Aussie nurse in Nunavut for adventure, not money

From down under to up top: similarities abound in landscape, but major differences in pay.



CLYDE RIVER — The main difference between Nunavut and Northern Australia is the temperature, says Clyde River’s newest community nurse, Mark McKenna.

“The temperature would get about about as low as 30 degrees Celsius. It would be in the 40s in the summer. It went down to 14 degrees one May. That was news,” McKenna jokes.

That and the $20,000 extra a year he’s spending to live in the North.

The Australian nurse finds himself in the Canadian Arctic thanks to a recruiting effort by the Baffin Regional Health and Social Services, which concentrated on attracting nurses from remote regions of Australia.

But they didn’t attract him with a better compensation package.

“In Australia my rent was free, my electricity was free. The apartments were fully furnished. We got three fly-outs (VTAs), six to eight weeks holiday and two weeks study leave.”

But McKenna is paying his own rent in Nunavut and his electricity bills. McKenna said that when he figures in the high cost of food and telephone bills, he’s spending about $20,000 more than he would have spent living in Australia.

So why did he leave?

“The adventure!” McKenna said the opportunity to travel to a place he might never have the opportunity to see otherwise was too good to pass up.

“You also get to do things in remote areas you’d never do in a large centre.”

Many nurses are attracted to the Arctic, he said, because of the opportunity it affords them. In remote locales nurses take on the role of a nurse practitioner. He said they make diagnoses, prescribe medicine and generally do more than nurses in urban centres.

Since arriving in Clyde River, McKenna said he has noticed more similarities between the two places than differences.

Both locations are populated mostly by aboriginal people. Both locations offer beautiful scenery, both have plentiful fish and game, although he notes glumly that he isn’t allowed to hunt in Clyde River.

“In Australia we used to hunt wild boars a lot with dogs and knives,” he said.

Although he isn’t flying from shire to shire (Australian townships) doing airplane clinics, the nursing station in Clyde River is equipped with a skidoo and “quadbike” (four-wheeler), and there are outpost camps, much like the “stations” surrounding some remote Australian settlements.

He also sees many of the same social problems, such as poverty, physical abuse, drug abuse and gambling. Alcohol isn’t as big a problem in Clyde River as it is in Australia, he said though.

“I think because people don’t have access to it.”

Another problem he doesn’t see is tribal warfare. In one Australian town where McKenna worked, there were seven main tribes and five smaller ones and only 1,200 people.

“The .people here seem to have a good social structure,” he said. In Australia, feuds between families from different tribes would often erupt into violence.

In Clyde River he sees victims of violence once or twice a week. In Australia, he said he saw victims of violence almost every day.

“Here it’s mostly fists. There, the people will go after each other with weapons, knives, spears. Mostly you get stab wounds on the arms or minor ones to the chest, but every now and then you’d get a really good one.”

McKenna had a brush with danger shortly after arriving in Clyde River in August. He met Nunavut’s answer to the crocodile.

“We had an old man passing away at home. I went back to the clinic for some equipment. On my way back to the house a polar bear ran out in front of me. And then these guys came chasing after it with their quad bikes and guns and chased it out to sea. The local people told me the man who was dying was a great hunter. They saw the polar bear as a sign,” McKenna said.

Undetered by the territory’s more dangerous fauna he purchased a Skandic snowmobile.

“I’ve already had a couple of stacks. I hit a big rock. I’m still learning to ride it. I keep wanting to ride it like a motorbike. It’s good fun for having a look around,” he said.

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