Sunday, August 15, 2010

The money isn't everthing

I've already touched on this in the Moving to Iqaluit FAQ, but I think I need to reiterate this in a bit more detail.

Even with the FAQ, I still get emails asking about moving to Nunavut. Which is fine, by the way. I enjoy getting the questions and try to answer all of them to the best of my ability. Because I wish I had someone to ask questions to five years ago when we were in the process of coming up.

But recently I've been getting some questions about the kind of money you can make in Nunavut and what kind of tax breaks there are. About coming to Nunavut for a year to try and make a dent on some debts.

Look, I speak from experience when I say the two following things:
1. I totally understand where you're coming from.
2. It's likely a very bad idea.

Back in 1996 I was out of university for more than a year and me and most of friends were flailing about. We were either not working or working jobs decidedly underneath the level of education we had. It's all right to work crap jobs when you're a teenager or going through university. It starts becoming slightly less acceptable after you're out of university for a year or two, still living at home and have student aid payments rolling in.

For previous generations of Newfoundlanders the solution was to move to Toronto or Vancouver or Calgary. But at that point there was a lure to the far east. Recruiters were hitting the province pretty hard trying to convince recent graduates to move to Japan or South Korea to teach English as a second language. The lure was pretty good. Pay was around $25,000 a year, your return airfare was paid for, your accommodations were paid for and South Korea had a very low personal income tax rate.

So yeah, I went. I had to do something and the money was good. Never mind I barely understood the country (the internet in 1996 was a little different than what you see now), couldn't speak the language and didn't know how to teach. Who cares. I needed the money and needed to do something with my life.

I wasn't alone in doing this...several of my friends also went over. We all had varying degrees of success. I have one friend who is only just now leaving South Korea after spending more than a decade working and living there.

So yes, it is possible to chase after the dollars and have a wonderful experience. However, a lot of the people who went to South Korea and Japan had horrific experiences. I was, well, I won't go so dramatic as to say it was horrific, but it wasn't enjoyable. There wasn't a day over there I wasn't stressed out of mind. I ran face first into a different culture with little preparation for the experience.

I like to think I would do things differently now. And if nothing else, my experience with South Korea taught me that when Cathy and I were moving to Nunavut we were doing it for the right reasons. The reasons certainly involved money. Let's not be completely naive or foolish here. However, we did as much research as we could about Nunavut and decided that, yes, this could be a place we'd like to live. That it will be a challenge, but also something we might love. And we do, despite moments of deep frustration (like the lack of fucking washing machine repair men).

This is a long-winded way of saying that coming to Nunavut chasing the dollars is not unlike what I did in Korea more than 10 years ago. I truly do understand being in the position where you need to make some money and you find yourself considering actions that you might not otherwise. But do be careful about making Nunavut the solution to your problem.

Not just because it might not be an experience you will like and one that will create more problems than it solved. No. One of the things I still remain....mortified over is that I went to Korea and essentially took advantage of a group of people eager....desperate to learn a new language. Because Koreans at that time - and they still might - believed learning English was vital. I went there not to help them with that, but to make money for myself. If they learned English, well, that was a pleasant side-effect because I didn't really have the skills or knowledge to do that properly. Never mind that my boss didn't care that I didn't possess these skills (calling him a scumbag would be insulting to scumbags everywhere) because he just wanted a white person in his school.

I really did try, but after a few months I saw the writing on the wall. I was miserable because I hated a job where I was in it just for the paycheck, but also didn't know what I was doing and felt like I wasn't helping the people I was supposed to help. So I walked. One of the hardest and scariest things I've ever done. I dislike quitting, but I was out of options.

Just be sure before you take the plunge up here. Don't get so glossy eyed at a salary of $100,000 a year that it makes you overlook other important factors, such as will you actually like living and working here. Will taking the money for a year and then running actually do damage to the people who live and are trying to build something here? I would hope you would care about these things.

I truly do understand the lure of the money. But be sure that this is the right thing to do. The money shouldn't be the first question you ask. It should be one of the last...

Last Five
All from "The Suburbs" by Arcade Fire


The Little Yellow Duckling said...

It's unfortunate, but I suspect that there are a lot of people who might well see this as a way to "get rich quick," and who might not do a whole lot of thinking beyond that. I understand it. I was in school for eight years, got a business degree, most recently a law degree.... and a few months later I'm still, as you said, "flailing." And I, too, have a potential lure to the North, although it'll be January now before there's any possibility of my succeeding at that.

But one of the things that I spent a lot of time doing this summer (admittedly after applying for the position) was doing a lot of background reading on the situation in Nunavut (both from formal reports and from blogs such as your own), the culture, the challenges, the linguistic environment, issues in education, and, of course, paying a little closer attention to the situation re: "the law" as it is applied in the territory.

After all that reading (which included your FAQ, of course), I'm still confident that, if the opportunity arises, I would want to do it, partly for the experience it could offer professionally, but also for the cultural experience. But if I were coming up there, I'd be coming up there with the intention of immersing myself in whatever I could find locally. I am not interested in merely transplanting my southern existence, because I fear much of the value in living there would be rather lost.

But herein lies the real big difference between your experience some 10+ years ago and the experience today: the Internet. Getting detailed info on these remote locations, the people, living conditions, transportation, available resources, .... that is far, far, far easier now than it has been in the past. I don't doubt that you get your fair share of ... how shall we say this ... "unprepared" individuals showing up in mid-January with a spring jacket and running shoes on... And I am sure that you get a fair number of people who truly are in it just to make their money and run. I'd not be surprised to hear of ridiculously high turnover rates in senior GN admin positions that, at present, simply cannot be filled from within. I think anyone pondering a move to Iqaluit (or one of the even more remote communities) needs to really, really go in with their eyes wide open...

But rest assured, not all who come from "down here" arrive with only one thing in mind. To me, there's little excuse for anyone arriving and not knowing pretty much what they're getting into. First-person, from-the-ground accounts (such as those offered by your blog and others) certainly paint a pretty consistent picture of "life in the north," if you're just willing to take the time to read and consider what it all means.

Ok, I'll shut up now. I just know I was rather annoyed at some of the posts I came across when doing my own research, with people who obviously knew nothing about the local culture or social circumstances commenting on the place... sigh.

Megan said...

Yeah, I've been thinking about writing about this, too.

I've been living in the NWT for ten years. It is normal and natural to ask about money. We WANT people to think the salaries are good. We WANT people to do the math and think about whether the cost of living is something they can handle. But we definitely don't want people who are only here for the money. They don't want us, either.

Matthew said...

Good post.

Myself and the ex did tons of research before taking the plunge and coming north. We even went out and located folks who had worked and current still live in Nunavut to ask questions about the land, culture and people. It was only after this that the job applications went in the mail.

The money was actually the last thing we researched. But it defiantly was a factor in our decision to move. The salaries are large.

I will soon be starting my 5th year in Nunavut and it looks like there will a lot more.

Loving it here
The M of Cape Dorset

towniebastard said...

Duckling, I hope it doesn't appear that I'm tarnishing everyone with the same brush. I really am pleased that people contact me and ask these questions. I am pleased that my FAQ is so well read and respected and (according to some) so scary it prevents some of the more...casual inquiries about moving to Nunavut away.

I think things are much better now than 15 years ago when all I had were a small handful of websites and a Lonely Planet to inform my decision.

I think I just got one too many "wow dude, I can make a lot of money up there emails". Not everybody is like it, but if you get a few in a row, you start getting worried.

I am glad to see you're taking it seriously, though. Best of luck in your planning and job hunt...

Anonymous said...

Well said. The money is great up here, but no money would make up for it if I hated the culture and the environment. The experiences that we have had, the people we have gotten to meet.....those are the things that make me love the north. It's always good if people make a decision based on all aspects, not just one.