Four Years And Counting: My Life In Iqaluit, Part 6 (There is Life After the GN)


This post is part of a series I am doing to commemorate my four years living in Iqaluit. If you haven't already, go read the first post for an introduction to this project.

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Year Two, Chapter Two: There is Life After the GN

At my farewell party, someone remarked that it must be bittersweet for me to leave the Government of Nunavut (GN). “No,” I said candidly, “it’s all sweet.” It was just me that was bitter.

I left the GN in early March 2014, but I began my search for a new job in January. I started much the way I had found my first job in Nunavut - by asking around. Obviously, I wanted to be out of the department, but I also felt stifled working for the government in general. There were the deeper issues I wrote about in my last two blog posts, the bureaucratic hypocrisy and systemic failures, but much of my motivation to exit the GN had to do with personal, lifestyle choices. The blog was growing rapidly, and with that growth came opportunities like speaking engagements and creative projects. Plus, I wanted to travel more. Basically, I found working nine to five didn’t align well with my more entrepreneurial and adventurous tendencies.

Thus, I began reaching out to (the few) individuals I knew who didn’t work for either one of the territorial, municipal, or federal government to see what options were available in town. Some of them worked for not-for-profit organizations; some of them started their own businesses. In the latter category is Neil Christopher, co-owner of Inhabit Media, Nunavut’s only publishing company, who at the time was ending his tenure at the college to focus on the business.

“I don’t have anything more concrete to tell you, except that there is a place for non-government work in Iqaluit,” Neil said to me when I confided in him my desire to leave the Department of Health. “And I think you can find it.”

A few days later, I received a message from Neil. “Hey, you should hear from Tony at Atiigo soon. I told him you were on the market for a job.”

And I did receive a message from Tony Romito, co-owner of Atiigo Media, a communications firm located in Iqaluit. I first met Tony and the Atiigo team through my job at the GN; we contracted the firm for the massive overhaul of “I Respect Myself,” the Department of Health’s sexual health promotion website. I was the project lead and worked very closely with Atiigo’s designers to come up with an incredible theme and interface for the site. As I wrote in an earlier chapter, it is considered one of the GN’s best websites.

After speaking with Neil, Tony wrote to me saying that they were considering creating a new position, part public relations, part social media manager, part office administration. Atiigo wasn’t entirely sure what this position would look like, and felt that the candidate could and should shape the description anyway.

“I know you’re a hard worker and you’re smart and passionate,” Tony said to me over the phone. “We’ve really loved working with you, and would love to see you on our side of the table.”

I don’t know how to explain how much of a confidence boost these conversations provided. Here I was, feeling useless and unappreciated in my office, and someone I had hired was telling me that I was not only good at my job, but so good that he was interested in hiring me. Tony wasn’t only offering me a job and financial security; he was also reinstating my sense of self worth. Justin and I discussed the opportunity and both felt that whatever it was, Atiigo would be better than what I had going on at the GN. Armed with this tenuous security blanket, I ended my time at the Department of Health in March of 2014.

Over the course of the next month, Tony and I began to shape this new post, based on his company’s needs and my skills (a novel concept, eh?). What we came up with was a half-time role, loosely focused on marketing and client relations. I moved into the Atiigo office in April, and there I found what I hadn’t at the GN: a surrogate family, with all its quirks and idiosyncrasies, made up of creatives - with a dreamer or two thrown in to keep things exciting.

In addition to giving me a safer, friendlier environment to work in, from day one my role at Atiigo was steeped with flexibility, in duties, in time, in space and place. I was only required to work twenty hours a week, and I generally chose my own hours; eventually, I also started working from home, and then from wherever in the world I was, from Toronto to San Francisco to Istanbul and everywhere in between. This flexibility gave me time to experiment with other ideas and inspirations - and experiment I did.

Mainly, I focused my extra time on the blog, which was growing rapidly in readership and clout by early 2014. And this effort I put into Finding True North? It had paid dividends in terms of career progression - and maybe even career distractions.

That spring, I received an email request from an event organizer asking if Finding True North could provide catering services for an event in Iqaluit. I said yes, and started what was for the next few months a fairly lucrative catering business, making tangy salads and creamy kulfis and vegan curries for arts organizations, not-for-profits, and research groups holding meetings in town.

In the summer, I was recruited by the team at Arctic Kingdom to be the guide on city bus tours. This evolved into also leading adventure tours, like boat and ATV trips. Generally, I was there to entertain clients with my witty banter and facts about Iqaluit and little anecdotes about living up here. Once, I had to steer the boat and though everyone survived, my repute as an adventure tour guide was shattered. Still, in the fall of 2015, at what we know now was the height of his campaign, Justin and I led Thomas Mulcair on an ATV trip through Sylvia Grinnell (and by “through,” I mean, far enough into the park that you couldn’t see the parking lot).

This was also the time when I really started to hone my freelance journalism skills. I had tried my hand at pitching before, but I didn’t really understand the process or how to create a hook. Now, after starting a blog and doing some commissioned work, I had a bit more experience and leverage. My first real attempt was with Vice, a pitch about Yurt Fest - and it was positive! Patrick McGuire, who is now the Managing Editor of Vice Canada, wrote me back to say that hey, Vice was coming up for Yurt Fest, and that we should get in touch to talk about my pitch and their project. This started my relationship with the publisher, one that I have kept up until today.

Not knowing exactly what this Vice visit would entail, but thinking it was a good opportunity for the blog, I asked Sara to meet me for lunch. “I wrote to Vice about Yurt Fest and they’re coming up and I think we should wear coordinating costumes,” I told her. She laughed, agreed, paused.

“I think leaving the GN was the best decision you ever made,” she said to me. She was right.

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I am absolutely overwhelmed by the response to my post about why I left the GN. In the hours after I published the piece, I was inundated with dozens and dozens of messages, expressing condolences, sympathy, anger. So many of the stories were from fellow Iqalummiut who had experienced the same, worse, so much worse while at the GN. I sat reading the notes, feeling connected and broken at the same time.

I think it’s important to acknowledge the layers and layers of privilege that allowed me to take my leave from the GN. I was bullied and I was frustrated - but I was also in an emotionally and financially supportive partnership (with housing!), and had little financial pressure or commitments. I could take a chance.

Also at play here is my status as a southerner. I could leave the GN and experiment, knowing that if things didn’t work out, I could go “home” (though after nearly eight years living outside of Toronto, I do question the concept of home). This brings with it a certain type of privilege - the privilege of low responsibility. And I’ve seen this in real time, with myself and other southerners, who bounce from job to job, housesit to housesit, shirking commitment in favour of the probationary, looking for a fit instead of trying to fit in.

I think this is likely different for lifelong Nunavummiut. If you’re a Northerner who wants to remain in Nunavut, your options for jobs are limited. The territorial government is the largest employer, with the highest salaries - an important factor, considering Nunavut’s high cost of living. Even if you’re willing to take the pay cut (I made 30% of my GN salary when I first started at Atiigo), your options are limited, as there are very few non-governmental organizations or companies in the territory (though this is changing as more and more entrepreneurial factions are coming in, especially in Iqaluit).

The dominance of the GN over the job market in Nunavut can and does contribute to a culture of fear that cripples many from coming forward with the type of complaints I had, and the ones readers have been sending me. There is always that worry that you won’t be believed, and that even worse, you will lose your employ. If you’re fired from your GN job, you must wait at least two years before applying for another job with the territorial government. Imagine: two years of mortgage payments, kids who need new shoes, exorbitant grocery bills, and two-thousand-dollar plane rides down south. Now, you tell me, if you were being bullied at the GN, could you afford to step up and make a complaint?

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“Are you all ready for Kuujjuaq?” Tony asked me. It was early fall of 2014. I had been with Atiigo for about five months, and had done my job of marketing the firm, boosting their social media presence and even landing Atiigo a cover story on DesignEdge, Canada’s leading design magazine. But my trip to Kuujjuaq had nothing to do with public relations.

“I’m stoked,” I answered him.

I was excited because I was flying down to the capital of Nunavik, Quebec’s Inuit region, to present Atiigo’s proposal for a sexual health campaign to the regional health board. I had worked with Nunavik’s sexual health staff in my position at the GN, and when they decided to revamp their sexual health program, they tracked me down at my new job.

Along with my colleague, Diana Bulley, I met with administrators, program staff, and nurses from Nunavik to explain exactly why they should hire Atiigo to do the content development and design for their sexual health website and strategy. I spoke passionately about my previous sexual health work, tying it into social marketing best practices and using examples like the “I Respect Myself” website (which the Nunavimmiut loved), and really teasing out the lessons I had learned while working as the Sexual Health Program Coordinator at the GN. It felt like I was reigniting.

We found out a few weeks later that Atiigo was the successful proponent for the re-launch of the Nunavik Regional Health Board’s sexual health campaign. I was to lead the project from Atiigo’s end - the first step in redefining what remained my amorphous job description with the company.

Sexual health advocacy is still a passion of mine. In recent years, it feels like it has been reduced to a little fire, overwhelmed by blogs and hashtags and TeeVee. I hope that once I figure out what it is exactly I want to do with myself, I will be able to integrate that penchance back into my life, because I know and I feel that part of me is just waiting for its chance to light up and burn.