Canada 2017·Personal Essay

Why I stayed in Iqaluit after moving there by accident

How Rhose Harris-Galia became one of the first Filipino-Canadians to call the Nunavut capital home

How Rhose Harris-Galia became one of the first Filipino-Canadians to call the Nunavut capital home

Rhose Harris-Galia relaxes in majestic Pangnirtung on rocks overlooking the entryway to the Fjord in June 2001. She had moved to Canada from the Philippines, never dreaming she'd end up in the True North. (Rhose Harris-Galia)

I moved to Canada from the Philippines, rather half-heartedly, in 1999. I started out in Edmonton, but was soon offered work in beautiful Banff. The excitement and wanderlust tugged at me — I thought: "I would love to be a nanny for three kids in the mountains!"

It was only after accepting the job offer that my new employer showed me where I was going on a map. It was nowhere near Banff. In fact, it was nowhere near Alberta. I soon realized the woman on the phone had said Baffin Island.

I was on my way to Nunavut.

Homemade food and Arctic hares

I remember looking out the window as I flew north that October day in 2000, slowly losing sight of anything green. The landscape was changing from bustling roads to rolling hills and brown-white tundra. There were no trees.

It was like riding a roller-coaster, not knowing when the drop would come.

My main worry was not the job. I had grown up surrounded by fragrant pines and towering mountains, and I was going to a place that apparently had neither. Was there apprehension? Definitely. But the knot in my stomach also signalled something else: excitement and eagerness to face the unknown.

The first few weeks were eye opening. My employer, Anne, understood that I was suffering from culture shock. After all, I had only been in Canada for a little over a year.

Rhose Harris-Ghalia poses in an igloo built for the Toonik Tyme festival, an annual celebration of Inuit traditions and the return of spring. The festival dates back to 1965. (Rhose Harris-Ghalia)

Anne's introductions made adjusting easier. First, she introduced me to one of about 15 Filipinos in town. I was quickly welcomed into the fold and comforted with homemade Filipino food.

Anne gave me a history lesson on how Nunavut was created and why, and also opened my eyes to the richness of the land.

She would point out the caribou clambering up the hillside next to the house, and the almost invisible fox and Arctic hare blending into the landscape.

Many Inuit, when Anne introduced me to them, were as curious about me as I was about them. I think they were amazed at how closely I resembled them, being from half a world away. We also realized that some words in their language and mine were similar. For instance, their word for "five" is "tallimat." In Filipino, it's "lima."

All in all, my transition from a person who was "from away" to one who could call herself "Iqalummiut" was slowly taking place.

Quiet wonder

I was determined to return to my chosen profession of nursing once my year of nanny-hood was over.

After passing the board exams in 2002, I started working as a nurse in the Baffin Regional Hospital. I have worked in the ward, the emergency room and the operating room ever since. In all these units, I was surrounded by people who had a plethora of stories about life up North.

Over the years I met my husband, had two kids and bought a home, much to the befuddlement of my family. I don't think a year has passed without someone asking: "When are you moving to civilization?"

At first, the delay was financial. We had loans and a mortgage to pay, and up here the pay is good. However, the cost of living is incredibly high, so money wasn't really the reason.

So why did I really stay?

I think my first epiphany happened my first winter here. No one knew it was my 25th birthday, but that night, Anne's husband, Neil, took me to the top of the hill overlooking our house. He turned out the car lights and told me to look up.

It was the first time I saw the northern lights.

Rhose Harris-Galia says the Northern Lights have a way of melting the whole day away. The cold, dark Arctic skies set the stage for the bands of bright light. (Dr. Chelsey Ricketts)

A feeling of awe and inexplicable peace filled me, and despite the cold, looking at the lights just made the day melt away. It was like they used their quiet wonder to say, "Hey, you down there: whatever you are doing, know that you are okay. Breathe. Everything will work out just fine".

They still affect me that way every time I see them.

Cold doesn't permeate the heart

To me, Nunavut is a true microcosm of Canada, where people from all nations come together and try their best to live the Canadian way.

Those who come from all over the world get together and try their best to practice their culture while at the same time making sure it harmonizes with Canadian values, accepting that every culture is different, yet every culture can blend with another without feelings of bitterness and exclusivity.

Here in the Arctic you can truly see how immigrants adapt and integrate not just in a new country, but in a culture that even by Canadian standards, is unique in its Indigenous identity.

The Filipino population has grown to about 200, and I've also met many people from many other countries — like Lebanon, Nigeria, India — and from every Canadian province and territory. We have a proud LGBT community.

Everyone is accepted, and they are all here in the cold, with their parkas, tuques and mitts, with a story to tell.

In this small corner of Canada, the cold doesn't permeate the heart. Many came to live in the quiet calm of the North, away from the traffic jams and hectic pace of "civilization."

Every time I go on vacation outside of Iqaluit, it takes me about a week before I start feeling the need to go back North.

The warmth of the community and lifelong friends win over the chilly winters.

And this is why I stay.

Rhose Harris-Galia is a Nurse Case Manager at Qikiqtani General Hospital, the only hospital in the Baffin Region, Nunavut. She lives with her husband and two sons in Iqaluit. (Rhose Harris-Galia/CBC)

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