do it.
For those of you new to JustGolda, I should mention that this is the second time I have lived in an Inuit community.  I started my teaching career in Umiujaq, Quebec which is a village of about 350 Inuit residents.  I was a Secondary one and two teacher (equivalent to grade 8/9) in my first year and I stayed for two years before returning to northern Ontario.
This year I am living in a hamlet of 415 Inuit residents in Kimmirut, Nunavut.  This is quite a bit further north than I was before and it's already getting darker.  The differences between the two communities are more than I thought.  People in Kimmirut are on average, friendlier and more welcoming to newcomers.  Not to put down the people of Umiujaq because some of them were awesome. It's just that the ones that were racist towards us left a lasting impression and I have not encountered much racism here yet.  Also, here in Kimmirut the kids don't throw rocks at my windows at night and that is something that happened a lot in Umiujaq.  It's the little things...  :)

OK, so here are some of the things that are different from living in southern Canada:
1)  We have water tanks and septic tanks in our house.  There is no sewage and water system in this hamlet so all of us need to get water delivered to our house.  This is not overly difficult until the water or septic truck break down.  If you don't get water delivered or the septic tank is full, you don't have water to use until it's fixed.  It happened quite a few times in Umiujaq that people had to go for days with no shower or running water because of a septic or water truck breakdown.  Another thing that happened in Umiujaq was that if you pissed off the person driving one of the two trucks they might 'forget' that they had to deliver water to you.  Either this doesn't happen in Kimmirut or I haven't pissed anyone off yet. 
2)  Everything is delivered by plane.  Everything.  There are no roads up to northern communities so food, bottled water, soap, absolutely everything needs to be flown in.  If there is a snow storm you have to wait for new stuff for quite awhile sometimes because the plane can't land.  Here in this small place we go lots of days with no plane.  Also, in Kimmirut we have a small landing strip so the only planes that can land are Twin Otters and they are TINY.  This means that if I want something like a treadmill, too bad for me because the plane door is too small for it to fit in there.  (This has happened to me this year already.  I cannot get a treadmill delivered)
The twin otter       

Inside the twin otter

3)  OK, I lied because there is another way to get stuff in here.  The sea lift is a huge ship that comes twice a year with goods.  It is far cheaper to ship in bulk through the sea lift so really organized people order a full year of canned food on the sea lift and get it around the middle of October.  This is also how they get ATVs and snowmobiles into the community.  I have also seen whole houses delivered by sea lift.  A fairly big box of space rents for about $500 on the sea lift so if you want a whole load of canned or dry food you can get it this way and save money on groceries during the year.
4)  Most communities are restricted for alcohol so you can't just go to the store and buy it.  You also aren't allowed to bring it in without a permit.  Some communities are 'dry' so there is no alcohol at all.  In those communities they sometimes don't even allow you to buy bakers yeast without being given a good reason because it's too easy to make alcohol with yeast (as if you couldn't do it by just fermenting it over time!)  This is difficult for those of us used to having wine with dinner and drinks with friends.  I must say though, it is incredibly easy to get around these laws and it's almost easier to get alcohol in banned communities than in restricted communities.  I find so far that in restricted communities people make at least some effort to abide by the process put in place.  I'm not saying that I personally am breaking laws, just that I know it's easy to do so. 
5)  There are things we just can't get.  Some companies refuse to deliver up here at all.  It's annoying.  I will never understand why they won't just charge more for shipping instead of cutting us off altogether.  (Yes, I'm talking to you, Avon Canada.  You suck!)  Other companies have started charging MORE for shipping than it actually costs them (Sears Canada). 
6)  It's quiet.  REALLY quiet.  When I go outside at night there are no sounds and it's a relief to the ears. There are no traffic noises, no background hum of millions of people, nothing.  Sometimes when out on a hike you will hear the flapping of a crow's wings but aside from that, total silence.  I love that.
7) It's cold of course.  We need heavier winter gear. As long as you have that you are fine.
8) In this smaller community there are no cars.  None.  There are a few trucks, mostly owned by the store, airport and hamlet but there are no cars. If someone has a vehicle it is an ATV or a snowmobile.
9)  The sky is alive.  I don't know how to accurately describe the Arctic sky.  At night, even when there are no auroras, the sky seems alive to me.  It's an amazing sky and one of the reasons people love the north so much.  It's also a wide open sky with no big buildings or trees to get in the way of the view.
10) Oh yeah! No trees!  We have no trees here because we are above the tree line. I personally don't have any strong feelings about trees but know that some people are bothered by the lack of trees.
From my back porch

11) There are only two stores.  The Northern store and the Coop store.  The Northern store is one that is southern based (Winnipeg, I think) and has a southern manager.  The Coop is Inuit run and probably based in Iqaluit although I'm not sure.  At the Coop you buy shares and actually make dividends every year.  Unfortunately, the Coop often has expired food but is cheaper overall than the Northern store.  I'm very glad to have two stores!
12)  It's often very windy.  That wouldn't be as much of a problem if I wasn't driving an ATV instead of a car.  :)
13) The culture is different and so you have to go through culture shock when you come up here.  Culture shock usually consists of three main periods of time: when you first arrive you are amazed and enthralled by all the new ideas and think everything is great.  Then you start to see the bad stuff and start to think everything is really bad. Then you come to the conclusion that your ideas of good and bad need to be adjusted and you come to terms with both your culture and the new one and can allow them to co-exist in the world without judging them.
14)  There are polar bears.  You in big cities may have to look around outside your door for drive by shooters and kidnappers but here we have to look around outside before we go out so that we don't get eaten by a polar bear.  We also have to be careful when wandering around in this vast land to not run into a hungry animal.  As the sign in Timmins, Ontario says "Bears are dangerous".  ha!  (I have always found that sign to be hilarious.  Imagine...having to warn people that bears are dangerous).
15) Lastly, it's darker here during the winter.  I am expecting in December, the darkest time of the year, it will begin to get dark at 2pm and get light much later than the south.  We are closer to the north pole here so the summer will be brighter than the south.  This isn't bothering me yet so hopefully we will get through it without too much sadness.

There are many other differences but these are the main ones.  If you have any questions, I would be glad to answer them.  Later I will write about how teaching is different here. 


  1. What is it with throwing rocks. Only in the past three nights since being here in Attawapiskat haveI been able to have a full sleep. Every night, at all hours I have had rocks, brickes, pipes, fists and cat calls. I'm talking at midnight , 2:47, 4:41, 3:15. Early as well: dinner time, quiet evening time, trying to get lesson plans done and BANG! a rock at your window or side of the house. I have already replaced one window.
    As for stires we also have a Northern and a localowned smaller "market" store. It sells everything from canned goods and eggs to duct tape and tools. And I think it is the only place to get lottery stuff.

  2. I have no idea. All I know is that I wished that parents would keep a better eye on the kids that were doing that.
    Eventually I called the radio station and said that I didnt feel very welcome in the community when kids were throwing rocks at my windows every night. The rocks abated quite a bit after that. I guess the radio announcer got onto the radio and blasted everyone for making an outside teacher feel so unwelcome.

  3. Love this blog post. I did one similar and I found it helped alot of people from the south realise somewhat what it is like to live in the north!

  4. Wonderful post, Golda -- really helped me to visualize living up there. I need to reclaim / value silence more, I think, as well.

  5. Great list! It's nice to know that other people feel the same way/experience similar things as we did/do.