“We were in Pakistan — as ever, saving children,” Martin Crill says at the Baked Café, where the sun has finally come inside. “We believed Canada had forgotten about us.”
He worked for Save the Children UK, an independent children’s charity, often intervening in war situations to help displaced children find families.
Martin’s Canadian journey began when Maureen, his wife, idly applied for a nursing job in Aklavik.
But, after 18 months, they’d heard nothing and forgot all about it.
Martin was in Morocco when he got a phone call. “Are you still interested in the job in Aklavik?”
Health Canada was recruiting midwives and nurses for the Inuit settlement. They asked Maureen to bring along her husband’s resumé too. He ended up getting a visa as a Dependent Alien Spouse.
He puts his fingers beside his head like antennae. “Imagine having that title?”
They arrived in Inuvik in late January (–48C ) wearing their jeans and desert boots.
Immigration Canada warned Martin, “If we catch you working, you can be fined, jailed or deported. I will ensure all three will happen.”
“It was clear I wasn’t going to get any work. I hung around for a year and a half in Aklavik, advising on drug/alcohol boards.”
Finally, Martin decided to take a job in Peru for Save the Children UK smack dab in the middle of a country torn apart by Maoist guerrillas.
He stayed there for a few years as his wife, back in Aklavik, became nursing director of the Western Arctic. She joined him in Peru shortly thereafter.
After all their global relief work, Martin figured that they would eventually settle down in Western France or Northern Spain, not far from the island, Jersey, he grew up in off the coast of France.
“We wanted to settle down. We were in our 50s. We had no car, no home, our jobs took us all over the world. Normally, we were together. But we wanted a community we could call our own.”
But he realized that he was trying to find his childhood idyll — that life as a farm boy in Jersey. “I was imagining people wearing berets, getting quietly drunk on a Saturday night, raising ferrets.”
But the villages had been emptied as people left to the cities, farms had been consolidated, the places had become industrialized. Europeans, as a whole, seemed angst-ridden from immigration problems of their own. “I wasn’t sure where Europe was going. So I looked back.”
He remembered northern Canada’s classlessness, its eccentricities, but they didn’t want to live in another fly-in community. “We wanted the vibrancy of a road. We wanted hills, mountains and rivers.” They’d both been to Whitehorse separately and liked it.
They wandered for eight more years through Cuba, Bosnia, Pakistan, Tanzania, Columbia, four of those years in the slow process of immigrating to Canada.
“The most complicated part was getting clearance in every country we’d lived in. Some of those countries no longer existed.”
It became an amusing hobby, collecting those clearances. “I have a stack this big,” he stretches his fingers six inches wide. Some were written completely in Urdu. Some were amusing.
“Cuba sent a letter saying I was a very good Communist.”
His marriage certificate in Cuba? Not a pretty sight. A row of crossed AK-47s lined the top, with the motto “Fatherland or Death.”
It was, he believes, a test of Canada’s resolve and theirs.
When they were finally accepted, he says the Yukon was very welcoming. “We’re crying out for people like you.”
After all the places they’ve been, what keeps them in Whitehorse? I ask.
“You know, with Whitehorse being so far from the big centres of Canada, one might expect it to be hickish and provincial, as dull as dirt. But it’s not. Statistically we have the highest levels of education attained than anywhere else in Canada. And the most beer consumption. I think they’re linked.”
He attributes the Yukon’s vibrancy to the fact that it attracts independent, adventursome spirits who aren’t totally obsessed with money. The government also helps by offering so many people good jobs at good pay. He also likes what he calls the “frontiersiness” and hopes we don’t lose that over the next 20 years.
“We could go the way of Red Deer and become a boring, transient community, big-boxified in our social and personal lives. We could lose our distinctiveness.”
We both look around the room at the eclectic mix of people around us in the café.
He says, “You know, I had this fear that what happened in Jersey would happen here. That I’d have to watch the scene replayed — people leaving, losing the unique character of a place. It’s nice to know that, while everybody does go out, and they check out Calgary and Vancouver and Toronto —” He smiles. “They come back.”