The Canada you don’t know: Life in Cambridge Bay

It’s safe to say that most Canadians have never heard of the town of Cambridge Bay, never mind being able to locate it on a map. The same could be said of Lynette and Sean Holmes, until three years ago. At that time they and their three kids were living in Bona Vista, Newfoundland, where Lynette was a nurse at the small local hospital. Then, friends of theirs moved their family to Cambridge Bay, located on Victoria Island in Nunavut,, to work in addiction counselling on the town council. Fast forward to today, and Lynette and her family have been living there for a year and a half. Moving your family is always a big decision, but it does not get more difficult than moving your family to the extreme, barren north of Canada. Yet, this is the reality that the Holmes faced, and this is their story of how they overcame difficulties and now proudly call Cambridge Bay their home.

Lynette, Sean, and their three kids had been living a pleasant life in the small coastal town of Bona Vista, Newfoundland. They both grew up in Newfoundland. But when friends of theirs moved to Cambridge Bay, the Holmes’ interest was piqued.

“We kind of wanted something new and exciting. There was a website that advertised nurses in Nunavut, and talked about all the benefits that they get and of course the money. We did a lot of research and it seemed like an adventure and we thought it was the perfect time to do that,” Lynette explains.

Besides the nursing job for Holmes, there were also opportunities for Sean. There are still a lot of social issues there, such as oppression of the native people there, dating back to when Cambridge Bay was settled. This is exactly what Sean was looking for, and the chance to help people in need and that have been hurt is something that interested the Holmes. Sean is currently the program manager of the Cambridge Bay Childcare Society. Lynette also mentioned that with their kids all still fairly young, it was a perfect time to move, as they would not miss Newfoundland as much and would not be aware of the social issues.

Cambridge Bay is so far north, that there are no trees at all, just tundra. To get there you have to take quite the travel route, which includes a flight landing on a dirt path. “That’s quite the experience in itself, landing on a dirt runway with mud and rocks flying everywhere. When we first flew here it was winter, and minus 40. Our eyelashes froze together as soon as we got off the plane and it hurt to breathe,” Lynette said.

The Holmes faced plenty of challenges initially, with adjusting to the new culture being the most daunting. “It’s hard to go from a province where being white is the majority, to a town where being white is a minority, and it is a distinct cultural and racial difference,” Lynette said. In a town of 1600 people, only 30 per cent are white. Lynette said that it was hardest on her children. They stood out with their blue eyes and light hair, and were bullied quite a bit at first. However, she emphasized that the community is tight knit and very loving. “Now that the people have gotten to know us, we are loved in the community, and our kids are friends with everyone,” Lynette said.

Another challenge was just getting used to daily living. There are no paved streets, everything is grated. The water gets trucked in to each home, and the sewage gets trucked out. Worst of all, is how expensive everything is. “The first time I walked into the grocery store, I thought, ‘we’re never going to eat anything.’ I only bought a loaf of bread,” Lynette recalled. But if they were going to live there, they would have no choice but to adapt, and get used to the price of goods. “Now, if it looks fresh, we buy it, even if it is past its date. You don’t care if the asparagus is a little rotten or 12 dollars a pound, you just buy it. We don’t look at the bill, or else we would never buy anything, “Lynette said. The prices vary depending on time of year, and some of the food prices are subsidized. But mayonnaise still costs nine dollars a jar,

and junk food is always full price. “At first, when I saw that a block of cheese was 22 dollars, I wanted to start smuggling cheese through the airport,” joked Lynette.

Living in Cambridge Bay is also just plain weird, according to them. Holmes said in the summer months there is 24 hours of daylight. “The kids don’t know if its morning, noon or night. It’s not strange to see five year old children outside at three in the morning,” Lynette said.

Differences aside, the Holmes have grown to love their community. “There are still things that make me feel like I’m in another country, but the people here are so family oriented and it makes me feel like I’m still in small town Newfoundland,” Lynette said. Cambridge Bay is still a developing community though, and with that comes a lot of social issues. “As a nurse, I see the effects of drugs and alcohol first hand, and it is very sad. I do a lot of on call work, and you see lots of family violence,” Lynette said. Lynette explains that a lot of the issues there stem from when Cambridge Bay was settled. “As a nomadic people, they are very talented and resourceful; they can do amazing artwork out of stone with just their hands. But when the government came and made them move off the land and stuck them in residential schools, their lifestyle was flipped right on its head,” Lynette explained. Compassion is propelling Sean and Lynette to do whatever they can to help the people of the community.

The Holmes also find themselves learning so much from the local Inuit people. “I’m most amazed by the elders, how much respect everybody has for them, and how much they care about the younger generation,” Lynette said. The elders are very active in trying to instill the old ways to the young people so that the traditions are not lost. Lynette also marvelled at how they discipline their children. “They talk to the children to get them to understand why they do things a certain way. They want the kids to be able to make choices for themselves, let them eat when they are hungry and go to bed when they are tired,” Lynette explained. It is something that she really notices coming from a structured environment.

What was strange to the Holmes, when they first moved to Cambridge Bay in March of 2012, is now very familiar. “It feels like home now. Like we went on vacation, for a month, and I just wanted to go home. On the flight back I was excited to see my house and my street and my neighbours, even the grocery store. And my kids are excited to see all their friends and get back to school,” Lynette raved.

The future is uncertain for the Holmes. They initially came to Cambridge Bay with no contract, but a three year goal. While Lynette is willing to stay as many as 10 years, Sean is not as sure. They are finding a lot of issues with the school system, and there are a lot of opportunities lacking from those of southern Canadian schools. “We don’t want our kids to fall behind in terms of education, and I want my little girl to be able to take ballet lessons and my boys take music lessons. There are not a lot of those kinds of things available here,” Lynette said.

While Lynette may not know what life has in store for the Holmes, she does know that she loves where she lives and could not ask for anything more. As Lynette learned, “as long as you keep an open mind and an open heart, anyone can become your family and anywhere can become your home.”

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