Canada 2017·Personal Essay

What moving to Whitehorse and back taught me about my disability — and Canada

Meagan Gillmore was born legally blind. As a young journalist, she took her first job in the Yukon — but she had to return home to Ontario when the lack of accessibility was too much to overcome.

Born visually impaired, Meagan Gillmore has always been independent. The Yukon posed a new challenge.

'We’ve raised our country on tales of conquering rugged wilderness... But these stories aren’t true in the ways we often think.' Meagan Gillmore (Brittany Vogt)

I was the only reporter in the newsroom hesitating to call the cyclists "inspirational." 

The couple had spent months travelling on a tandem bike from Argentina to Alaska. They'd stopped in Whitehorse as part of their journey's final leg.

I volunteered to write the story, but calling the cyclists "inspirational" made me pause. 

Like the cyclists, I love travel. 

Like them, I'm legally blind. 

Yet while they were exploring the Yukon, I was weeks away from returning home to Ontario. Their journey was easily "inspirational." Mine felt anything but.

The North creates adventure

It was July 2013, my second summer in the territory. I had moved to Whitehorse to pursue what appeared to be a dream first job: a community newspaper reporter. Professionally, the North was an ideal launching pad. Whitehorse is a small town and a capital city. A typical day could include writing about local art festivals and supreme court decisions.

The Yukon is renowned for its natural beauty — this view was captured in Dawson. 'If you decide to visit the Yukon after looking at [this picture], I believe I will have succeeded.' Meagan Gillmore (Jeff Gillmore)

The North creates adventure. Weekends routinely included hikes and cross-country skiing. I celebrated my birthday sitting in a hot spring, refusing to roll around in the October snow. I drank a shot of whiskey with a toe in the bottom of the glass. I drove a dog team across a lake.

Yet, I struggled to understand, and tried harder to ignore, my disability's impact on my life. I'd argue it benefits my reporting. Interviewing strangers for articles is a natural progression from asking for directions. Writing about disability as a disabled reporter can be difficult and contentious. I was learning to use mine to tell stories few would hear otherwise, particularly about the Yukon's Deaf community. 

I believed the lie that success means total independence — that strength means living without weakness.- Meagan Gillmore

Still, my nights were plagued by questions larger than fact-checking articles. I was born visually impaired. We treated it as normal growing up, not something to be pitied or discussed philosophically. My parents stressed independence. I kept my vision-related restrictions minimal. One item remained unmovable: driving. While it hadn't hindered my sense of adventure — I'd travelled to Europe twice during high school — as an adult, it was starting to hurt.

The city of Whitehorse, surrounded by mountains, sits on the banks of the Yukon River. The northern city has near endless daylight in the summer, but the winters bring long hours without. (Canadian Press)

Constantly needing rides to church or parties made me feel burdensome. Not being able to drive to cover stories made me feel inadequate.

These struggles collided at a meeting about preventing youth suicide. I volunteered with a group of elementary schoolchildren at church. My co-leaders thought we should be trained about suicide, especially as the topic filled the news. Our facilitators listed risk factors for developing a mental illness. They included living up North and having a chronic disease.

It was winter, and the struggle to fit in in Whitehorse was exhausting me. Cautiously, I raised my hand. "I was just wondering," I began. "You mentioned chronic diseases. Could the same apply to having a permanent disability?"

Silence confirmed my gut instinct.

Strength in weakness

Barely 14 months after arriving in Whitehorse, I moved back to Ontario and to Toronto. I enrolled in a college program partly for an excuse to live somewhere with greater transit. But I hesitated discussing how my disability influenced this decision. 

When I talked about the disability, people assured me living up North, alone — without a disability, too — is difficult. Even the "inspirational" cyclists mentioned the limited public transit during our interview. But because my disability contributed to  returning to Ontario, I often viewed my time up North as a complete failure. I believed the lie that success means total independence — that strength means living without weakness.

Disability's like the midnight sun: it irritates me by interfering with my routines, but I would not trade in the expanded experiences it gives me.- Meagan Gillmore

But the land I live on, the people with whom I share it, show otherwise.

I've helped tell many stories about this large mosaic named Canada. (I've also worked as an editor in New Brunswick.) Like many, I'm deeply grateful for our gorgeous landscapes, even more for the cultural diversity of our inhabitants. We've raised our country on tales of conquering rugged wilderness or welcoming everyone with open arms. 

But these stories aren't true in the ways we often think. Tell doctors in Northern hospitals that we've tamed the land. Explain inclusivity to parents struggling to learn English, or wondering if anyone cares about their daughters — and sons — rendered missing by racism, drug overdoses or the stresses of what we call prosperity.

On a trip to nearby Dyea, Alaska, while living in the Yukon. (Brittany Vogt)

I write this travelling on a bus from Toronto to Guelph to celebrate my nephew's fourth birthday. Weaving through roads wider than many Yukon highways makes me want to vomit. I scoff when stops for "Mountain View North" are announced; no mountains flash outside my window. I close my eyes and visualize Whitehorse. I wish I didn't miss it so much. I feel guilty — I left to gain independence, to be closer to community. But congested southern Canada can be as isolating as the sparsely populated North. The Yukon's spell often feels like a curse to me. Its wilderness limited my movements when I was there. I miss it now that I'm not. 

But soon, I will see a child's smile more breathtaking than any Yukon view, and infinitely more valuable than any natural resource. 

My disability still hurts sometimes, despite Ontario's greater accessibility. Disability's like the midnight sun: it irritates me by interfering with my routines, but I would not trade in the breadth of experiences it gives me for anything.

About the Author

Meagan Gillmore is a freelance writer in Toronto.

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