From downtown Toronto to the sub-arctic: Computer Science student Sol Han exchanges gridlock for the great white north

After completing his first 2 work terms with employers in downtown Toronto, Computer Science specialist Sol Han knew that he wanted a change. Enter his 3rd work term with the Kativik Regional Government in Kuujjuaq, Quebec.

Tell me about you – what’s your program and why did you choose to study it?

I will be entering my 4th year in the Computer Science Specialist: Software Engineering stream. I chose Computer Science because I love programming, and the career opportunities that come with the degree are promising.

What career(s) are you currently considering?

I am interested in software developer careers in the gaming industry and the public sector.

Tell me about your job in Kuujjuaq. What drew you to it?

I was looking for a change of pace in my lifestyle. Life in the city is fast-paced, monotonous, and often depressing (especially during rush hour). For instance, I worked downtown Toronto on my previous two work terms, and I used the subway to commute. At the peak of rush hour, I would have to let several trains pass before I could find one that wasn’t full. I hated it. When I saw this job posting, it was the perfect opportunity for me to obtain work experience and take a break from the city life.

What types of projects are you working on in your job?

The Kativik Regional Government (KRG) manages 14 Inuit villages across the Kativik region in Quebec. I created a web page for handling complaints and tenders for KRG’s legal department, and wrote a program to help automate the manual labour for the transport department. I’m currently helping improve a purchasing application for the purchasing department. I am also creating a data entry web application for the local police department to help track their officers, inventory, contracts, etc.

What does an average day look like for you right now?

Wake up around 7:45 AM, do the usual morning routine of getting ready for work. Leave the house by 8:55 AM, arrive at work at 9:00 AM. My commute is a pleasant 5 minute walk, relative to the soul crushing commute of downtown Toronto. Like most companies, the start and end time is flexible. My workday consists of programming, a few meetings, and going home for lunch (thanks to the 5-minute commute!). Most people at the KRG go home for lunch, because most of their homes are in close proximity. Work usually ends at around 5pm, and I am allowed to work overtime if I‘d like. A key difference in Kuujjuaq is that the internet service providers (ISPs) in the south don’t have any influence here. Kuujjuaq has its own ISP that uses satellite internet. As a result, I can’t play online games on satellite internet, which is a hobby I had to sacrifice when I decided to work at the KRG. As a result, my evening is very different from Toronto: I’ve found other hobbies such as pleasure reading, cooking, and going to the gym. A co-worker that lives upstairs often invites the other co-op students from Waterloo and I to watch movies, or play LAN games. Sleeping in Kuujjuaq is difficult to get accustomed to because of the extended daytime. It usually gets dark around 11:30 PM, and the sun comes back up around 3 AM. I have to wear a blindfold to get a good nights rest.

Were you nervous to move there? Excited? Both?

I had a few concerns before moving there about the sub-arctic weather, the possibility of boredom, and language barriers. The weather is a little colder than Toronto in the summer, so it’s much like autumn or spring. I’m glad that this is a summer work term, because I’ve heard that the temperature can reach as low as -50oC in the winter. I’m not as bored as I thought I would be with the lack of fast internet. I found other hobbies to fill my time, as I mentioned in a different answer above. Everyone speaks English at the KRG, but I wish I could understand the locals’ conversations in French. All of that said, I was excited to go on a small adventure and escape the city lifestyle.

What’s your experience been like living there so far?

The Inuit culture is different from our culture in the south. Everyone knows each other in Kuujjuaq. If someone passes away, the whole community grieves. In an effort to keep the culture alive, the students here are taught strictly in the local language, Inuktitut, until they are in grade 3. From grade 4, they choose English or French as a first language, and keep Inuktitut as a second language. As a small northern town, Kuujjuaq is not heavily influenced by the media so many of the modern standards in the south of political correctness, beauty, fashion, and etiquette are absent. The children seem more carefree and joyful, but also “rude” in southern standards. For instance, they would point and yell “Chinese!” (I’m Korean) when they see me, which would be unacceptable in the south. They don’t mean any disrespect, and they have never seen – or rarely see ­– Asian people.

While I’m told that you can see the northern lights easily by looking out the window in the winter, I’m disappointed that it is very hard to see them in the summer months.

I mentioned my everyday routine in the answer above, about the lack of fast internet, difficulty sleeping, and an enjoyable 5 minute walk to work. It is also worth mentioning that the same laws in the south are not enforced here. Most vehicles do not have a licence plate, and some are heavily damaged due to the lack of mechanic shops. A good portion of the population ride ATVs as a method of transportation. There is one bus that runs on a variable schedule. One of the things I don’t like here are the insects. The number of mosquitos and blackflies force people to wear full body bug nets in the summer months. There are no roads going out of the villages at all, which means that the only method of commercial travel in and out of Kuujjuaq is by aircraft. The food here is all imported by barge or plane, so the prices are very expensive compared to the south. For example, a carton of Tropicana orange juice costs $6.90, before tax. Most people have family or friends ship luggage full of supplies, or arrive in Kuujjuaq with enough to last them a long time.

What kind of activities do locals do for fun up there?

Fishing is a popular activity ; it's possible to catch underdeveloped salmon here. There are some live action plays performed on stage. The stage also hosts older movies from the south, usually around 1-2 months after they air. There are public sports sessions for basketball, hockey, badminton, soccer, and other sports. Hunting is also popular among the locals. Seals, bears, Beluga whales, and narwhals are hunted for their meat and furs. 

What advice, if any, would you give to a student considering a work term outside of Toronto (or even as far north as Kuujjuaq?)

Study the living conditions and any caveats of living in the new location, such as climate, and living conditions/expenses. It is better to over pack luggage than under pack. For instance, I could have saved a lot of money on food expenses, if I packed food from the south. Make sure you are ready for the challenge of living on your own. If you lived with a guardian, you will probably need to learn how to cook, and all the other chores that may have been done by your guardian. Respect the local culture, just because it’s different, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

Oh, and try to be a good roommate. No one likes bad roommates.