“What??!! You’re moving to Yellowknife??!! But it’s cold up there!!”.
That was the universal reaction to my decision to move from Toronto to Yellowknife. Someone who didn’t know better would have thought that the rest of Canada enjoyed a positively tropical climate, and that I had chosen the only place in the entire country that was cold.
What people don’t realize is that my body thermostat is an old analog model, which comes with only 3 settings: hot, warm and cold. Hot means that I can walk outside in shorts, tank top and bare feet without wanting to bolt back inside and put on more clothes. Warm means that I’m wearing long pants, shoes and at most a sweater or light jacket. The instant that I need to wear a coat and boots, the needle zooms to cold and it doesn’t budge until both coat and boots are no longer needed. So whether it’s Toronto or Yellowknife, -15°C or -50°C, it’s all the same to me: cold.
For some reason, much of the scepticism and disbelief about my move stemmed from the choice of city, Yellowknife itself. Some thought it was in the Yukon, some didn’t know where it was, and some acted as if I were leaving Canada and moving to the back of beyond. For those still unsure, Yellowknife is in the Northwest Territories, (not in the Yukon, which is next door), when last I checked, it was still a part of Canada, it’s below the Arctic Circle and no, I cannot see the North Pole from my kitchen window.
Had I announced a move to Siberia, I swear that it would have been more easily accepted. Some of my friends helpfully suggested that I might prefer to move to Whitehorse, or various bucolic little towns in British Columbia or Ontario. It was the equivalent of announcing that I was marrying Tom, only to be met with suggestions that I might want to check out Dick, Harry or Lal instead.
In defence of Yellowknife (YK), it was an easy choice, because in some ways, it feels very much like Trinidad & Tobago (T&T). How can two places so presumptively different and so far apart – one located at 10° north of the Equator and the other at 62° north – bear any resemblance to each other? In more ways than you might imagine:
- Environment – for most of my childhood, I lived “in the bush”, a settlement surrounded by bush on 3 sides and the sea on the other, one road in and out. The major industry was extracting oil from the ground. Yellowknife is surrounded by bush on 3 sides and on the other by a lake so big that I cannot see the other side, so it might as well be the sea. There’s one road in and out and the major industry used to be getting gold, now diamonds, out of the ground. Granted, the type of bush and the wildlife lurking in it are different, and it’s much harder to inadvertently step on a bear or a wolf than on a snake or a tarantula. YK wins more points here, because dangerous creatures can be seen from afar and thus avoided. I may feel differently after my first encounter with a bear or wolf, so I reserve the right to change the ratings.
- Social – in both places, everybody knows everybody and you’re likely to know a relative of almost everyone you meet. When I came to visit last summer, I knew the sum total of two people in YK. I attended an outdoor event where a man walked up to me and asked when I had arrived in town. I asked him how he knew that I was new in town, and he said: “Because I’ve never seen you before.” When I asked if he knew all of the 20,000+ people in town, he replied: “Pretty much!” with unshakeable confidence. Then I discovered that he lived in Fort Smith, on the other side of the lake, close to the Alberta border. So evidently you can live somewhere else and still know everybody in Yellowknife. On top of that, he turned out to be the ex-husband of the aunt of one of my two YK friends.
- People – it has been said that Trinis are a happy-go-lucky people who don’t take themselves too seriously, and that there is a sing-song cadence to our speech. Yellowknifers are also a happy bunch who can laugh at themselves, and many people speak in a sing-song fashion. There’s a radio show here where people call in to send greetings, which is just like one that used to air in T&T (perhaps still does). Here people also rattle off in sing-song tones a long list of friends and relatives and send affectionate greetings, and the announcer sometimes has to encourage them to get off the phone.
- Pace of life – as in T&T, nobody’s in a hurry in Yellowknife. Here things get done in their own good time, and sometimes not at all. Either way, nobody blinks and life goes on. You can choose to be an uptight, always-in-a-rush, big-city person, in which case you will burst a blood vessel every week and bleed to death within your first month, or you can chill and go with the flow. I need to be warm in winter, so I decided very early to keep my blood inside my body.
- The Licensing Office – in both places, this deserves its own TV show. Here the insurance company tells me they can’t insure my car for the Northwest Territories unless it has an NWT licence plate. So, silly me, I go to the Licensing Office, where I’m told that I can’t get an NWT plate unless I have car insurance for the NWT. I eventually reach someone with common sense and obtain said insurance, and I return to the Licensing Office early in the morning, 2 days before Christmas. There is only one man waiting ahead of me, and nobody comes in for the entire time that I am there. Yet when that man completes his business and leaves, it takes about 10 minutes for the counter to turn over to the next number being served. But at least YK Licensing Office staff have a sense of shame. Members of the public have to go around a partition to get to them, so while you might suspect that they aren’t doing much, you can’t prove it because you can’t see them from the waiting area. In T&T, some (not all) of them have no trouble filing their nails, reading the newspaper, or contentedly doing absolutely nothing, in full view of the waiting public.
- The grapevine, fondly referred to in YK as the mocassin telegraph – similar to T&T, here it’s lightning fast, nothing is a secret and even before you’ve done something, word about it is out on the street. On many occasions, I’ve been informed of the personal affairs of people whom I don’t even know. I fully expect that one day I will be introduced to someone new, who will rattle off all my business, and tell me when I did what and what I was wearing when I did it.
- The network – you never lack anything for long in YK: whether you need a cup of sugar, a question answered, a place to rent or a snowmobile. As in T&T, if you need something, you can call somebody who will know somebody who will sort you out in no time. 6 degrees of separation doesn’t apply in YK or T&T. There are only 2.
- Time – back home we call it Trini time, here we call it Dene time, but it means the same thing: a nebulous concept that bears no relation whatsoever to the clock, at least not any clock in the current time zone. Whenever you get to where you’re going is when you get there, and if you never show up, well, such is life.
- Directions – as is the case in T&T, when you’re following directions from a Yellowknifer, only the grace of God gets you to your destination.
- In T&T I’d be told: “Go straight, pass the rumshop and when you bend the corner, you’ll see a street on the left. It’s not that street. Keep going and turn into the street by the pink house, not by the yellow one, eh! Drive almost to the end, turn by the mango tree and you’ll see some fellas playing dominoes. It’s the house after that. If you get to the green house, you’ve gone too far.”
- In YK someone inside a building will point in a direction that bears no relation to where I’m supposed to head, and say: “Just go up that way and you’ll see it.” When I ask which street it’s on, they can’t tell you, although there’s one main street downtown and the other streets are numbered, so you can name a street by counting. When I ask what it might be close to, I’m simply told that I can’t miss it. I don’t mind meandering around in summer, but when it’s winter, -35°C without the wind-chill and I’m on foot, I need directions within 10 metres of my destination, or I might not make it there alive.
- Potholes – winter takes a heavy toll on the roads in YK, and bumps, ruts and potholes are common. But here they are kind enough to warn drivers, with signs that literally say “BUMP”. Bumps and potholes are also a part of the landscape back home, but too many signs would be required, so Trini drivers have well-developed mental faculties, because they have to memorize the location of all the bumps, landslips and potholes. Fixing them causes more accidents, because drivers continue to swerve from memory.
- Parking – I come from a land where you can park on the street facing in either direction, and at Carnival time, if you need a parking spot, you create one. So Toronto – with its million rules and regulations, and its streets lined with cars neatly facing in the direction of traffic – was a bit stifling in its excessive prohibitions and obsessive orderliness. In YK, the car park outside Walmart can be a hodge-podge of straddled lines and almost diagonal parking, and the other day it was refreshing to see a car parked on the street outside the Post Office, facing against the traffic. If you did that in conformist Toronto you’d be jailed for anarchy, which is partly why I now live happily in the Wild West.
- Power cuts – occasionally the power goes out in YK, just as it did it T&T when I was a child. When it was restored intermittently, the Trinidad & Tobago Electricity Commission claimed that it was “load-shedding”. Here the Northwest Territories Power Corporation claims to be “load-balancing”. Both are fancy ways of saying that they have no clue what caused the outage, but they want you to think that they know what they’re doing. T&T has the advantage in this one because it doesn’t happen anymore, and if it did, at least you wouldn’t have to worry about freezing to death.
- Nature’s grocery store – just as I could buy fresh fish right out of the sea in T&T, in Yellowknife I can buy fresh fish right out of the lake. In fact, people who like to fish will just give you fish when they catch too much.
- Area code – when dialling the Northwest Territories, the area code is 867. The area code for T&T is 868. It is clear that even the official assigners of area codes knew that the two places were close in spirit, if not in proximity. In both places, you still don’t need to dial the area code for internal calls anyway, only 7 digits.
So really, aside from the temperature in the non-summer months, the two places are quite similar. Of course, the unique and special feature of Yellowknife is the aurora borealis. If I’m too lazy to put on a million layers of clothing and go driving in the cold to look for it, sometimes all I have to do is look out of my window and I can see its green glow. It’s always a breathtaking sight and I never tire of it. But so is the first sight of T&T’s Maracas Beach, as you round the corner in the descent from the hills. Both places have their sights and their charms.
Yellowknife is the third Canadian city in which I have lived, and in many ways, moving here has been like coming home.
© Copyright Kathryn Birchwood and FrozenTrini 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner are strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kathryn Birchwood and FrozenTrini, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.