Northern Exposure

A shortage of lawyers means job opportunities outweigh the costs for adventurous lawyers who want to hone their skills in Canada’s northern territories.

It’s late one chilly Saturday morning in Iqaluit, but already Carly Kovendi has been awake for hours. It’s mid-September, and with winter coming soon, the federal prosecutor has been listening to the sounds of construction crews working on a new office building drilling into the granite since 6:30 a.m. With a short construction season, workers have to move feverishly to get the job done. “I’m told it’s normal. I’m getting used to it,” says the 29-year-old.

Kovendi is from Toronto, but so far she’s unfazed by — and in fact is embracing — the quirks of living in Nunavut. As a Crown prosecutor, she worried that living in a community of 6,000 people would have her facing the defendants she argues against at the grocery store, for example. But while it happens all the time, Kovendi says Inuit society’s forgiving nature means the encounters have never been awkward. “They’re just so ‘That was yesterday. Let’s move on.’ I think down south we could actually learn from that,” she says.

Besides, Nunavut has been good to the young lawyer, who began her job with the government in February 2008 after being called to the bar in Ontario in June 2007 and the following year in Nunavut. “Professionally, it’s fabulous,” she says, noting that because the federal Crown handles all prosecutions in Nunavut, including criminal cases, she’s escaped the fate of many young lawyers who are starved of court time. “I’m in court pretty much every day,” she says.

For people with a sense of adventure like Kovendi, Canada’s northern territories can be a great place to jump-start their careers. A shortage of litigators in Iqaluit — the territorial capital’s legal aid system is soon to be without any family law practitioners, and longtime Iqaluit resident Michael Chandler says he and his partner Susan Cooper run the only private law firm there — means there’s opportunities aplenty. “It’s very busy,” says Kovendi, who points out that after hiring a handful of fresh graduates last year, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada is again hiring upper-level associates.

In Nunavut, the shortage has become unusually severe. At the Maliiganik Tukisiiniakvik legal aid clinic, for example, executive director Chris Debicki says staff are “stretched” to handle the volume of cases. At the same time, the salaries are better than what a young associate working further south would earn. Chandler estimates a new lawyer can earn $75,000 a year on legal aid cases, while Kovendi says benefits like northern-living allowances help take the sting out of the high cost of living.

Still, high expenses, particularly for rent and travelling out of the territory, are exactly what are creating the shortage of lawyers in the first place, says Chandler. “That’s why the bar is shrinking here — it’s because it’s no longer economically viable to stay here. It’s very expensive to run a law office here,” he says, noting rent for office space he recently looked at was higher than it would be in Manhattan.

As a result, many of the lawyers who move to Nunavut leave within a few years. At the same time, firms based in southern Canadian cities are filling the gap by handling some of the workload remotely, particularly in areas such as real estate law. “We’ve got less lawyers working privately than there used to be,” says Chandler.

Hopes were high, meanwhile, that the Akitsiraq Law School, which began as a partnership between Nunavut Arctic College and the University of Victoria as a one-time project in 2001, would be the source of a new crop of Inuit lawyers in the territory. But while 11 people graduated with law degrees in 2005, only a handful of them are on the Law Society of Nunavut’s list of active members. Some have yet to be called to the bar, although many of the graduates are working as legal advisers in various territorial government departments. At this time, the University of Victoria has no plans to re-open the program to new applicants.


It’s not only in Nunavut that lawyers are also in high demand. In the Northwest Territories, a strong economy fuelled by the natural resources sector is the source of not only a lot of corporate work but also of the need for legal services created by the resulting population boom, says Loretta Bouwmeester, the outgoing president of the Canadian Bar Association’s Northwest Territories’ branch. Those new workers often buy houses and sometimes get divorced, all of which means real estate and family lawyers are also needed, says Bouwmeester

As in Nunavut, the cost of living eats into the higher salaries a young lawyer in Yellowknife can earn, but for those like Kovendi and David Hastings, who works as a legal adviser for the territorial government in the Northwest Territories, the expensive rents aren’t an insurmountable problem. Kovendi, for example, says she benefits from heavily subsidized housing in Iqaluit, while Bouwmeester points out a simpler lifestyle means it’s easy to spend less. A 10-minute walk to her job as counsel for the City of Yellowknife has freed her from the daily commute. “It’s higher in terms of fuel costs, but in some ways I think [the cost of living] is lower,” she says.

Besides, both Kovendi and Hastings say the job opportunities outweigh the costs. As well, both see benefits in the lifestyle up north. “The North in general is such a welcoming place,” says Hastings, 31, who moved to Yellowknife after practising in Prince Edward Island following his call to the bar four years ago. Since then, nine of his fellow law school graduates from the University of New Brunswick have followed him to the Northwest Territories after getting word — through the “magic of Facebook” — of the jobs there. “Not one of the 10 of us is doing the same thing,” says Hastings, who lists the working hours — he’s generally at the office from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. — as a key advantage of practising there.

As well, the small size of the bar makes for a collegial atmosphere among lawyers in Yellowknife. “We really make an effort to know who every new person is,” says Bouwmeester, who on a recent September day had just returned from lunch with a new associate arriving from Calgary.

Back in Iqaluit, Debicki says while becoming a legal aid lawyer is not a path to immediate wealth, the Inuit culture nevertheless makes Nunavut a “fascinating jurisdiction” to work in, especially since his staff get to travel across the sprawling territory for case work. “Our lawyers not only get to learn about it but they also get to participate in it,” he says. “That is impossible to replicate in any other job.”

Since moving from downtown Toronto to Nunavut four and a half years ago, Debicki himself has sailed through the Northwest Passage and travelled to Resolute Bay, Canada’s second-most northern community. It was there that he met a polar bear monitor he was tasked with helping to keep his driver’s licence. To show him the implications of a licence suspension, the monitor took him out for a snowmobile ride, during which the pair chased away three polar bears from the community. “Experiences like that — even as a tourist — you won’t get that,” says Debicki.

For Kovendi, meanwhile, life in Iqaluit has her participating in community activities such as a local production of Fiddler on the Roof, something she says she never did in Toronto. “I have the time to do it now, which is the nice thing,” she says.

Kovendi adds that so far, she enjoys the slower pace, even though a Crown prosecutor working in Nunavut doesn’t have the luxury of having an assistant to help with office tasks like photocopying documents. “It’s very much you do what you need to get done,” she points out, recounting how she regularly has to lug heavy bags full of case files onto planes for out-of-town trips.

“If you’re coming up here thinking everything’s going to be here for you, that’s not going to happen,” says Kovendi. Chandler, however, argues that while the jobs for young lawyers within government — particularly for the federal Crown — can be good, the high cost of doing business, and living in Nunavut make opening a private practice almost impossible.

Nevertheless, both Kovendi and Hastings say working in the North isn’t necessarily about the money. “You have to love being up here because it’s not cheap living up here,” she says. So far, Hastings says he has found lots to love. “I’m sure I’d have to be 50 to have this job if I were down south,” he says.

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