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Being a nurse in Nunavut: the toughest work you’ll ever do, but also the most rewarding

21-year veteran shares why the North has been an ‘amazing experience’

Feb 14, 2022, By: Jennifer Berry
Courtesy of Jennifer Berry
“Nunavut holds a special spot in my heart because of the untamed beauty of the land and the deep connections I have made with patients, families, and communities,” Jennifer Berry says. She is shown here fishing with her daughter near Rankin Inlet.

I am often asked what it is like to be a nurse in Nunavut. So, I thought I would share my experience more broadly because nursing in the North is the most amazing experience one can have. Communities welcome you, you become part of the community and, in many ways, part of its families. Kids come up to you in the grocery store with their friends and say proudly, “This is my nurse!” Or you see the babies you once took care of now grown up and bringing their own babies to see you.

My story

Courtesy of Jennifer Berry
Jennifer Berry thought she might stay in Nunavut for a year, but she fell in love with the work, the community and the land. She’s still there — 21 years later.

Twenty-one years ago, I found myself working in a busy hospital in the South, wondering whether there was more out there for nurses. The hospital was so busy and the workload was so heavy that at the end of an exhausting shift, I found myself realizing that I did not even know my patients despite caring for them for 12 hours. I could tell you their bed number, their medical history, and their medications, but I didn’t know their real story. I didn’t know who they were as individuals or whether the time I spent holding their hand during difficult moments made any difference.

I knew there had to be more to nursing than this. Or was everything we learned in nursing school a lie? We are groomed to believe that nurses provide extraordinary care, build strong interpersonal relationships with patients and families, and care for each patient in a holistic manner. I longed for this experience.

Soon after this, I met a nurse from Nunavut who truly embodied the spirit of northern nursing. Within minutes of my meeting her, her stories about nursing in Nunavut had me hooked. A month later, my new friend and I were on a plane heading to Rankin Inlet to experience Canada’s newest territory.

My plan was to work in Nunavut for a year. Here I am, 21 years later, thankful that the people of Nunavut have allowed me to call the territory home.

A special place

Working in Nunavut as a nurse is not for the faint of heart.

Nunavut holds a special spot in my heart because of the untamed beauty of the land and the deep connections I have made with patients, families, and communities. It’s a marvellous feeling knowing that your contributions as a nurse make a difference. This is something I could never see or feel working in a large hospital in the South.

I will admit that working in Nunavut as a nurse is not for the faint of heart. It can be the toughest work you ever do, while also being the most rewarding and soul-satisfying work you will ever do. I have had the honour and privilege of learning about Inuit culture from friends, patients, and Elders who took the time to share their traditional knowledge (properly known as Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit) and their stories of resilience despite the impacts of decades of colonization.

Most importantly, I have been shown incredible patience and kindness as I tried to figure out how to integrate the values and traditions of Inuit culture into my practice of traditional western medicine (and even tried to learn Inuktitut!).

Although I no longer work in the health centre as a community health nurse or nurse practitioner, I have carried those experiences and learnings through other positions I have held within the government of Nunavut. This holds especially true in my current role as assistant deputy minister of health, where I see how Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit principles form the strong foundation of our health system.

Facing the future

Even as we face unprecedented challenges with the global COVID-19 pandemic and, now, an accelerated national nursing shortage, we stand strong together, drawing on our resourcefulness, partnerships, and innovation to overcome these challenges. We are taking these challenges and building a stronger system that better serves the people of Nunavut with care closer to home and with better supports for our health-care workers on the front lines. I would liken this to the return of the sun after a dark winter.

Nursing is more than IVs and stethoscopes. Nunavut nurses work closely with their patients and communities to provide holistic care that is focused on the patient, on families, and on communities. It is the quiet, everyday work of Nunavut nurses that should be celebrated.

Nunavut nurses are there to offer comfort in time of need, to be a voice for a patient who does not have one, to advocate for social justice, and to celebrate a patient’s successful and joyous moments. I am humbled every day by the wonderful work that our nurses do and their dedication to the communities they serve.

If you have ever considered moving to the North to nurse — please do not spend any more time thinking about it, and just start living it. Come and experience the magic of nursing in Nunavut.

Jennifer Berry is the assistant deputy minister of health for the government of Nunavut and has worked as a nurse in the North for over 20 years.