Northern boot camp

Written by  Posted Date: August 24, 2015
Northern boot campIn August 2010, Toronto was simmering away in a sticky heat wave as John MacLean found himself packing to move to Nunavut, where the weather was fall-like and dictated that jeans and a fleece were more appropriate than shorts and a T-shirt. He remembers arriving in Iqaluit in what he calls “dust season” —  mercifully, most of the mosquitoes were gone.

Originally from Nova Scotia, MacLean found his way to Nunavut during a tough time for new lawyers. He had graduated from the University of New Brunswick Faculty of Law and summered with the New Brunswick Department of Health, where he worked on personal health information legislation. What was supposed to be a two-month stint had luckily turned into a 10-month contract. Following that, he articled at the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner in Toronto until September 2009.

But job prospects were slim and he was facing unemployment. “I was called to the bar during the recession. The hire-back rate in Toronto was 42 per cent and governments weren’t hiring. It was a really sticky situation for people in my cohort,” says MacLean, who is today legal counsel with the Legal & Constitutional Law Division of the Nunavut Department of Justice.

MacLean answered an ad in the Ontario Reports for a job with the Nunavut Department of Justice.
“They listed all the areas that I thought I would be interested in learning about, so I sent off an application and months later received a call for an interview and was later given an offer to move up.”

Technically, he was in his second year post-call when he started but says he felt more like a first year.
“It was an adventure,” he recalls. “This is a great job; it’s a challenging job. I have complex and interesting things to work on along with mundane everyday questions like ‘does this contract comply with s. 46 of the Financial Administration Act?’”

The law group he works in serves all nine departments of the government of Nunavut and is the principal source of legal advice. There are nine lawyers plus a director when fully staffed. “We are a full-service legal department. We are quite small and many of us are, for the most part, within our first 10 years of practice. We’re young and the North is the best boot camp a young lawyer can get because you get to run your own files.”

He recalls getting a phone call at 7:30 p.m. on a Sunday night telling him there was a hearing for preferential procurement for the Nunavummi Nangminiqaqtunik Ikajuuti appeal board and they needed a lawyer. “We won, but that was a baptism by fire. But it meant all subsequent NNI appeals came to me and the next big one was a medevac contract. I found myself briefing cabinet. I remember walking out of the meeting thinking, ‘look what can happen in a year.’”

MacLean says moving to Nunavut expanded his skill set and his horizons — the territory is huge, covering three time zones. Learning on the job has been a big part of his almost five years at Justice.
“While I had a lot of administrative law experience, and access to information and protection of privacy down cold, I had not done a lot of corporate commercial work,” he says.

He had never reviewed or drafted a contract and hadn’t done anything related to procurement. Now, procurement is his principal area of focus. A lawyer who did procurement work took him under her wing and asked him to attend meetings with her. When she went on leave or duty travel, MacLean was able to pick up the files with confidence. When that lawyer retired last year, he inherited a good number of her files including a big-ticket school construction and major infrastructure work. “That’s both scary and really interesting at the same time to be thrown into a practice area and be forced to learn it,” he says. “You can get external counsel when you need to and we have people on standing offer to do that, so when I reach the extent of my comfort level I know we can reach out to them.”

The department puts out requests for proposals to law firms for standing offer agreements. MacLean was recently the project manager for that process — something he says he wouldn’t typically get to do elsewhere. “I just finished scoring it with our director and deputy minister.”

They have a robust list of law firms and specialists to draw on from across the country including Ottawa, Yellowknife, Edmonton, and Halifax. “We have to have contracts with them so we have coverage across the territory, and when we need services we want to be able to act pretty quickly so we have people on standing offer in any of the major centres to help out,” he says.

The average tenure for a lawyer in the government of Nunavut and at legal aid in the territory is about two years, and 18 months at the Crown’s office. But that is starting to change. “We’re noticing a subtle change in that people are starting to stay longer,” says MacLean. “We have people at legal aid who are staying longer than they used to and we’re all hitting our four-, five-year mark together. A few of us at Justice are hitting the five-year mark or Nunaversary, as we call it.”

The reason: The work is interesting, he says, with a level of responsibility he would not be enjoying elsewhere at this point in his career. “I have been here for almost five years and have never been bored. I look forward to coming to work. I like the people I work with — we’re a collegial office — we’re collaborative and bounce ideas off each other, we help each other out and go to continuing education together. It’s a good place to come and work and a lot of things we’re doing in Nunavut we’re doing for the first time.”

There’s also an intense sense of community. Each year the Nunavut Department of Justice partners with the local high school for an annual mock trial. This past May, Supreme Court of Canada Justice Andromache Karakatsanis travelled to Nunavut to judge the event held at Inuksuk High School. “We have so much fun coaching the students. It’s a fun time for lawyers and a positive thing for lawyers to be doing in the community. We hope it might inspire some of the kids to go into a career in the legal world,” he says.

Nunavut has been a territory for just 16 years and it inherited all of its acts, regulations, and policy manuals from the Northwest Territories. As MacLean says, what worked for Yellowknife in the 1990s or the 1980s doesn’t necessarily work in Nunavut. “We have 25 communities and none of them are connected by road and there is no power grid. We’re a decentralized territory, so providing services in those areas requires a certain amount of change and adaptability,” he says. “You get a chance to build things here. I’m a guy who likes to build things, metaphorically speaking, and at the end of month or end of the year I can say I helped build something and I like that.”

When it comes to compensation, salaries are generally higher in the territories than they are in the provinces to account for the higher cost of living. “Rent, food, and travel are more expensive, but if you factor in the increase directly related to the cost of living, our salaries are within the range of down south,” he says.

At the Government of Nunavut, the pay ranges start with a base of about $100,000, plus a taxable northern living allowance, and, often, subsidized housing attached to positions. “The big difference between us and the federal government is that we don’t have vacation travel assistance, but we do get more leave,” says MacLean.

New lawyers in the Government of Nunavut get four weeks vacation with the option to “purchase” an additional five days. After three years, an individual qualifies for an additional week of leave. Legal aid lawyer salaries and benefits in Nunavut are in the same range. Some of the other perks include free Canadian Bar Association membership, and opportunities to attend continuing professional development events in Ontario and across Canada.

As MacLean says, the cost of living is higher in the North and there are compromises, too. A plane ticket to Toronto is $2,200, and high-speed Internet isn’t exactly high speed. MacLean jokes there are three seasons — ice, followed by mud, followed by dust followed by, yes, ice.

But after living in Nunavut for five years, MacLean says he doesn’t have any regrets. “I have a good social life here and moving here really did rocket my career ahead. I was president of the CBA Nunavut Branch when I was 33, I’ve been on the CBA executive and I’m the national young lawyer rep for the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association.”

In those roles, he’s had the opportunity to speak about Nunavut and northern issues in a national forum. “I think that opened a lot of doors and I think that is the case if you talk to other people who are in-house counsel in Yellowknife or Whitehorse who are working for mining companies, for the government,” he says.

For any young lawyer looking to get experience or who is in public service, MacLean says the northern governments are frequently hiring. “It can be very hard to break in in the provinces. Up here it takes a certain amount of intestinal fortitude to get on a plane and move to an island in the Arctic, but we have openings fairly often. We just hired four new lawyers.”

MacLean isn’t sure how long he will stay but certainly isn’t booking a flight south any time soon. “We have opportunities here. It is worth a shot and doesn’t have to be forever. When I moved up here everyone asked me how long was I going to stay and I honestly do not know. When I moved up it was going to be for two years — I was going to get some experience and pay off my student debts and go somewhere else. Now I’m hitting year five because I like my job.”

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Jennifer Brown

Jennifer Brown is the editor of Canadian Lawyer InHouse.

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