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You Can’t Spell “North” without “HR”

Nunavut Coat of ArmsHow far would you go for your work? For me, 1,600 miles seemed like a reasonable distance, so after many discussions with our families, my husband and I packed up and moved from everything we knew in Southwestern Ontario to the territory of Nunavut. I’m not sure what possessed me to apply to a job so far away from friends and family, but this bold move has led to a life-changing experience that we’ve been living for the past half year.

I was prepared for the drop in temperature, the (extreme) increase in cost of groceries, and the other changes one would expect from moving to a new town. What I wasn’t prepared for was the changes I’d be faced with in my work, and in what I know about human resources. Having worked in HR for the past number of years, in locations across North America, practicing HR in the north was the least of my worries—I was more focused on how much of our everyday lives we would need to stockpile. Questions that would have previously landed me on an episode of Hoarders suddenly became appropriate: Is it socially acceptable to clear off an entire shelf of pasta sauce at the grocery store? How much shampoo is enough shampoo? While I tried to take it as a compliment whenever someone compared my living room to a warehouse, more than once I found myself hesitating over my purchases, because I kept asking myself, “How different can it be? It’s still Canada.” Little did I know that those 1,600 miles between Home and Nunavut would be paved with a world of change.

Aside from the adjustment to everyday life in the Canadian Arctic, I’ve had to adapt to a culture of which I previously knew little. There are a lot of social nuances in a hamlet of 1,800—nuances that you have to learn pretty quickly. One thing I realised in the first couple of days is that the entire community shuts down for lunch every weekday, with schools, daycares, and most businesses emptying themselves like clockwork, from 12pm to 1pm. As someone who always got caught up at work and who never realised it was long past 5pm in Ontario, I’ve had to adjust to going home right at the end of the day. My office also follows the break schedule fairly religiously – 10am and 3pm are 15 minute breaks that people take every day. Not being used to this practice, one of my first few days on the job I looked around at 10:05 and wondered whether I had missed hearing a fire alarm!

But I’m not writing all of this so you can get an idea of how mellow the north can be, in comparison with Ontario. What I’m saying is this: I’ve had to learn how to re-order my life, disassembling it and learning how to piece it back together in a northern-patterned-puzzle. I’ve had to take my straight-edged schedules and curve them to the demands of my new surroundings—in much the same ways as I imagine companies must have, in their earlier years.

Being so far away and isolated from major cities and resources, organizations need to be resourceful in their operations. Best practices may not always work in the north because of technological or resource gaps—for example, the cost to have an internet connection with high bandwidth is an astronomical expense, and it isn’t even close to the same speeds. Equipment, machines, supplies, and other such necessities need to be flown or shipped in, in the summer, because while all roads may lead to Rome, none lead to Nunavut. The territory’s 26 communities are accessible only by plane or by barges when the ice thaws. As well, employee turnover is higher because there aren’t enough skilled workers to complete the work, and many roles need to be filled by southerners (those who hail from below the 60th parallel) who don’t tend to stay for long tenures. All to say, there are numerous obstacles that present themselves up here that aren’t considerations to organizations in the south.

With so many unique challenges facing organizations in the north, the practice of human resources has both pros and cons. On the one hand, the inability to apply certain programs and practices due to cultural, technological and resource constraints makes it feel as though we have fallen behind our southern counterparts and are working feverishly to catch up. There is mounting frustration each time we are held back in our endeavours because we just don’t have the capacity. On the other hand, this lack of resources is also freeing, as not only does it allow for creativity, it demands it. As such, it’s a privilege to be able to establish a new HR “frontier”, and to be able to see and be a part of the revitalization of traditional practices.

I feel the same excitement I felt when I first started in HR and was convinced I was going to make a difference in the business world. I am more inspired and innovative than ever – having to rely on what I really know about human resources, versus resting on the comfort of routine fixes.  Moving to the north was the restart that my career needed to keep me current and reconnected. A 1,600 mile move may not be the best decision for everyone, but I highly encourage a shake-up in terms of problem solving. Dust off the creative cobwebs and think outside the box. It may be the boldest move you make.


  1. A fitting title and a most worthy read! Gives a taste of some of the challenges facing HR practitioners in the Canadian North. The 2 resonating words – inspired and innovative, I wish you the very best as you continue your Northern HR experience:)

  2. What a wonderful insight into the trials and challenges of your new position
    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and wisdoms!
    A very well written article!!

  3. Hi Lily…
    A very interesting blog to read.
    I have few words – courageous, adpatable, flexible for you.
    This also tell me no matter how much you prepare for your new role, there will definitely be some new learning at every new job and at every new place we go.
    I recently met some one who have come from Guelph sharing the similar story about a particular day when the entire city shuts down.
    Thank you for sharing.

  4. Very informative Lily. Every new job has its differences and challenges but a new city makes it even more so, let alone moving 1600 miles from your comfort zone. I am sure your experiences will be something that will benefit you and your employer in your next professional adventure.

  5. Lily,
    Great article and elegant writing. Good for you, for taking a huge challenge and putting a positive attitude on it. Change is hard and GOOD for all of us. Just takes courage…. & adaptability, you obviously have both in abundance.
    Thanks for sharing your wisdom.
    Mary Jane

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