Gone South: Elizabeth McMillan’s Exit Interview

Last January, CBC reporter Elizabeth McMillan wrote an article for EDGE in which she pondered just how deep and longlasting her attachment to Yellowknife was. There was a lot she still loved about the place, and loved deeply, but in the middle of her sixth winter, her sense of adventure was wearing off. “Some weeks, many weeks, I’m one dead battery away from booking a one-way trip south,” she wrote.

And then: “There actually was a dead battery the day I resigned, ironically,” she tells EDGE. “Someone unplugged my car overnight.”

And so before the end of February, McMillan was packed and gone, back to Halifax, where she’d attended university, close to her childhood home in Prince Edward Island, near to her parents and siblings. She didn’t have a full-time, permanent job, but she would be back-filling — taking on replacement shift-work — at the local CBC station.

Into the storm

It was a hectic transition: “The first morning I got there, there was a torrential rainstorm. By the time I moved my luggage, which was all I took, into the house I was staying at, I’d soaked two pairs of shoes, walking in six inches of snow and ice. That afternoon I had to buy rubber boots, because the sidewalks were insane. And probably for the next month or so, the news I was covering was about storms. Insane storms. The snow outside my apartment door was taller than me one day. I’d forgotten how inconvenient winter [down south] could be, because of the ups and downs and the changing weather. That was an adjustment.”

It wasn’t just the weather that was stressful: “Leaving a comfort zone and feeling like I was just starting out again, that’s been difficult. And maybe it’s the nature of the field, because you become this specialist, covering certain issues in a community you’ve known for so long, you know who to talk to, so I find that I’m just at the beginning. I was covering court today, and it was ‘Oh, there’s metal detectors, who knew? Where is the courtroom? I don’t have a clue who any of the lawyers are.’ Those kind of examples you can feel within the workplace environment.” Her temporary, week-to-week employment status currently adds to the stress.

McMillan had been in Halifax for just over nine weeks when we spoke. “It’s only in the past week that it’s hit me that I’ve actually made this change, and it’s not just a temporary, extended vacation.”

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It’s sinking in

So, as the realization sinks in, does she miss Yellowknife at all?

“There’s definitely things I miss. I was looking at Folk on the Rocks pictures today and got nostalgic. I miss people, for sure. Not just my close friends but acquaintances, people I’d see around on a regular basis, you go to the coffee shop and run into people… and I think it’s sinking in that there’s people I’ll keep in touch with, and then there’s obviously people that, unless I run into them I probably won’t, and that, I realize, is sad. To feel really connected to a community and then realize that that’s cut off…”

What else?

“I’m trying to think.”

Really?

“I’m just trying to think of good examples! Just the familiarity of having a wider group — of feeling connected to the community, because I don’t feel that connection here. I think it’ll take a lot longer to develop than it ever would in Yellowknife.”

Do you still have links back here?

“Uh-huh. I have a condo in Yellowknife still. So I’m renting that out. I didn’t want to take the plunge and sell it. But yeah, I still have links in that way and I feel like hopefully the door’s still open if I want to go back. I think it was important that that was the case.”

A world of choice

Still, let’s be serious, while there are things she misses about the place, there’s plenty she doesn’t. For instance: “the physical size of the city and the scope of what you can do there, I don’t miss that at all. Certainly there’s a lot of benefits to that, but… I probably will drop by the BK when I’m back in town, but I’ll be fine not ordering the same thing, at all the restaurants that I have ordered the same thing at for years.”

Ah, the joys of variety — a not unexpected thrill of moving to a sizable southern city. “I really like the fact that there’s just so many coffee shops. I could go to a different one every day, before work. For a week or two, and just within a couple of blocks of where I live!

“I’ve started running again and I can go on a different route every day. When you run around the airport loop so many times a week… I started getting sick of running last summer! So things like that are simple pleasures. There’s a lot of little things that can be exciting that never used to be, like going to a new grocery store.” She laughs. “A new restaurant. Like that’s a bit thrilling now, whereas maybe in six months it won’t be.”

She’s also excited about being, as she puts it “back in people’s lives.” Her parents are a few hours drive away. “Having people come through Halifax, being in a bit of a hub. A friend is visiting next weekend and we’re doing a 10km race. That element. I find that so nice. Family passing through, we can go for brunch, I can catch up with old friends on a regular basis without worrying that I’m not going to see them for six months.”

Nothing’s perfect

McMillan has noted that moving south hasn’t really impacted her cost of living: “We talk a lot in Yellowknife about how expensive food is. And food is still fairly expensive here. Not to the extreme as it is in Yellowknife, but I find the cost of living is something that really hasn’t gone down. There’s more options in terms of local food, which is nice, local cheeses and local products, and especially with the summer coming, farmers markets. But my overall costs don’t seem to have gone down at all.”

McMillan is also observing the effects of the parlous state of the local economy: “People talk about job dissatisfaction in Yellowknife, because there are always other options. It’s almost like people talk about job dissatisfaction because they are tempted by other opportunities that are very easily within reach. Whereas here, jobs are really hard to come by. And salaries aren’t good.”

That creates an entirely different dynamic than that of Yellowknife, McMillan finds. “It’s a luxury to be able to stay here,” she says. “If people have a job in their field, they certainly don’t feel like there’s multiple jobs out there. Having to move out West is still an option.”

You don’t know the North!

McMillan is also amused, and a little bit annoyed, by “the narrative of the North” that she comes across.

“People often ask how long I had been up there, and when I say five years, it’s like ‘Oh my God, you had to get out of there!’ and I’m like ‘Actually, no, I didn’t, it’s not like I was in purgatory there for a long time, it was a choice.’ And I find I have to defend it, because people are so accustomed to thinking you’re just living on the edge of the tundra in an isolated, challenging environment. I’m sure I could let them keep thinking that, but I won’t. I don’t like that element of thinking, like I was just roughing it. It’s not that bad. I was in a normal, functioning community.

“People say ‘Oh, I want to visit, I’ve always wanted to go.’ I hear that a lot. Or ‘I have a friend there, they really like it.’ But often it’s that element of ‘Oh yeah, you were due to get out of there,’ and… ‘Well, who are you to say? You don’t actually know that.’ And then the other frequent joke is ‘Oh, you left there to come to this winter, ha ha,’ Yeah, but little did you know that Yellowknife winters are actually great. I found the cold [in Yellowknife] wasn’t as bad as everyone thought anyway, and I’m going to be really envious of the sun there when it rains here for weeks on end. I think the weather here might be worse.

Coming back, and what was learned

“It is interesting to be back where I was six years ago, when I first graduated from university here. From a professional but also a personal standpoint. It really makes you look at how your life has changed, how your relationships with people changed. It feels like I have to start fresh again. It’s familiar, but things have changed to the extent that, for instance, I’m not into a student lifestyle anymore. I’ve kind of grown-up.”

How did the North change her? What are the results, so far, of having lived here?

“I think I’m more independent in some ways, and definitely have a better appreciation for the outdoors. And being adventurous and exploring. Because, you know when you’re in the North and you have to fly everywhere there’s so, so much to learn about the communities. To travel in the North is such a privilege. I think I’ve been really lucky, and when I see people who haven’t moved around a lot, I’m glad I’ve had such a variety of experiences. Moving back [to Halifax] doesn’t feel like a step backwards at all, it just feels like a natural progression. My life feels a lot richer.”

Do you ever think you’ve made a terrible mistake?

She laughs. “There’ve been a few moments when I’ve questioned it, but no. I’m pretty happy to be here. I wish I had a big epiphany for you, but…”

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