From Netflix to Narwhals: A Mountie's move from Halifax to Iqaluit

Greg Tannahill found his calling in the north.

Greg Tannahill found his calling in the north.

Greg Tannahill (here in P.E.I.) and his mini-mountie, daughter Ella. (Greg Tannahill)

Trans-Canada Culture Shock explores the small surprises, unexpected discoveries and rude awakenings that come with making a move within our borders.

As a member of the RCMP, Greg Tannahill has spent his adult life serving and protecting in Canadian towns and cities, big and small, rarely staying in one location for more than a few years. Now two years into his most recent move from Nova Scotia to Nunavut (where groceries can cost a mint and anywhere south of the sixtieth parallel is "the South"), Tannahill shares his best advice on getting sleep through perpetual light and why his heart will always point north.

So you're working and living your life in Truro, Nova Scotia, and you find out you and your family are being transferred to Nunavut. Was that cause for celebration or dread?

Well in order to go north of sixty, you actually have to apply. So yes, we were happy. We wanted to go. I grew up in Halifax, but I've always loved the North. It's so untouched compared to the rest of the country. Several years ago I was stationed in the Yukon, and after we left, we really missed it.

It's a bit of a calling, the North.- Greg Tannahill

Does moving a lot make you less susceptible to culture shock?

Yes and no. Having driven from coast to coast and worked in so many different places, I find that a lot of places start to feel the same. Like a typical small town, they all have the same amenities, the same Tim Horton's and Canadian Tire. Nunavut is different; you don't have those familiar staples. They have their own staples, The Northern Store, the Co-op, the hockey rink.

"It's a bit of a calling, the North," says Greg Tannahill, who moved with his family to Nunavut. (Greg Tannahill)

You say you missed the North when you left it. What did you miss?

It's just such a unique environment and culture that you kind of connect with or you don't. There are no roads that connect communities together, everything is by airplane. We missed the flying, the trips, the sense of adventure. And then the chance to see arctic hares and foxes, sled dogs, polar bears. It's a bit of a calling, the North.

How frequently do you come across polar bears? I hear they're not as nice as they look.

If you're out on the tundra you can come across them. They're not friendly. You're food. I have seen them strolling through town, but I've always been in a vehicle. We have a Facebook community group, so if somebody sees a polar bear, you'll often hear about it through that. As long as I've been up there, there haven't been any attacks.

Is part of being a Nunavut parent giving your kids "the polar bear talk"?

Ha! Well it's not like it's our [equivalent to] stranger danger. I do that stranger danger speech every time we go to Toronto or Florida or somewhere. You know like people in cars with candy and that kind of thing. I don't do that with polar bears.

Tannahill and his kids enjoy the outdoor lifestyle in the north. (Greg Tannahill)

It must be a pretty different lifestyle for your three kids.

When I first got up there it kind of reminded me of when I grew up in the seventies: Kids sitting in the back of pick up trucks, hanging out the windows. In Nova Scotia and most places, there is so much concern around safety, seatbelts. The traffic laws just don't exist here. And you see kids on playgrounds at every hour of the day. Especially when it's light out at four o'clock in the morning.

The light/dark extremes must have been a huge adjustment.

It was pretty hard to get used to. You get about 21 hours of sunlight and 24 hours of light. You have to hang tin foil on your windows because it doesn't let any light through. And then it's the exact opposite, where it's pitch black at two in the afternoon. If I'm working a night shift and I go out at four in the morning and it's light out, that still feels weird.

How is doing your job different in Nunavut?

It's less stressful; you're more part of the community. I know so many people by their first name after being there a couple of years. All of the kids know me. And people aren't as petty. You don't get the complaints about someone mowing their lawn too late or [who] passed them in traffic.

A northern selfie. (Greg Tannahill)

How does Nunavut's Inuit culture play into your day-to day-life?

Well you'll see the hunters driving around on snowmobiles with the rifles strapped to their back. You don't see that in Toronto or Montreal. And you see a lot of traditional clothing as well — a lot of seal skin, the traditional Kamiiks, which are the boots with the furry sole. In Nunavut, your store-bought mittens aren't going to cut it. I bought seal skin mittens for my wife and kids from a woman who is from an Inuit community and was in doing her shopping in Iqaluit. Her husband goes out and hunts the seal — he'll skin it, she'll prepare the meat and then make the clothing from the fur. In other places, wearing fur is a faux pas, but when you're up here you realize you're supporting a culture and you're supporting families. It's not like you're supporting some CEO to buy his summer home.

Have you tried seal meat?

No. Not going to try it. That's too much. There's raw walrus meat too. It's traditional food, but my stomach couldn't handle it.

Halifax vs. Iqaluit
Population:1,077.2/km2128/km2
​Cost of a box of Cheerios:$4.99$13
Weekend leisure:Netflix and chillNarwhal and freeze

Have your eating habits changed?

Well with a family of five, we don't go to restaurants. Salaries are generally higher up here, but so are the prices. If you wanted to buy a clamshell [carton] of strawberries, that's $30, a tomato is $5, a head of lettuce, $10. For internet, phone and cable, I'm paying around $400 a month. They cap you at fifty gigs, and it's hit-and-miss whether the internet will even work. And it's slow. You're not watching Netflix.

How to dress for success on the tundra. (Greg Tannahill)

So what do you do to have fun? Unwind?

It can feel like back in the day before there was television, you'd have people going out on the local ponds going skating or everyone shows up for the harvest. Up here it is still like that. I was in a small community where they were harvesting narwhals right there on the shore, and it was kind of an event.

You really are a northerner at heart.

When we were in Toronto this summer, I met a guy who was born and raised there and had never left. I understand you don't have to leave Toronto because everything is there, but don't you want to see the rest of the country? There is so much to offer from coast to coast. Canada is so unique and vast and Nunavut is the last frontier.