Natalia Balcerzak was out for an evening run in Ottawa in 2017, when she came upon a perturbing scene on Parliament Hill. Police officers were trying to stop about a dozen First Nations activists from carrying a log onto the grounds to erect a teepee to draw attention to Indigenous issues during Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations.
Natalia, who was working in tourism following several international posts as a journalist, went into reporter mode, filming on her phone as activists were arrested and dragged away. She shared her footage with a television station and connected activists with other news crews, helping them share their story with a wider audience. When she left the scene at 3 a.m., she was exhausted but exhilarated. She knew she wanted to — no, had to — return to journalism.
So, after working as a reporter in Israel, a radio news writer in Australia, an editor in Toronto and a TV news production assistant in London, England — and travelling to 38 countries — Natalia decided to move to the small northwest B.C. city of Terrace to work at the community newspaper and live in a tiny home. Two years later, she joined The Narwhal as our northwest B.C. reporter — a position funded through the federal government’s Local Journalism Initiative. While it may seem surprising that a jetsetter like Natalia landed in northwest B.C., it makes perfect sense once you get to know her.
Q: What inspired you to become a journalist?
A: I’ve always thought my life purpose was to be a storyteller, so I devoured books, pursued theatre and asked everyone too many intense questions growing up. In poetic terms, I wanted to live 1,000 lives, so I was eager for any opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and journalism allows me to do just that.
I was also inspired by being brought up in the Polish immigrant community in Toronto. Stories of the Communist era, the World Wars and the hardships of trying to make a life in a foreign country were constantly told. I couldn’t ignore the reminders of what was lost and sacrificed for me to live comfortably in Canada — I had to give back somehow. I was also frustrated with how my family was mistreated and pushed down because of our “foreign” identity, which is all too common for a lot of people, so I felt compelled to challenge the world on that front.
I see journalism as a responsibility to instil a balance of meaning and good into our lives, while also scribbling down those first drafts of history.
Q: Why does northwest B.C. need a Narwhal reporter?
A: There is a lot of energy in northwest B.C. right now as people from across the country move here, but that creates problems as it often feels like the Wild West. Rules can seem more like suggestions.
I think it’s important for The Narwhal to have a reporter in this region because lots of projects and issues have gone under the radar for too long, but that doesn’t mean the impacts won’t be felt eventually.
Q: Why did you decide to live in a tiny home community?
A: It’s the perfect middle point between having a space to myself, living among nature and being surrounded by like-minded company. I’d like to say it’s for the minimalist lifestyle, but I’m a thrift store enthusiast, which contradicts that. What I really value though is the constant creativity required to make everything fit (such as stuffing my bean bag chair with winter coats) and the coziness of my loft, which feeds my childhood dream of living in a treehouse.
The village is surrounded by mountains and forest with a river and lakes nearby, so I’m fortunate to literally have that as my backyard. We also have bonfires, potlucks and a small community garden with chickens, so it’s super fun to have this unique social aspect of my home life.
Q: What did you learn from travelling that influences your work as a journalist?
A: That we really aren’t that different as humans, no matter where we’re from. Sure, there’s a variety of culture, languages and physicalities that give us distinction, but at the core, we’re all just trying to make it through life. It was so humbling to connect with people from different backgrounds to share a joke or meal.
I also couch surfed, hitchhiked and always looked for the least luxurious travel options to get me a close-up view into people’s lives, which required a lot of trust and good faith in strangers. Those rich (and sometimes emotional) experiences propelled me to search for that human aspect in people through my stories.
Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your outlook on life?
A: This pandemic has made me realize how much we rely on social gatherings as human beings and the importance of the arts to get us through this. Although I enjoy living alone and having that time to myself, it’s strange to not have anything social to look forward to in the coming months. I think we all crave those connections, even if it’s just a casual chat at the store, to add that zest to our lives.
With that said, I do think it’s an incredible moment to absorb what we can through books, films, music, comedy and talks. I’m also seeing more appreciation for long-form journalism beyond the 24-hour news cycle.
Q: What are three fun facts about you?
A: During my childhood, my sisters and I brought home a Jack Russell Terrier against my mother’s wishes. A month later, on my sister’s sixth birthday, we received a frantic call from my mom (who ironically used to be a midwife) that our dog had unexpectedly given birth to six puppies. We went from “no dogs allowed in this house” to seven canines … guess who was the coolest kid on the block that summer?
I recently went through military screenings to apply for an imagery technician role with the Canadian Armed Forces, which involves taking photos and videos of the troops at home and abroad. I’ve always wanted to pursue foreign correspondence, so thought this would be a neat middle ground.
I have no middle name, which makes me sad sometimes as I wish I had another alias to go by.