The view from a winter road in the Dehcho region of Northwest Territories

Unmastery — 29th March 2024

Narayan Subramoniam


I missed a post submission date of 15th March not because I was grieving for Caesar, but for the classic reason of being too busy. From my last ‘real’ post and now, I:

  • went on a writing retreat to start seriously writing my Master’s research proposal
  • traveled to the Northwest Terrritories for half a month to build relationships with community partners
  • wrote and submitted a first draft of my research proposal
  • celebrated four birthdays
  • beat my personal record for swimming pool laps continuously (4, lol)
  • am still trying to get over / deal with a blanketing sadness of realizing how far I am from some friends

That doesn’t include all the other details of life: daily jobs, daily chores, dealing with the fallout of an auto collision, and overcoming some wrist pain with physiotherapy. I pushed writing this blog and, honestly, doing many things I care about because I was waiting for that day when everything is calm, or when

the flood of emails has been contained; when your to-do lists have stopped getting longer; when you’re meeting all your obligations at work and in your home life; when nobody’s angry with you for missing a deadline or dropping the ball; and when the fully optimized person you’ve become can turn, at long last, to the things life is really supposed to be about. (source)

But that day never comes, says Oliver Burkeman (author of the great book, “4000 weeks”), and that somehow is good news. I haven’t reached that level of optimism and acceptance. The joy he wants us to feel about the impossibility of getting everything done, but this apparent fact does help in justifying time to do things I care about. Like trying to write down all that happened in the past few weeks.

This image is upside down

Read on to learn more about my research plan and a bad summary of everything else.

A research trip to Sambaa K’e, NWT

A master’s research project is usually a tiny slice of a larger project. At the broadest possible level, the research group I’m a part of has multiple running projects working on sustainable food systems with three Northern Canadian communities. I don’t want to define “sustainable food systems”, but the image you have in your head is likely close to our research group’s idea of it: a food system that is regenerative and not exploitative, that nourishes, and that is just to workers. The element to add to this poor definition is that “sustainable” also includes the sustainability of Traditional Indigenous ways of life. In other words, it wouldn’t be sustainable if solar-powered helium blimps dropped Big Macs across Canada’s North.

Interestingly, defining “North” is also not clear-cut. There’ the “Far North” which sits in the imagination of most Southern Canadians — that ‘harsh’ and ‘faraway’ land covered in permafrost, where it’s hard to imagine anyone calls home. Images aside, the Far North is usually above the Tree line and lies mostly within the Territories of Canada (Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut) but touches Northern Quebec and Labrador. But there’s also, what’s sometimes called, the Provincial North. Those bits of Northern Ontario, the prairies, and southern parts of the Territories that we usually don’t imagine “north” to be. This is where my research takes place.

You see that tiny lake in the south-western corner of NWT? That’s Sambaa K’e. Guess where Yellowknife is?

The community I’m working with is Sambaa K’e, located in the southern Dehcho region of the Northwest Territories. If you went any more south than Sambaa K’e, you’d end up in British Columbia. Sambaa K’e is unique in the Dehcho because it’s the only community that does not have year-round road access. They are only accessible by road for about two months in the winter. So for the majority of the year, the ~80 people in the community just vibe. Everyone (and everything) has to come in by plane from late March to late December.

For perspective this is a luxury plane we flew in, seats 10

Let’s say you want to leave the community for, I don’t know, an eye-checkup. The cheapest plane you could charter is a 4-seater and would run you $1600. Needless to say, getting food into the community is also really expensive. Sambaa K’e has a rich history and present of hunting, gathering, and harvesting Traditional food. But most of the people still want some food from the store (“market foods”) and thus the municipal government¹ was looking at reducing sky-high prices for food in the North.

One way Sambaa K’e reduces the cost of market foods is that the community owns the only general store in town and runs it as a non-profit. This makes for some exciting possibilities for what a ‘store’ can do in an isolated Northern community. Partner with the community garden? Dish out some dope hot food once a day? Host cooking classes for nutritious plant-forward meals? The possibilities feel endless and novel because it is and this is, essentially, my research. What can a store do to support Sambaa K’e’s vision for their community? If it’s successful, how can this be a model for other Nations?

The Sambaa K’e general store

What did I do on the trip then? It was mostly meeting people. The folks at the band office in Sambaa K’e, the people at the store and community garden, and community members. They asked me questions, I asked them some. We had dinner a couple times and got to know each other. I will say that time felt different up there, that I’d be talking with a community member over dinner and before you know it, 2 hours have passed. No one I talked to had that internal 15-minute timer where you check your phone. Everyone I met was interesting, and I hope to see them again soon.

The past month, briefly

It’s difficult to write about the past month. Because so many things happened and I don’t know what’s worth writing about. I’m in a bit of a brain fog right now that’s mixed with some sadness. Mostly because I’m slowly realizing that so many of my friends are far away. Other cities, countries, continents. It’s also hard to carve up time to see the close-by ones. My school, their work, each of our own lives. It’s a peculiar feeling to both want to but not want to make new friends in your mid-20s. Maybe it’s just Hollywood and Western media propaganda but how often do you see people making ride-or-die friends when they’ve already finished university?

This is the bit I never got with the digital nomads I bumped against when travelling. Was all that stimulation from living in new places worth the cost of not laying down roots? It does somehow feel that this choice is mutually exclusive. I wouldn’t say that I’m really worrying about having to make this choice, it just feels like it came quite suddenly.

We were short 18 candles

The Road Ahead

Half a month of legit school left where I’ll be wrapping up a Teaching Assistantship and (hopefully) a final draft of my research proposal. I think I’ve convinced myself that going to the gym in the morning just sucks and will go back to being a night gym bro … with two mostly functioning wrists!

Oh and I’ll be seeing and old friend from Calgary next week. Excited for that :)

This biweek’s article, which I feel I’ve shared before, is an account of a dude visiting a really weird university in Nevada circa 1980s. I remember it being a fun train read:

This biweek’s quote is the last couple of sentences of that quote by Oliver Burkeman in 4000 weeks:

Let’s start by admitting defeat: none of this is ever going to happen. But you know what? That’s excellent news.


1: Sambaa K’e is the headquarters of the Sambaa K’e First Nation SKFN, which is a Dene First Nations band government of the Northwest Territories. SKFN function pretty much as a municipal government, so I made the analogy here.