Chased by the Celtic Tiger to Yellowknife

How I Got Here

The ninth of ten children, I was born on a particularly cold February day in 1979. Taking me home from the hospital, the air was full of tiny snowflakes my mum and dad had not seen since their days living in sub-Saharan Africa. They were the tiny dry snowflakes normally associated with the Arctic, an extremely unusual sight on the blustery west coast of Ireland. So the first weather I felt on my skin was typical of the Arctic winter, and maybe that explains why Yellowknife was such a comfortable fit for me when I arrived here in November 2010.

But June 2009 is when this story actually started. That’s when I lost my job as a technician in an engineering firm in Sligo, Ireland.

The collapse of the Irish economy, and in particular the construction industry, was the end of a 10-year run of unprecedented economic growth and prosperity in Ireland, referred to as ‘The Celtic Tiger.’ Working in the construction industry, I had a unique perspective when the crash came. The speed at which it happened was amazing. In no time, there was a scourge of ‘ghost estates’ – housing estates half finished, abandoned all over the country.

Consultants scrambled to be paid for design work but it was too late, the majority of the developers, big and small, were bankrupt.

Paul, my partner, is a structural engineer. He left his job to go on a nine-month trip through South America in late 2008, blissfully unaware of the pending economic crisis, and assuming he’d go back to a full-time job on his return. Instead, he found the Celtic Tiger had ceased to roar, and once again the Irish were fanning out across the world in search of work, like so many generations before us.

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We began freelancing. Paul worked on a start-up company with his friend. We started saving, and looked at our options.

A good friend of mine, Heidi, is from Vancouver. She lived in Ireland in 2006, and she had always raved about her hometown…“Did you know that Vancouver was ranked number one place to live in the world?” We had a couple other Canadian friends living in the village, and they were moving back to Vancouver Island. Slowly the idea of moving to Canada took root.

On our flight, we bumped into two girls from my hometown who were moving to Vancouver too. We ended up in the same hostel, and between them and Heidi and another new friend, Daylen, we had a great little social circle going.

Every day we trawled the internet for jobs. A new friend told us how to re-format our Irish ‘Curriculum Vitae’ to the Canadian ‘Resume,’ everything from changing the layout to fit Canadian paper (which is sized differently than Ireland’s); to removing flowery phrasing and putting in all the buzzwords. Even though English was our mother tongue, there was a language barrier. When we say “having the craic,” (pronounced crack), it means amusement; but in Canada, it’s something much more sinister…

Two months, and hundreds of resumes later, it looked like we may be returning home to Ireland for Christmas – permanently. There were jobs out there, but competition was fierce, and we had no Canadian experience.

Then one day Paul pointed to a spot high up on Google Earth’s map of Canada. He asked if I’d move to Yellowknife instead of Surrey, B.C., (he’d gotten job offers in both places) and I said yes more or less immediately. Neither of us wanted to live in the burbs. It was downtown or the sticks.

Daylen had been in Whitehorse once, and told tales of harsh climates and no fresh fruit or veg, or, no food at all at times, so we rushed out to buy provisions. We packed tins of tomatoes, pasta, coffee…all the staples, into cardboard boxes and put them on a Greyhound bus. Our friends bade us good luck in The Yukon. NWT doesn’t stick in people’s minds, I find.

We arrived in Yellowknife on November 11th, Remembrance Day. We marvelled at the frozen handrails on the ramp from the plane, me skittishly walking down it as I fought my irrational fear of slipping on slippery things. I cursed myself for forgetting that when I made the spur of the moment decision to move to this land of ice.

Cycling the Dettah ice road during our first winter here | photo courtesy Kevin Rattray

Paul’s new co-workers at Williams Engineering, Adriana and Greg, a Chilean and Vancouverite, formed our welcoming committee. Looking at the deserted streets from the back seat of their heated truck, I surmised that -10 was even too cold for the locals to go out – my god what had we let ourselves in for?! Our guides laughed at our shivering coldness and told us that -10 is actually really warm; the first of many truths I would learn here. The streets were deserted because it was a holiday!

We stayed with Ken and Faith in Embleton house B&B. Faith had told us all we needed to know about Yellowknife over cups of tea in her cosy kitchen, and laughed at our boxes of shipped food, giving us directions to Weaver & Devore, Extra Foods, and everywhere in between. We were sad to leave ‘The Captains Quarters’ and our jacuzzi – from whence you could cook dinner and watch TV simultaneously – for an apartment on Niven. We got studded tires for our bikes and settled in, making the trek across Frame Lake with our backpacks to get groceries. We were getting used to the cold that seemed to wash over you like water, snatching your breath when you walked out into it.

I waitressed at Le Frolic, then worked the Christmas rush at Overlander (owners Bill and Sandy were so lovely and introduced us to half the town!), before settling in as a project designer with FSC Architects and Engineers (now Stantec).

On our first Christmas in Canada we upgraded from borrowed picnic furniture to a proper dining room table and chairs, and celebrated with new friends; the first of many feasts. The duck burned, and our windows were frozen shut, but we had great craic.

This will be our fourth winter in Yellowknife. We’re still with the same companies and love our jobs. Ireland will always be home for us, but we’re having a hell of an adventure North of 60. I know some day we will go home to a land of green fields and salty air, and hopefully a stable economy. But if I ever chance to see that Arctic snow on Ireland’s west coast again, I’ll have fond memories in my heart of this place.

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