by Tim Querengesser
One recent Sunday saw me strike up a conversation with a burly-bearded Yellowknife retiree, who I’ll call Bill. We discussed that hardest of Yellowknife topics: What could make you leave?
“Well there’s too many rednecks,” Bill said, comparing Yellowknife to living in Whitehorse and Iqaluit. Having lived in Whitehorse, I agreed.
“And there’s too many ‘yappies’ — Young Arctic Professionals. They come for a year, make big money, then leave. They don’t give a damn about the place.”
If I’m honest, though, I’m envious of these types. See, I want to leave Yellowknife. But despite physically leaving, in 2010, I’ve yet to go in my heart. I’ve been stuck — by memories of Yellowknife’s highs. Having left, I’m now shielded from the lows. In 2008, I moved here and watched the city fulfill fantasies of finding a new hometown. By 2010, though, as a guy who’s lived across Canada and overseas, I needed to wander. But upon arriving in Hong Kong’s bright lights, I vividly remember checking on Yellowknife through Facebook before exploring the streets of Kowloon.
What about this city makes so many of us straddle its fence – like Bill, longing to leave but unable to go, or like me, pining to return after taking the jump? Aside from the obvious hooks – the midnight sun, the big money, jigging at the Gold Range – I think the answer to why Yellowknife is so sticky has a lot to do with group psychology.
In the 1960s, psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment that illustrated how our actions aren’t just individual decisions but are influenced by social connections. He placed people on sidewalks and told them to look up. If one person did this, Milgram found it had little effect. But if a group of five or more people did it, more than 80 per cent of pedestrians strolling past stopped and did the same. Like the group, they’d look up, at nothing at all.
What group Yellowknife does is celebrate the city’s uniqueness while forbidding grousing. Within six months, I was more socially linked here than anywhere I’ve lived, largely through celebrating. The more I did, the more I pleased the group, the more I belonged. But the encouraged celebrations forced conflicts with reality. The cold doesn’t suck – no, it’s exotic! February isn’t depressing – no, it’s what makes us the anti-Toronto! The town isn’t insular – no, it’s a community!
Displeasure with the climate or the smallness eventually becomes undeniable, though. But to avoid social flak, Yellowknifers leave this out of their public chatter. That voice – the doubter – goes internal. And it’s here where the other group, those who leave – and Statistics Canada research shows thousands leave per year, while thousands others arrive – amplifies the doubting voice. I think that’s why a lot of Yellowknifers straddle the middle. They’re part of both groups, one public, the other private.
This certainly holds true for another long-termer, who I won’t name because, he says, he’s often “scolded” for revealing his frustrations. This guy equates Yellowknife to joining a gang. “One of the most important things when you’re in a gang,” he says, “is to make sure no one leaves the gang.” He also notes that, if he does move on, it won’t be because of a desire to leave Yellowknife but more from a desire to go somewhere else. “The people who move here are novelty seekers,” he says. “So once the novelty has worn off they’re going to be looking farther afield. And they’re probably not going to be leaving loathing Yellowknife.”
Despite his realization of Yellowknife’s shortcomings, this guy’s staying. He’s trapped. And he’s on the fence. Same goes for Bill. But neither can talk about it openly. In public, they’re just here.
As an outsider I no longer have to worry about pretensions for appearance. I left. And now, after a summer visit, I’m officially pulling my remaining foot out of Yellowknife and coming down off the fence. Home, I’ve realized, must be where I live.
I love my friends here, and always will, but they’re not coming with me. I can come visit them, but I can’t feel homeless while I’m away. And they can visit me. There’s nothing better than an ex-Yellowknife reunion. Indeed, many of my friends in Toronto are former Yellowknifers.
So, for all current and future expats, I offer this advice: if you go, take your heart. Get off the fence. Embrace where you live next. But realize this: Yellowknife can be a state of mind, as well as a home.