Canada: Notes from 60° North


In his last piece for Shetland Life, Shawn Bell describes the experience of leaving Fort Smith, a community in the Northwest Territories which he had come to love.

I’m writing this final column from a café in Hamilton, a city of 500,000 people in southern Ontario.

It’s a long way from Fort Smith, in more ways than I could have imagined before going north.

On the surface, for starters, it is hot and humid instead of cooling down for autumn as it would be in Fort Smith. The women wear short shorts and tank tops. In the Northwest Territories they would be eaten alive by the mosquitoes with garb like that. I’m sitting in a café where I do not know anyone’s name, surrounded by people I’ve never seen before, and everyone seems fine with that. No one said “hi” to me when I walked in, no one asked after my family, no one commented on the weather or the bugs or how the fish are running or the whereabouts of the last bear they came across.

I’ve been in Ontario for a week since driving back from Fort Smith and, you know, I miss the place already.

I miss seeing old men chopping wood, telling anyone who will listen that winter’s coming soon. I miss the smell of elders making dry meat in their backyards, that mix of spruce wood and smoked strips of moose meat. I miss the sound of the geese honking high overhead, heading south in majestic flying V’s.

But most of all I miss living in a real community, where, as clichéd as it sounds, everyone knows your name.

In the end, after three years, my partner and I moved out of Fort Smith for the same reasons many people move back south. Our families were too far away. Our friends could not afford to visit. We were just too isolated from the rest of the country.

That logic did not make it any easier to leave.

The night before we left some of our friends threw us a little party at the local bar. There were a small group of 15 of us. We were having a good time. Then I realised the party had swelled. The majority of the people in the bar were now celebrating with us. Some of them I knew from interviews for the paper. Some I played hockey with. Others were on my ball team, or had once taken me out skiing, or had invited me to join their table at a community feast. Nearly everyone in the bar knew us in some way. Saying goodbye took a lot longer and was a lot harder than I’d expected.

For me that night summed up what I’d come to love about living in Fort Smith. We really are all connected, and living in the north brought that home.

Most Canadians never visit one of Canada’s three territories. For most of our country the North remains a hostile and cold yet iconic and important foreign place, somewhere “up there”.

Three years ago I thought that way too. When I applied for a job in Fort Smith I pictured frozen tundra and polar bears. I never imagined how wrong that image was. I never pictured the sweet smell of cherry trees in May, bright blue skies at midnight in July or the crisp autumn breeze through the trees on a September evening.

I also never imagined how deeply ingrained the way of life in the Northwest Territories would become on my mind, or how much I would come to like and even (I hope, in my best moments) resemble the people who live there.

Our leaving Fort Smith does have an upside. Two more working positions in the community opened up when we left, to be filled by other southerners. Those two people now have the chance to experience the north. They will also bring their own unique skills and interests to the community.

While times are changing – more northern youth are getting educated and coming home than ever before – the North remains unable to fill all sorts of jobs with its own native sons and daughters. Many northerners lament that fact, and hope for the day when the north will be served exclusively by northerners. For me, I’m glad that day has not yet arrived. Some part of me hopes it never does. The north is a unique place, and those few Canadians from the south lucky enough to really experience it will never be the same afterwards.

Shawn Bell is a journalist who spent three years writing for the Slave River Journal in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories and Fort Chipewyan, Alberta.


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