Mark Rendell

Yellowknifers: The Shacktivist

Shauna Morgan lives off-grid, enjoys commuting by bike at -35, and has been known to don an inflatable gorilla suit

Stephen Harper has a well-known love of panda bears. How about gorillas holding protest signs? Not so much. At least that’s what Shauna Morgan learned one chilly spring morning in 2011 when she donned a chunky inflatable gorilla suit and staked out the Yellowknife Inn with a sign saying “Enough monkey business in parliament.”

She and some friends had learned Mr. Harper was in town for a Conservative Party fundraiser but wasn’t holding meetings open to the public. The group of friends decided to protest in front of the hotel where he was staying; a gorilla suit just happened to be on hand.

“I think he caught wind of us and went out through the basement parking garage. The whole thing was ridiculous, the lengths he’d go through to avoid having to speak to the public. I mean this is the prime minister of our country!”

Shauna – a consultant, musician, shack dweller and avid cycler – isn’t always monkeying around. Since moving to Yellowknife, she’s monitored mining agreements for the GNWT, worked as a consultant for several Dene governments, and most recently helped to promote renewable energy and engage in debates around fracking as an analyst with the Pembina Institute. She’s a fixture in local activist circles and, in her less political moments, she accompanies local choir group Aurora Chorealis on piano.

Shauna moved north from Toronto in the fall of 2008 for a four-month GNWT contract but quickly fell in love with the place. After a stint living on a houseboat she moved into a shack by Yellowknife Bay, where she lives almost totally off-grid — with no electricity and a tiny propane stove — fighting endless battles with mice and a leaky roof. She loves it all.

“I grew up in suburbia and didn’t have to do anything. I didn’t know how to unplug a toilet if it was clogged, I didn’t even really know how to garden, didn’t walk or ride a bicycle anywhere… When I moved up here I started to see the potential of learning to do things for myself and realizing how empowering that feels.”

“I wouldn’t say I’ve become this great, do-it-yourself handywoman, but I’m learning. So far I’ve learned how to put up with a lot of things. You definitely have to learn to be patient.”

This patience isn’t only for the niceties of shack dwelling; it’s also for getting from A to B. Shauna bikes year-round, so if you’ve seen someone pedaling up and down Old Town Hill on a – 35 morning, it’s probably her.

“I think you stay warmer than sitting in a freezing cold car. I hardly ever wear a proper winter jacket because I just get too hot. As soon as you get on the bike and start pedaling, you heat up and, so as long as you don’t stop moving, you’re actually quite warm.”

What are your earliest memories of Yellowknife?

I actually moved up in November, which is probably the worst possible time, so it’s a wonder I still fell in love with Yellowknife in November. I feel if you can love Yellowknife in November you’re in for life. My first memory was only seeing Yellowknife in darkness for months. I first had a place on Latham Island so I had to walk the whole length, and I remember thinking that row of warehouses along Franklin in Old Town was kind of creepy, and wondering why there were all these empty warehouses. And then that first day you walk to work and there’s that little bit of sun on the horizon, and going ‘Oh, so this is what this place looks like in the light.’

Within two weeks of moving here, I had more friends than I’d had in my entire life. You have a few colleagues or roommates and they introduce you to more people and you get invited to a potluck and suddenly your friend group exponentially increases. I learned, later, that it takes a few years before you really start to meet people who’ve been here a long time, or people who grew up here. People who have moved up in the last five years tend to group together and it takes a while to break into deeper circles. I know it’s a cliché, but of course it’s exhausting meeting people who are just going to move away. I’m actually so grateful and amazed that so many people befriended me when I first moved up. That was a huge blessing and it changed my life.

What’s your favourite thing about Yellowknife?

Every day is an adventure; you just never know what you’re going to get. Every day something weird or quirky or totally unexpected will happen, either some bad weird disaster happens to my house – the roof leaks or something weird like that – or just the most wonderful thing happens, someone you ran into unexpectedly has some great opportunity.

I love the quirkiness of the people, and the quirkiness of the place; no matter where you’re going or what you’re doing there’s going to be something weird around the corner. Sometimes if I’m biking home down the hill or walking home late at night, you’ll have a fox pop out and start jogging with you beside the bike, it’s like ‘Oh, hello, ok. Carry on.’

Then there’s all the things you can do if you really want to. Like yesterday I just got fed up with work. I didn’t get to do the loppet on Sunday, because I wimped out because of the cold. So I thought I’d really love to do that loppet track. I didn’t have anyone to go with and I didn’t have a car, so I thought I’m just going to ski out there. It adds an extra 25 km to ski out there and back and then a 25 km loop, but I was just like, ‘I’m just going to do it, I just don’t care.’ So I took off from work, went and got the neighbour’s dog I always ski with, and I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this, but I’m just going to ski 50km right now.’ And I did. And I got home before dark. That was a good day.

What’s your least favourite thing about Yellowknife?

Sometimes it’s really difficult to bike on these roads, in that they’re not always cleared properly and they’re falling apart and bumpy all the time. On the other hand, I would rather budgets get put into social programs or recreation programs for kids, rather than fixing roads all the time. And I know there’s permafrost. So I understand why the infrastructure is crumbling and falling apart. But the hardest thing about biking isn’t the cold or slipping on the road. Sometimes I have to go in the middle of the road because there are snow banks, or it wasn’t cleared or there are so many bumps and ruts. Sometimes the drivers are really nice and go around you, but sometimes they get really pissed off at you, and they’re really impatient and they honk and scream at you out their windows. Life would be a little bit easier if they had a decent bike path or if the roads got cleared a little bit better.

How do you spend your winters?

There’s a lot of work chopping wood and staying warm, but certainly lots of social activities. I don’t tend to travel anywhere warm; I haven’t actually left Canada, haven’t had a valid passport, since 2006. I play houseboat hockey every Saturday, which is one of my favourite things, because it doesn’t really matter how good you are, you can go out and give it your all and everybody is going to support you and pass you the puck. And even if you’re out there for only an hour and it’s -35, you feel good that you’ve done something with your Saturday and you’ve braved the cold. I also play broomball. I’d never even heard of broomball before I came to Yellowknife. Again a weird sport; who would ever think about running around on ice, and slipping and falling and sliding around? It doesn’t make any sense, but it’s so much fun.

How do you spend your summers?

I’ve been trying to go on a northern adventure every year. And honestly I think I could spend the rest of my life doing northern trips in the summer, whether it’s hiking, paddling, cycling. One of the first hikes I did was Auyuittuq [National Park] across Baffin Island. It’s tundra, but through a valley where there’s huge mountains on both sides, and there’s rivers and creeks flowing off the glaciers that you’re always having to cross, some really dangerous, cold, challenging streams. I took ten days or so, that was pretty incredible. Then I cycled the Dempster Highway with several ladies – I think there was five of us – from Inuvik down to Dawson City then Whitehorse. It took us three weeks in total, camping on the side of the road. I paddled on the Nahanni, and last summer I paddled on the Coppermine River.

My latest thing is every time I get to travel for work, I try and tack on little trips to see the scenery, more than the inside of a band office somewhere. So I got to go to Whitehorse for work so I tacked on a five-day cycling trip. I spent maybe a week last summer in Deline doing some fishing on Great Bear Lake. I’m realizing there’s so much more to do. Every time you do something there’s five or six other things you want to do. So I’m trying to figure out how to pack these things in over the next couple of years before my back gives out, or before I have kids. The possibilities are endless.

What kind of opportunities have you found in Yellowknife that you don’t think you’d find elsewhere?

I don’t think I would have had the same opportunities to work with First Nations communities and travel around so much. That’s just been an incredible privilege. In Yellowknife, things like accompanying the choir. I wouldn’t have had a chance in Toronto to accompany anyone or do anything with my interest in music. You’re never as good as someone else, and people can go to the symphony, so why would they come see you? But here, I love the fact the arts scene is so vibrant and it’s mostly amateurs who do this on the side. And I love the fact you’re pushed to be better and improve your skills. Maybe you’re not a professional, maybe you’re not the best ever, but you’re the only one available so you better step up and do it. A couple years ago the choir did Brahms’ Requiem, which is quite a difficult classical production. It was accompanied by four hands on the piano, so they brought this professional pianist up from Edmonton or Calgary. The week before he’d played at Carnegie Hall or something and now he’s sitting beside me playing the top part of this four hand piece. I would never had thought I could do something like that. It was terrifying, but I did it. And the confidence you build by having those opportunities is amazing.

Are you a Yellowknife Lifer?

Yes, undoubtedly. Within the first few months I moved here I knew I felt more at home in Yellowknife than I’d felt anywhere. And I grew up near Barrie [Ontario] for the entire first 18 years of my life, it’s not like I was moving around lots. My family still feels like that should be my home; they’re still there, I grew up there, I should feel like that’s home. But I knew immediately Yellowknife feels more like home than anywhere. I kept waiting to see if that would change and it hasn’t, it’s just got stronger.