By Jef Catapang
September 3, 12:17 p.m.
Yulia Mychkina sits in the warm shade of Le Select Bistro’s patio canopy, four days away from uprooting her life. Two months ago a friend in Iqaluit, Nunavut forwarded a job posting for a one-year graphic designer position at a firm called Atiigo Media, urging Mychkina to join her up in Canada’s North. Sure enough Mychkina got the job, and despite a flash of hesitation after accepting the offer, appears confident that she’s making the right decision. “It came along at a good time. I left my previous job abruptly and yeah, I just needed to take that next step in my career,” she says, wrinkling her brow in contemplation.
The 27-year-old OCAD University grad is excited by not just the professional opportunity but also the thrill of collecting new life experiences. “Travelling is definitely an addiction,” she says. “I’d rather spend my finances on a grand experience versus something like buying a really expensive handbag.” The travel bug ingrained itself early. Born in smalltown Russia, where “very few people travelled let alone relocated their whole lives,” she moved with her family to Canada when she was nine and today is unfazed about not knowing a language or feeling separated from a cultural landscape. “I feel it makes you a better person,” she says. “Through my travel experiences I’ve developed a tough enough skin that it’s OK to be out of my comfort zone. You learn, you grow, and nothing lasts forever.”
She’s not coming in blind. Mychkina spent 10 days visiting her Iqaluit-based friend in October. She’s tasted the cold, witnessed the isolation and sampled the frequent power outages. “The biggest difference is that it’s a lot more social than Toronto,” she says. With a population of around 7,000, Iqaluit is Canada’s least populated capital city. The same faces pop up again and again. “We were driving by and my friend just points to a man like, ‘Oh, and that’s our mayor.’ Just like that! It’s definitely a much more down to earth place.”
Mychkina’s decision affects more than just her. Her partner of four years, Jon, will be coming up with her. He agreed to the move on one condition: the couple is getting a dog. (She shows a pic of the prospective puppy, a scruffy Bernese mountain dog named Happy who should do just fine in the cold climate.) The abruptness of the move means Jon will have to hang behind for a month to handle their lease agreement and tie up loose ends. Everything is moving fast. Mychkina isn’t even there yet but has already started work on her first project for Atiigo, an awareness campaign about fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). “I handed in my concepts and, for one of them, I wasn’t sure they would go for it,” she says. But instead of telling her to tone it down and reel in her instincts, they responded ecstatically. She smiles. A sign of good things to come.
Ready, set, go
Atiigo Media started in the back of Tony Romito’s house in 2003. It was a product of necessity as much as ambition—Romito’s government publications job had been decentralized, but the designer, who had already relocated 1,500 kilometres from Resolute Bay to Iqaluit, had just built a house there and started a family. Instead of moving again for another job he decided to create his own. “I had some carry-over contracts from my government job to kick-start the company, so we had some work behind us to keep us going for a little while,” he says. The relationships endured. To this day, three-quarters of the firm’s work is for the government of Nunavut.
Over the next decade the business grew not only in physical size from office to office but also in the breadth of its offering. It expanded with online five years ago and in the last three years has made great inroads with video, one of Romito’s personal passions and a medium that perfectly aligns with Inuit culture’s history of oral communication. To this end Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, an award-winning Iqaluit-born filmmaker who studied design and illustration in Ontario, was brought on board as vice-president. “I already admired Tony and his staff and had worked with them before, teaching video workshops with youth, so I was eager to join the company. I kind of harassed him,” she laughs.
One of the firm’s landmark projects was an anti-smoking campaign bearing a brutally honest tagline: “It’s killing us. Tobacco has no place here.” It combined print executions with Web and video, putting Atiigo on the map as a serious full-service player, and also demonstrated that the studio could handle social and health issues with sensitivity and understanding without pulling its punches. The campaign featured real people from the community sharing the devastating effects smoking has had on their lives. “I’ve had so many people come up to me and say, ‘It meant so much to me to not see a famous Southern actor saying these things, but for it to have been my cousin or somebody in my community’,” says Arnaquq-Baril. “We’ve been approached more for campaigns like that since then.”
With a third owner on deck as well, Jeff Kheraj, Atiigo proudly promotes itself as an Inuit-owned communications specialist. Although Arnaquq-Baril works mainly with video, her background is an asset when it comes to looking over other projects for cultural accuracy and fluency of language. (Most of the company’s work has to be delivered in four official languages.) Romito himself is from Alberta, but his heart has belonged to the North since he was a young boy. He moved up from Edmonton 20 years ago. “I was a kid in a candy store,” he says. “Everything around the next corner was something fascinating and new. From the landscape to the animals, to the people and the culture, I was just soaking it all in.”
Running a firm in the North is a unique endeavour. “I think if someone threw me into a design firm in the South I wouldn’t know what to do,” says Romito, despite his years of experience. He can count the total number of Iqaluit design outfits on one hand. Hiring talent has been a particular challenge. Although Nunavut boasts the largest group of artists per capita in North America—sculpture, illustration, textile, spoken word and performance art are all abundant in Inuit culture—this has not carried over to the field of graphic design. There’s a lack of design school programs, and residents rarely leave to study unless it’s for professions like law or healthcare. “If there was a graphic designer that had just graduated school that was a northerner, we would snap them up,” Romito says. “But we advertise [job openings] and we just don’t see those people.” Most of his hires fly in from the South.
Kelly Craver, who handles Website development and content management, is originally from Alberta. Designers Mylène Chartrand and Mélanie Houde hail from Quebec, while videographer Mark Aspland and communications/client services manager Anubha Momin both come from Ontario. “There are a lot of rewards to be had by living and working in Nunavut,” Romito says. “But there’s a certain segment of society who just can’t take the difference and just don’t want it. Having gone through a number of staff members over the years, we find that you either love it or you don’t, and people who don’t love it don’t last very long.”
Arnaquq-Baril acknowledges that Iqaluit can feel like a totally different world for those not from the area. “I’ll be really curious to see how Yulia settles in,” she says. “A lot of people speak Inuktikut; there are no trees or vegetables growing. There’s definitely some culture shock… The ones who do well tend to be people with a curiosity for life and an interest in other cultures, people who are comfortable not necessarily being part of the majority culture. If they’re not prepared or open-minded about that
then it’s a bit more difficult.”
“I think people are often surprised,” she adds. Despite the cold, the dark months and the sheer distance from what’s familiar, “people come up here and discover the joy and the sense of community and how close people are; the fantastic, unique sense of humour that Inuit have, and how welcomed people feel into these communities.” Craver, Chartrand and Houde are all long-time staffers. Aspland’s outdoorsy nature has made him a perfect fit thus far. Momin’s enthusiasm is clear (and contagious) on her blog, findingtruenorth.ca, which has quickly established itself as a must-read for anyone interested in Nunavut life. As for Mychkina, all the team can do is make sure she feels accepted and supported. “Having gone through several jobs where you’re just a number, we’re kind of a family and treat each other like that,” says Romito. “That’s kind of the philosophy of the North anyway.”
October 10, 12:05 p.m.
Yulia Mychkina has a cold. “Apparently that’s a rite of passage,” she says, but sniffles aside she’s adjusting well to her new life. She has a nameplate on her office door, her partner by her side, a new dog and an e-reader packed with stories. All she needs now is a P.O. box, which she’ll have to wait patiently for. “I was just thinking about this,” she says. “Doing something like this is kind of a major Spring cleaning for your life. I was just looking around and I don’t have much stuff, but I have everything I need now.
It’s been a great cleansing process.”
It’s still early in her tenure but Mychkina’s first impression was a powerful one. The FASD awareness poster she collaborated on while still in Toronto proved to be a conversation starter on Twitter, and garnered media attention from a number of outlets including the CBC and the Huffington Post. In it, a fetus desperately clutches its umbilical cord as poisonous alcohol floods the mother’s system. The imagery is stark and unafraid, made more unsettling by the illustration’s contrasting cartoony influence. Mychkina notes that responses were overall positive, and the online discussions polite and productive. Like Atiigo’s unflinching anti-smoking drive before it, it accomplished its mission of getting people talking. “That was kind of her initiation into the company,” says Romito. “So far I think she’s working out really, really well.”
Outside of work, Mychkina has been enjoying the low-key socials at the nearby Legion, and had her breath taken away at Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park. “[Jon and I] got kind of lost and off-track a little bit. I guess we were kind of trespassing, I’m not sure, but we ended up in this one area that had this beautiful view overlooking the breakwater. You could see so far back.”
“It was stunning,” she beams, before coughing softly away from the phone.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2014 issue of Designedge Canada magazine.