[identity profile] nos4a2no9.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] ds_workshop
Hi all,

A little while ago [livejournal.com profile] ximeria posted about writing fanfiction from different cultural/linguistic perspectives. [livejournal.com profile] ximeria is a fan from the Netherlands, and her post addressed some of the challenges she's encountered when writing American or Canadian characters for whom she has few cultural reference points. In my reply to her post I'd said that as a northern Canadian, I experience the dS fandom a little differently than folks from, say, Texas or California (or even Toronto or Halifax ). Our fearless leader [livejournal.com profile] sageness then asked if I'd discuss some of the less obvious aspects authors might want to consider when writing post-Call of the Wild stories set in Freezerland. So here we are! Consider this your primer post on writing post-Call of the Wild stories for due South!

There are bound to be some cultural or experiential gaps that I can help explain or clarify for authors who have already done some research on life in the arctic circle but might miss some of the subtleties. I should qualify this essay by explaining that I am not, nor do I pretend to be, any kind of expert on arctic survival, Canadian cultural, social or political trends, or an authority on life in a cold climate. I'm from a middle class family and I grew up in what is, for all intents and purposes, a major northern city of about 70,000 people. What I can offer is a glimpse into some of the cultural, environmental, and economics of northern Canada that might help clarify some details for you. If anything sparks your interest I'm more than willing to point out resources, answer questions, or refer you to friends who actually do live in the arctic circle.

I have to go into a bit of a Canadian geography lesson (complete with Canadian Adventure maps!) to explain where I'm from in the world. I was born in Prince George, British Columbia, which is in the central interior of BC but considered a major northern city because of its size, its isolation and its prime location at the start of the Alaskan Highway. The city itself is about twelve to fourteen hours' driving distance from Vancouver, and it's another twelve to fourteen hours north to the Yukon border. My father was a construction worker/labour foreman and during the economic downturn in the mid-1990s he was forced to travel extensively in the region to find work. I've spent summers as far north as Fort St. John and Fort Nelson (we really, really love our Fort names up here) and I've travelled to Dawson City and Whitehorse. I didn't make it as far as Inuvik when I was living in northern BC, unfortunately, but I hope to rectify that sometime soon.

The Culture

In a country where 80% of the population lives within a few hours' drive of the American border, residents of northern Canada tend to feel isolated, ignored and, at times, exploited by those in the south. Canadians who live closer to the border enjoy a higher standard of living and better education and employment opportunities. I lived, worked and attended university in Prince George and moved to Toronto when I was twenty-two, and during that time I was aware of a profound sense of political isolation from the federal capital in Ottawa and the provincial capital in Victoria (on Vancouver Island). Because the majority of natural resources are harvested and processed in the north and shipped south for sale, there is a widespread sense that residents of the north don't receive the financial or logistical benefits from their work, and that money flows south but doesn't return in the form of increased opportunities or greater political representation.

I'm stating the obvious when I suggest that social services, infrastructure and general standard of living are lower in the north compared to the rest of Canada. Ontario Lieutenant Governor David C. Onley recently characterized northern Canada as a "third world country" where people are restricted to heavy-labour professions (if they can find work at all) and do not have the opportunity for better education or stable, non-seasonal employment. Onley might have succumbed to hyperbole, but having travelled fairly widely in the north to many small communities and First Nations reserves, I think his assessment is somewhat accurate. Certainly poverty, drug abuse and alcoholism is widespread, as is depression and suicide, particularly among teens. It is common among people of my generation (children born in the north between 1975-1985) to be the first in their family to complete high school, and only a few members of my graduating class in high school went on to university. It's important to remember that I come from a mainly white, middle-class city where these conditions were common; the situation in smaller communities and on reserves in northern BC, the NWT and the Yukon is even more dire.

The Economy, Shopping, and Dining

Like almost every northern Canadian city there is a heavy emphasis on industry where I grew up. Mining and particularly logging are critically important to the region and changes in global markets and trade negotiations with the US and Japan have a huge impact on everyone's livelihood. This is true for the vast majority of northern Canadian cities with the exception of towns that rely on tourism (such as Smithers, BC, and many points along the Dempster in the Northwest Territories).

Potential sources of income for northern residents include the usual assortment of labour-intensive professions (mechanics, heavy machinists, welders, carpenters, day labourers, oil rig or pipeline workers, miners, logging truck drivers) along with those who provide healthcare, education, and support services.

Large towns like Prince George have experienced an explosion of service-sector jobs in retail and the food-service industries. Most towns have at least one American fast-food chain (like Dairy Queen, McDonalds, KFC, etc) but the big draws are Tim Hortons and A&W, which is a western Canadian hamburger chain. Big-box retails are surprisingly common in a lot of smaller northern towns, and if you set your story after 2001 you'll likely be able to let Fraser and Ray shop for nails at Home Depot or pick up paper towels at Wal-Mart (not that they would :-). In the Territories or the Yukon, the North Store is still in widespread operation; it's a combination hardware/grocery/general store and serves most of the needs in the community. I've been to a North Store in Fort St. John that was small, cramped, overpriced, and pretty filthy, but that could have been the owner/operator's fault and not a widespread problem in the chain. In terms of other shopping and eating options, plenty of Mom n' Pop restaurants operate in all towns in northern Canada, usually in the form of an independent or family restaurant, or a coffee shop. There are plenty of Chinese food and pizza delivery places as well; each place I've travelled has at least one restaurant that delivers, although the radius of the delivery service varies. So for those of you writing post-CotW stories where Ray bemoans the lack of delivery-on-dial...well, in my experience that's not too common.

The Weather

Whenever I talk to my brother on the phone I ask him what the weather is like in Prince George (Canadians are obsessed with the weather) and he usually says, "Cold. But it's a dry cold." I guess it's hard to explain why I've found the winters much more miserable here in Toronto than the ones back home. I think it has something to do with that "dry cold." There's little to no humidity in the north, so snowfall is usually light and easy to remove, and once it settles it stays frozen for many months. Granted, the rapid temperature drops aren't easy to handle. I missed a lot of classes in university because my poor car's engine froze solid when we experienced three weeks of -50degree (Celsius) weather one January. Most cars have block heaters (every Canadian has an all-weather extension cord that reaches from an outdoor outlet to their driveway) and I rented a space at school that had a ready power supply for my vehicle's block heater. Cold weather clothing, like block heaters and a hardy constitution, is also essential. At home in BC, the winter lasted from mid-October to mid-April. (Every Halloween costume I ever wore as a child had to be able to fit over a parka).

There have been pronounced climate changes in recent years, so make sure you do your research when it comes to weather conditions; check the day's temperature in Inuvik or look at historic records of highs and lows to ensure you're not overplaying your hand with the cold weather. For the most part, temperatures in northern BC to the NWTs and the Yukon hover between -15degreesC to -60degreesC during the winter months, but generally things stabilize at -25degreesC to -35degreesC. The Northern Lights were visible as far south as Prince George but I only saw them a few times as a child. So Ray doesn't necessarily need to be above the Arctic Circle to see them.


I'm including this section in case anyone wants to write post-CotW kidfic (we all love it! write it!) or is interested in the way rural Canadian schooling works. My hometown is admittedly a very large city by northern standards: there is a college, a fully accredited university that offers BA and BSc programs, six major public high schools (holding between 1,000 and 4,000 students), twenty to thirty public elementary schools, a handful of private Catholic and Montessori elementary schools, and many private daycares. The situation is similar in White Horse and Yellowknife, although the schools are, of course, smaller and there are fewer private options. Further north most towns have at least one elementary and one high school, and smaller communities offer public K-12 schools. Bussing is a fairly common practise, as many students come from outlying rural areas and must travel extensive distances (sometimes up to three hours) on a bus to attend school. Boarding students is also an option. In tiny Wells, BC (pop. 245) students attend elementary school until grade seven, and then are boarded by families in nearby Quesnel, BC (pop. 9, 360) in order to complete high school. This may be an option if you place your hypothetical post-CotW kidfic in a small village close to another town that is large enough to support a high school, but too far away to reasonably bus or drive students (particularly in nasty weather conditions).

If Fraser or Ray's hypothetical children decide to attend university (if they aren't headed to Depot in Regina) or if a young person Ray or Fraser mentor wants to get a BA, they could attend my alma matter, the new University of Northern British Columbia. UNBC is a degree-granting institution dedicated to meet the growing educational needs of northern Canadians. The university is considered an "arctic circle" institution with ties to facilities in Siberia, Norway and Denmark , and it draws students from all over the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, the Yukon, and northern BC and Alberta. It does offer a quality education, especially for students interested in science or northern healthcare. I earned my BA there in English, and the experience prepared me for graduate school in a competitive program in Ontario. As you can see, not all university hopefuls in post-CotW stories have to end up in Calgary or Toronto or Vancouver.

Healthcare and Emergency Services

It is difficult to attract and keep nurses, doctors and other healthcare professionals in the north, particularly given the shortage in major southern Canadian cities where professionals can enjoy a higher standard of living. For the most part healthcare services are comparable to those in southern cities of similar sizes. In smaller communities doctors and nurses are rotated in on a schedule, and in the case of any emergency injured patients are flown to major hospitals in Yellowknife, Whitehorse, Edmonton and Prince George where they can receive emergency surgery. To treat a terminal or long-term illness that requires specialized care, or to obtain complex physical therapy, a patient would probably be transferred to the hospital in Vancouver or Calgary.

The RCMP and the North

Social services are another area in which the isolation of the north creates a lot of challenges for care providers. People can receive assistance with childcare and family planning and there are clinics that treat alcoholism and drug addiction, but the provincial and federal governments seem to be struggling to cope with the demand for addiction services. There is a lot of domestic violence in northern communities and violent crime rates seem much higher than in the rest of Canada given the relatively small size of the population. In the early 1990s my hometown earned the dubious distinction of having the highest per-capita murder rate in the country. To combat the high crime rates, the RCMP does a lot of intervention training in local elementary and high schools, and there is always a significant police presence at high school or community dances, hockey games, civic holiday events, etc.

My impression of policing in the north is that officers are encouraged to prevent violent crime as much as possible by working with the community, but that they are expected to remain aloof from the general population and don't usually form close ties with the community in which they live and work. The Mounties I knew who served in the north were routinely moved in and around different communities to prevent cronyism and to discourage personal bonds being formed between individual RCMP officers and the public. This practise may seem counter-intuitive (isn't community policing more effective if officers are permitted to become familiar with the community?) but my parents' Mountie friends said that they are posted and treated like military officers who must be prepared to relocate often. By weaving themselves tightly into the community they risk leaving an enormous hole when they leave, and so aside from a few key experienced officers (Sergeant Fraser, for example?) younger RCMP officers are transferred on a fairly regular basis.

The only exception to this rule is that First Nations officers (who are highly sought after as RCMP recruits) are almost exclusively employed in the north. Even a seasoned officer who asks for a posting in the south is typically denied their request, and a First Nations officer who is familiar with a specific tribal culture or a given dialect can expect to be posted to that reservation for the majority of his or her career. I mention this because many dS stories set in the north seem to cast Fraser's RCMP underlings as whites from southern Canadian cities. This tendency isn't strictly accurate to the recruiting and posting practises of the RCMP in the north.

I've included some links below to blogs and other firsthand accounts of life in the Canadian north, as well as some handy research sites behind the cuts.


Electric Blogs
Martin lived and worked in Inuvik until late last year and now lives in Yellowknife. He filled his blog with descriptions and images of life in the Northwest Areas. Be sure to visit his flickr album for some beautiful shots of life above the Arctic circle.

Inuvik Boot Grille I and Inuvik Boot Grille II
This blog bills itself as "A Young Reporter's View from the Beaufort Delta, NWT", and it's basically a recounting of day-to-day life in Inuvik by a young Canadian dude from Ottawa who now works for the Inuvik Drum. Included are photos, essays, and some good observations about the differences between living in big-city Canada as opposed to the North.

I haven't worked my way through the rest of these northern blogs but you might find them interesting:

Shirley of the North
Dusty Sensor (features absolutely stunning photographs along with anecdotes and observations about life in Inuvik)
A South African in Yellowknife
Open Head Space: a Blog from Quaqtaq (from northern Quebec, because the NWT, Nunavut and the Yukon don't have a lock on arctic living)
Michael's Meanderings (another blog from Yellowknife)
Arctic Mark's blog from Ulukhaktok (Holman) NWT

You can also find a list of bloggers posting from Fairbanks, Alaska to Reykjavik, Iceland over here. A lot of the blogs are networked together, and so if you get caught up in reading about day-to-day life in the Arctic you'll find plenty of reading material. Prepare to spend hours digging through these blog links! Most of these journals feature pictures as well as the daily/weekly/monthly updates, and they really do give you a good sense of life in the north. In addition, many of these journals have available RSS feeds, which means you can sign up and receive updates on your LJ friends list.

Other Resources

I've already done a post featuring links to official sites regarding life in northern Canada. In that post you can find a lot of information on Inuvik, including a .pdf file of the 2005 Inuvik Community Guide. The guide contains a map of the town (complete with directions to the RCMP outpost, the school, the post office, etc) and descriptions of fun things to do in Inuvik. If you're interested in including First Nations characters in your story, check out the guide to First Nations Communities in the Northwest Territories or the link to the Gwich'in Tribal Council. I'd also suggest you take a look at NOVA's introduction to arctic living conditions and the always-reliable Wikipedia entry on the Canadian Arctic. There are plenty of other sources of information on arctic camping and all-weather survival in the north, and your local library is always a good place to start if you can't find what you need online.

Well, that does it for [livejournal.com profile] ds_workshop this week. I hope I've provided some useful information about various aspects of life in northern Canada, and I'm ready and willing to answer any questions you may have to the best of my limited ability. I'd like to do a second workshop post on northern Canada soon, and so if you have a question, a comment or you want me to explain something further please let me know and I'll include the answer in the next post. Good luck with those post-Call of the Wild stories, and please feel free to post questions or comments below.
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