Notes from 60° north

Over the next 12 months, Shawn Bell will write a series of columns from the small town of Fort Smith in Canada, which lies, like Shetland, on the sixtieth parallel. In the first of these articles he describes how, when the temperature falls, the community really begins to come together.

Winter, the great equalizer

It was cold here in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, Canada last week. Really cold. So cold that even locals brought out their parkas and stopped laughing at the newcomers for complaining about the winter.

That in itself is rare. Usually newcomers to the North (and Fort Smith is North, despite being on the 60th parallel and therefore considered southern by most northern standards) serve as comic folly all winter for those who have lived here their whole lives.

As in, “It was so cold last week that workers from Ontario all stayed home.”
It takes the thermometer dipping to 40 below zero before any self-respecting northerner will admit winter’s here. But when that happens, and it usually does for at least three weeks on end each year, something strange happens.

It’s not just the locals pulling on their pihtawitas (Cree for long underwear). Suddenly, people forget their old divisions. Rivalries fade away. Grudges are forgotten. Even newcomers with less than a year of northern living under their belt get accepted as one of the community.

And, of course, nearly all travel out of town stops. Fort Smith, a town of 2,500 people in the middle of untouched boreal forest, is a 300 kilometre drive from the next town, and if you break down at -40°C there is a good chance you’ll die.
It’s been said winter is the great equalizer. Nowhere is that more true than Fort Smith.

I moved here two years ago, another in a long line of reporters who come from the south for a couple of years northern experience and then move on.
Although a recent study found only one in ten Canadians ever travel to a northern territory, there is quite a large community of southerners who have relocated to Fort Smith. I’ve heard dozens of people say, “I came for a year and I’ve been here 20.” After two years, I understand.

Most people head north for the opportunities. There are lots. No matter the field, there is a lack of qualified people to fill the jobs. So you can jump the queue to get experience, so to speak, whether you’re a journalist or a doctor or an engineer.

Then, like any small, independent, self-reliant community, it starts to grow on you. There’s something nice about knowing your neighbours, being part of a community, having a role to play in something more than just a collection of individuals. In a place like this you can see how your actions, good or bad, affect the people around you.

But it also takes time to integrate into the lives of everyone else here. That’s what makes winter so special.

After surviving eight months of cold, dark days, after routinely pulling neighbours’ cars out of snow banks and being pulled out yourself, there’s no going back to the days of being a newcomer. Winter is a test of hardiness. Winter is what makes someone living in the north a northerner.

After two years of this, I’ll likely scoff every time I hear someone in the south complain about the cold: “You should have seen it at -58°C.”

Shawn Bell


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