Nunavut lawyer leading mental health support service draws from experience

By Terry Davidson

Law360 Canada (September 18, 2023, 11:17 AM EDT) -- Nunavut lawyer John MacLean is intimately familiar with the unique challenges of living and working in the territory.

Having been practising there for 13 years now, he knows about the depression, the anxiety and the burnout that can result from feelings of isolation; job stress; long hours; and the departure of valued colleagues.

But the 42-year-old is at the fore in doing something about it.

MacLean, who left Toronto for Iqaluit in 2010, serves as senior counsel with the Nunavut Department of Justice’s legal and constitutional law division. But since 2016, has also been director of the Nunavut Lawyers Assistance Program (NuLAP), a counselling service funded by the Canadian Bar Association and supported by the Alberta Lawyers’ Assistance Society (Assist).

John MacLean, Nunavut Department of Justice

John MacLean, Nunavut Department of Justice

Resident lawyers who participate get up to four free hours of professional counselling with a psychologist on a per person, per matter, per year basis — usually in the form of a phone session with someone in Alberta. They also have available to them peer support, where they are matched with a trained volunteer either in Nunavut or Alberta.  

MacLean said recent health numbers indicate that resident lawyers in Nunavut — those who live and work in the territory full time — “hit high in some of the areas of concern.”

According to a 2022 national study on the psychological health of legal professionals in Canada, the burnout rate of lawyers practising in Nunavut came in at 81.2 per cent, compared to 44.1 per cent reported by lawyers overall. They also hit high numbers when it came to psychological distress, with 76.4 per cent reporting it, compared to 59.4 per cent overall.  

A big factor is the feeling of being isolated, said MacLean.

Nunavut has a population of around 40,000, spread over a territory spanning more than two million square kilometres — one-fifth of Canada. It has 25 communities, a number of which are remote and accessible only by plane.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s a wonderful place to practise and a wonderful place to live, but we’re isolated,” he said. “We’re a very small bar.”

Nunavut’s bar consists of 350 lawyers in total, but only 80 of these are residents.

(NuLAP primarily takes care of those residents, but MacLean said it also considers helping the non-residents if they are unable to secure help in their own jurisdictions.)

Being far from family and friends is another common stressor — even if those loved ones live within the territory.

“Here in Iqaluit, we are three hours by plane to the south, and that plane ticket is about $1,000, round trip. To take a family on vacation could be $5,000 to $10,000, which not everybody has. And during the last few years, when we had travel restrictions [due to COVID-19], we couldn’t just pick up and go on vacation.”

Then there are those residents — himself included — who find themselves separated from loved ones experiencing health problems.

“If you have family in another province or territory, or even in another part of Nunavut – elderly parents, looking after those people, you’re not right across the street, and it becomes … obvious during states of emergency that you are very far away from people.”

Research indicates that a network of family and friends in proximity can be a protective factor. But those living in Nunavut “don’t necessarily have that,” MacLean said.

Apropos of this, he notes a high turnover rate, with young lawyers venturing to Nunavut as a temporary move to earn a paycheque and get some experience before moving elsewhere.

MacLean, who is single, says that while he has “made some of the best friends I’ve ever had” during his time in the territory, it is not uncommon to have to say farewell to friends and colleagues.

“People come here for a few years. They work on a contract, the contract is up, and they leave for other opportunities. And, suddenly, the person you used to go to the pub with or used to go to the gym [with], they’re not here anymore,” he said. “There is a steady stream of people coming and going. It can be difficult to make friends, and it can be difficult to keep friendships because of the transient nature of the bar.”

When MacLean speaks of emotional struggle, he draws from experience, having battled clinical depression since he was a teen. A native of Nova Scotia, he graduated law school from the University of New Brunswick in 2008 and articled in Toronto. However, he struggled to find work there due to the onset of the financial crisis.

Facing $70,000 in student debt, he took the job in Nunavut, planning to stay only a few years to pay off the loan, get some needed experience and deepen his resumé.

The shock of moving to a place such as Nunavut was almost immediate. There was also turmoil back home in Nova Scotia, with one of his parents dying and the other being diagnosed with cancer. MacLean’s black dog returned, and he ended up seeking help from the very organization he now directs.  

Missing family, he says, is a big stressor among resident lawyers.

“You miss out on things, on family events and family get-togethers because you’re away working. And so not only are you spending a ton of time in the office, you’re away from family and friends.”

Inter-territorial travel to Nunavut’s far-off circuit courts is another stress factor, he said. Given the territory’s size, it is routine for a court party to travel into a community together and sit for several days before packing up again and leaving.

Not practising criminal or family law, MacLean does not have to travel much. However, he has heard from those who must.

“It’s very much a marathon kind of practice.”

Long workdays are also an ever-present stressor. Since the pandemic, MacLean said, the turnover has been high, resulting in every major employer of lawyers in the territory being left short-staffed. Yet, the demand for work to be done has remained intact.

“So, those of us that are still here have to pick up the slack, which means that we’re spending more hours, more time, in the office, and we’re working harder than we otherwise might because there isn’t a backup person. That adds additional stress.”

MacLean has gone to great lengths to make NuLAP accessible to those who need it. The program, which costs around $1,500 a year to run, has a 24-hour crisis line, with the number appearing on Law Society of Nunavut membership cards, as well as on brochures and fridge magnets, which MacLean gives out “like they’re going out of style.”

He was asked what motivates him to continue to lead the program.  

“NuLAP exists so that no member of the Nunavut legal community has to experience mental distress alone. One lawyer in distress is a crisis for all of us. As I say in nearly every presentation I give, if you think you don’t have a friend in the world, think again. You’ve got me.”

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