From piloting a hovercraft on Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories to exploring ice floes under the Arctic midnight sun, Elaine Anselmi embraces it all head-on.
As The Narwhal’s newest senior editor, she brings us her penchant for listening to the pulse of a story — a talent that has propelled her career as a journalist, sending her across the country and into unexpected places on the regular.
Elaine’s approach is a simple but powerful one: “Listen to people more than talk to them.”
Elaine began her journalism career at a restaurant industry magazine in Toronto, where she got a far better education in table settings than any person could need. She then headed north to work as a reporter and editor at several publications, covering topics such as disappearing Arctic sea ice, caribou herds and the lost Franklin expedition.
Now that she’s an official Narwhal, we asked Elaine a few questions about what she’s learned along the way.
What inspired you to become an environment journalist?
I have written on a lot of subjects throughout my career, but I’ve gravitated toward environment journalism — or at least stories with an environment angle. I think that comes from my interest in the outdoors. It’s where I like to spend time and I think a lot of that interest came out of tree-planting. You spend long, uninterrupted periods with at most a few millimetres of material between you and the outdoors, so I think tree planting inherently harbours an appreciation for the environment. Moving up north and working for northern publications cemented that interest because it’s almost inescapable there. The environment is so much a part of everyday life.
You’ve lived, worked and studied in an extensive number of places across the country! How does this shape your journalism?
Working in community news shows you a very different, and deeper, side to the places you’re covering and how different every corner of the country is. I think this gives you a bit of humility — you start to realize that you’re never an authority on anything. In journalism that means that everywhere you go you need to talk to local people and as many people as possible to even begin to understand a place.
I think the more places you go, the more you realize that. Every time you go somewhere new, it’s like, right — it’s a totally different world. You’ve got to play catch up and figure out how everything works. And I think it’s good as a journalist to do that.
Join our newsletterIn-depth reporting straight to your inbox
What do you like most about your job?
I enjoy taking the blocks of a story and then figuring out how to put them together. It’s sort of this interesting puzzle. As an editor, it’s fascinating to see how different people approach stories. If you give 10 people the exact same subject matter and interviews, each of them will probably build the story differently. And then as a writer you get to do that puzzle yourself, which is really fun.
You also get to go places and meet people that you otherwise wouldn’t. Some pretty neat opportunities can come your way. For example, when I was freelancing in Yellowknife, an editor reached out one morning to ask if I wanted to do a hovercraft tour of Great Slave Lake. I was like, “Sure!” They even let me drive for a while, which was really hard. Mario Kart does not prepare you.
How did you end up moving to Yellowknife?
When I was in journalism school, I did my internship in Yellowknife at Up Here magazine. After finishing school and working in Toronto for a while, I wanted to get out of the city, so I got a job at a newspaper in northern B.C. While there, I did a road trip back to Yellowknife with a friend for the Folk on the Rocks music festival, and I remembered how much I loved being there: I had this feeling like — “I’m not done with this place!” I met up with a friend who told me that the local newspaper was pretty well always hiring. So I went in and left a handwritten note for the editor because he was out of the office. It said something like “Hi, I’m Elaine, I work at a newspaper in northern B.C., but I’d really love to work for you.” A month later I got an email from him asking for my resume and some clippings, and I moved up there a few weeks later.
What’s one of the most memorable stories you’ve covered?
I was writing a story about Pikialasorsuaq, the North Water Polynya, which is an area of year-round open water in North Baffin Bay. Polynyas are these extremely rich ecosystems of tiny organisms, fish and marine mammals. This one is the largest in the Arctic and home to narwhals, belugas and walruses that all migrate through different parts of the Arctic.
I was in Pond Inlet, which is one of the communities that relies on the animals migrating from the polynya, talking to hunters about the importance of that ecosystem. Out at the floe edge on Baffin Bay we actually saw a pod of narwhals and ran into a hunter (who happened to be the brother of my guide) who had got one and was processing the meat. We stuck around while he did that, which was really cool to see. The narwhal tusk was probably a foot taller than me. It was also June, which is the time of the midnight sun, so the sun just circled overhead all day while we stood on the ice at the edge of the open water and everything around us was white-covered mountains. When you get to experience things first hand, it changes the way you write the story.
Tell us three random things about yourself
I was baking sourdough before it was quarantine-cool. I think my starter is six years old. His name is Clint Yeastwood and he moved from Yellowknife with me.
I used to have my bus driver’s licence — I got it for tree-planting to drive cargo vans on bush roads, but had to learn in an old-school bus in a neighbourhood of Toronto.
While in university in Halifax, I got let go from Boston Pizza after less than two weeks. I have a lot of respect for servers.