The Year the North Chose Me

In the summer of 2004, I was far from confident in my career trajectory. I’d just spent four years and a lot of money on a history degree that seemed to provide me with little more than three letters behind my name and a curiously detailed knowledge of the evolution of African diamond mining practices.
I didn’t exactly choose Northern Ontario. I suppose you can say Northern Ontario chose me. While lackadaisically surfing job websites one afternoon, I found a posting for a reporter/photographer job at a small weekly newspaper in Elliot Lake. I’d never heard of it. As a farm-bred southern Ontarian, I’d scarcely been north of Barrie. But I applied anyhow, figuring I had little to lose.

Preparing for change

DEBORAH AARTSWhen I was called in for an interview, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I loaded up my new Corolla and made the seven-hour trip North, my boyfriend helpfully prepping
me with mock questions from the passenger seat. The interview itself went well; very well, in fact. After the standard array of questions, my employer to be looked at me and asked, “What do you think of moving up here?” Surprisingly, the query was not difficult to answer at all. I knew absolutely nobody in this unfamiliar, isolated
city. My friends, family and boyfriend would all be several hundred kilometers away. I would have to adjust to smalltown life after years of living in – and loving – urban environments. But even so, there was something about the community that pulled me in. Elliot Lake offered something no other location I’d considered had. There, I would have the opportunity to get some real, bona-fide, hands-on experience. I didn’t have a lot of it, I wanted more of it, and this seemed like the perfect chance to get it.

How the North changed my perspective and career trajectory,

I accepted the job when offered it a week later, and proceeded to transplant my entire life to the middle of the boreal bush. I won’t pretend it wasn’t difficult at times. The isolation got to me, as did the slow pace of life. My phone bills were huge. But slowly, slowly, the Northern lifestyle began to win me over. I reveled in the autumn colours, and, as the frigid blanket of winter settled in, bought my first pair of Sorel boots. I started to complain of bears and mosquitoes, and began to speak of the southern end of the province as if it were a separate country.
And I worked. With little to distract me, I logged long hours on the job, honing my writing style and developing extra skills I never thought possible. My experiences in Northern Ontario left me with far more than I expected. I was trained properly by people who cared, not by an impersonal computer program. I developed genuine relationships with my colleagues and was treated as an individual, not a number. I was given the space, both physically and metaphorically, to nurture my potential into something spectacular.

Five years ago, if someone had told me I’d spend more than a year living on my own in the North, I’d have laughed in their face. Now, with the benefits of hindsight and a bit of perspective, I wouldn’t have done it any other way.

Deborah Aarts was a Staff Writer at the Elliot Lake Standard, a publicaton of the Osprey Media Group.

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