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Hey everyone. Welcome back. Glad to be here.
Today is another episode in the Out-There Assessment series. In this series, I’m talking with assessment practitioners who work in unique environments or have unique specialties. The hope, of course, is to shine a light on some of the more [00:01:00] unorthodox ways that we might use our degree, expertise, and assessment.
My guest today is no exception, of course. Her name is Merril Dean. Merril lives in Yellowknife Northwest Territories. She runs a psychological testing business across the Northwest Territories and adjacent Nunavut. Her work encompasses a geographic area of over 1. 2 million square miles and a population of 80,000 people. She is passionate about serving her clients through a strengths-based assessment approach that recognizes and respects the culture and languages of the north.
Again, a wonderful conversation with Merrill, just like all of my Out-There Assessment guests. I enjoyed this one in particular because of the remote nature of her work. You’ll notice in the conversation, we do spend a little bit of time defining the [00:02:00] geographic aspects of her job and what it means to fly for your commute for all of your assessments and many other aspects. This was a fabulous conversation. I enjoyed it and I hope that you do too.
Let’s get to my conversation with Merril Dean.
Merril, hey, welcome to the podcast.
Merril: Thank you very much, Jeremy.
Dr. Sharp: I am really glad to have you. I can’t remember if I mentioned this, but we have ended up with a little bit of a mini-series within the mini-series of folks who are working with native or [00:03:00] tribal or indigenous populations, both across the United States and now Canada. And so I am excited to have you as a representative from the Northern Territories.
Let’s dive into it. I don’t want to tease people and keep talking and get something wrong. Let’s talk about what you do. Tell me about your work.
Merril: Okay. I’m a practicing psychologist or registered psychologist. I work in northern Canada largely as a school psychologist or in schools working as a psychologist, doing assessment and intervention, but also with other populations as well.
When I say I live in Northern Canada, I live in the territory of the Northwest Territories, which is a geographic landmass in Northern Canada. I also work in the territory beside us which is Nunavut. Together, the [00:04:00] two territories represent about 40% of the landmass of Canada and cover approximately about 1. 2 million square miles. So that’s my region.
Dr. Sharp: I just want to double-click on that. The region you cover is 1. 2 million miles.
Merril: Square miles.
Dr. Sharp: Square miles. Of course.
Merril: With only a population of 80,000 people.
Dr. Sharp: Sure. Still, that’s a lot of people.
Merril: So sparsely populated, but a massive land area. By virtue of that, much of my work is done through traveling largely by air and a bit by road in communities closer to Yellowknife where I live.
I [00:05:00] work as a private psychologist. There is no such thing as school psychologists or even publicly funded psychologists in either the Northwest Territories or Nunavut, with the exception of two clinical sites who work in mental health here in the Northwest Territories. There’s nobody over in Nunavut at all who are publicly funded or work for hospitals or agencies or school districts or anything.
So that’s what I do. I would say, though, fair enough, about 90% of my time is spent working for school districts and traveling for school districts. The rest of my time, I do some private assessments. I do adult assessments. And because we’re a bit of a scarce resource, right now there’s only two psychologists specializing in assessment and intervention in the Northwest [00:06:00] Territories and Nunavut, we tend to become a bit of a jack of all trades because there just is nobody else around.
Dr. Sharp: Right. It truly is a case of you do what you got to do to meet these needs.
Merril: Yeah, for sure.
Dr. Sharp: I would love to go back in case people glossed over this or missed this. Can you describe for us where the Northwest Territories and Nunavut are on a map?
Merril: Okay. Well, if you imagine Canada, most people know where Toronto is, and oftentimes Edmonton. Those are our two landmarks. I live pretty much almost directly north of Edmonton, 18 hours by road. I am about in the middle of the Northwest Territories in terms of between [00:07:00] South and North. So, I’m 18 hours North of Edmonton by road. Iqaluit which is the capital of Nunavut is, well, there is no road, but there, I think about 4 to 5 hours by air from Toronto.
Yellowknife and Iqaluit tend to be the two touchstones where you fly to fly out of, and they’re about 1200 miles apart. And then the other touchstone is Inuvik, which is on the coast of the Arctic Ocean, again, north of Yellowknife, about another 600 square miles. So we’re far, far north. Consider us close to Alaska in terms of where we are, but we’re over two mountain ranges. We’re East of two mountain ranges from Alaska.[00:08:00] Dr. Sharp: Right. Thank you for indulging in that. I don’t know if I shared this during our pre-podcast chat. Oh, I couldn’t have because I hadn’t done it, but I spent a lot of time looking at the map after we got off of our pre-podcast chat. I have a little bit of a map thing, a special interest with maps and traveling and distance and things like that. And it is truly remarkable.
If anybody shares that interest just go and look at the geographics of this location, it is truly mind-blowing how big of an expanse this is and how far north it is. I don’t think people realize. It’s a 6 or 8-hour flight from Colorado to get where you’re at. And that’s just, like I said, mind-blowing. So, I just wanted to highlight that and emphasize that this is a pretty remote area and a [00:09:00] huge area to have two psychologists.
Merril: Yeah. We do have more psychologists working in private practice up here, but they typically work as clinical psychologists doing counseling and therapy. I think our Northwest Territories Psychological Association has, I’m trying to remember, I think we have 23 members who actually live in the territories.
Dr. Sharp: Okay.
Merril: About 85 members. Tons of us.
Dr. Sharp: Tons of people. That’s way more.
Dr. Sharp: That’s remarkable. I want to ask so many questions, but I am particularly curious about the travel aspect of this job. So you said that most of it is happening by air. Tell me a little bit about the logistics of that as far as, I don’t know, there are so many questions. How are you transporting [00:10:00] testing material, like test kits? Are you checking a bunch of test kits? Are you doing iPads? Let’s start there.
Merril: Well, I’m doing iPads, and I was never happier quite frankly, than when they came up with iPad testing. When I first started, I’ve been doing this for about 10 years now, and when I first started, I was hauling test kits. And so quite literally, I got on the plane with my suitcase, which contained my clothes and my food for the week or two weeks I was traveling before, and my test kits. And so my suitcase would weigh 35 or 40 pounds and my test kits would weigh another 150 to 200 pounds because that’s what you’re hauling along.
When they first came up with the iPad testing, I, actually made an arrangement with the biggest publisher of iPad testing to trial it for 3 months free of [00:11:00] charge, because I said to them, if it won’t work in a community where there’s minimal cell service and no internet, I can’t use it.
Dr. Sharp: Absolutely.
Merril: I didn’t want to make that big investment and then discover that I couldn’t use it in the Northern communities. Interestingly enough, it’s been very successful for me. I’ve not yet been in a community knock on Wood where I haven’t been able to, even if the internet is awful and the internet up here can be very awful and unstable, I haven’t been in a community yet where I haven’t been able to hotspot off my phone when push comes to shove.
So I do travel. I do a lot of electronic testing now using iPads or other online testing, although that is more problematic if it can’t sit resident on your computer and not need the internet. It is certainly less than [00:12:00] the amount of what I have to haul with me in terms of testing kits. I think over the years too, I’ve become much more adept at being able to look at the case files of clients I’m going in to see and work with and be able to formulate my cases and and know what I may have to bring.
I think my first 2 years I was bringing everything along because if you’re only visiting a community once or twice a year, you don’t want to suddenly be sitting in a community and realize you forgot your nonverbal testing kit that you needed.
Dr. Sharp: Of course. Oh my gosh.
Merril: Is it without a problem? No, it isn’t. I just came back from three weeks over in the Eastern Arctic and Iqaluit and I landed and discovered I had in the course of packing my suitcase with all my protocols, I had packed my unnecessary pile of protocols.[00:13:00] Dr. Sharp: Oh, no. Anybody can make that mistake.
Merril: Yeah, it just becomes a little harder when there’s only three flights in a week.
Dr. Sharp: Sure, my goodness. That gets at another question I was going to ask which is how you structure the scheduling for these evals. It sounds like you’re going to locations only once or twice a year. Is that pretty consistent amongst locations?
Merril: That’s pretty consistent among locations. Typically, I will travel in to, depending upon the size of the community, I view it as I work in districts or regions. So, I may fly into a region and I might be working in 4 different or 5 different communities or 3 to 4 communities in that region, depending upon the region for a period of two weeks.
And so, I fly into the [00:14:00] region and then depending upon the region is from there, I may drive or I may do more flying on smaller planes. And so I go into a community for 2 or 3 days or larger community Yellowknife, Iqaluit, Inuvik, Hay River, those kinds of of communities, I might be there for upwards of 5 days or something like that.
When I go in, I tend to work every day of the week. I don’t tend to take weekends because you’re there and you might as well work. And the cost of having you there, the cost of somebody coming in to do that work, there is lots to do.
The people I contract with, I allow them to do all of the booking for me for hotels and accommodation and transportation just because they have the expertise for their [00:15:00] region. We’re flying small, tiny airlines. Getting a hold of them can be difficult. Knowing how it works. Many of the communities I stay in don’t have “official hotels” and things like that. So, they know who’s running the bed and breakfasts or where the accommodations are available and things. It’s more difficult to find them just going on Google or something. So, I do rely on the local regions to provide that expertise for accommodations and things like that.
Dr. Sharp: It sounds like the relationships with each of these regions and the folks there are incredibly important.
Merril: It is. It’s interesting because we talk about the massive area we are and it’s true, but population-wise we are very small. I’ve been in the north for 36 years living in the capital city here in Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, and [00:16:00] because previous to this, I was in education and teaching as was my spouse, we are a center for families coming in for different kinds of services.
There is not been a community that I’ve traveled to that I’ve not come across people I know either former students or the children of former students or people we’ve worked with who’ve been in Yellowknife for short periods of time. And so, relationship is important and you can build it, but it’s a very interesting or a very different kind of situation I think than the practice of urban psychology and that whole concept of dual and multiple relationships.[00:17:00] I find certainly working in the north and I think, in part, working with indigenous communities where the family story is so important that one of the things that the formal practice of psychology particularly in the area of clinical psychology, but of, you don’t share, you make sure that you’re this, I can’t even think of the proper term for it, but you’re this person that doesn’t share anything personal. You’re the expert, the guide on the side and you’re not sharing who you are personalized information.
I find working with indigenous populations in the north creates a false barrier of the relationship, and it serves in a way, I think, to reinforce what in Canada we would call the [00:18:00] colonialization of Indigenous people and serves to separate you from them. As a result I don’t think that you form a good relationship, and I don’t think that there’s a buy-in that it becomes very much deemed as an imposition.
For me to build rapport, oftentimes, I find that without oversharing, having to share who I am, where I am, where do I live? Who do I know? What are my experiences in the North? Finding connection points, interestingly enough, who do I know that you know breaks down many of those barriers and makes people more willing to engage in process and more willing to trust process and not necessarily feeling that they’re going to be somehow taken advantage of or [00:19:00] mistreated in this system and process.
Dr. Sharp: Right. I think that’s crucial and you would be able to speak to it better than I can, but I’m glad that you are opening the door to this aspect of the conversation. Like I mentioned, I’ve talked with two other women who work with native populations and they are native themselves, and both of them commented on how it can be really hard to do good work with native or indigenous populations if you’re not a member of that group, and it sounds like you have been pretty deliberate and maybe found some ways to try to break down some of those barriers.
Merril: I think there’s advantages and disadvantages to both sides. Unfortunately, the reality is, at this point in time, we have no local indigenous psychologists practicing [00:20:00] in the Northwest Territories. We have one provisional that I’m quite excited about, but for us, for example, in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, we have 9 different tribal groupings- Indigenous groupings all with their own languages, all with their own cultures, and then within it, then even as you go into communities, you’re finding differences between those communities in terms of culture, language and custom.
And so, it would be very difficult I think to even dream of the possibility of a day where every community would be able to have a psychologist who’s familiar with their culture and situation. But the flip of it is, and I’ve watched it in education here in the north, where sometimes [00:21:00] it’s very hard to come back to your community as “the expert” or the psychologist too. So I think in part, some of it becomes more about building that relationship and establishing trust.
When I first went into some of the smaller communities, my 1st year, I think very much, I was this “Southerner” or the person from Yellowknife or whoever and that was the viewpoint that people in the community took. When I was that bad penny and kept coming back twice a year, three times a year, phoning them in between times, and they discover, running into them when they were here in town at Fatburger or wherever having a hamburger and saying hello, they suddenly realized that… [00:22:00] It formed a different status of relationship.
I think it was about my 3rd year, I was in a small airport in a northern community, the population of the town was about 300 people and a woman came up to me- I’m fairly noticeable. I’m older. I walk with a cane. I’m fairly large. And so I’m not the typical person you see traveling through a small community- a woman came up to me in the airport and she says, “Hey, are you that psychologist lady?” Didn’t even know my name. Are you that psychologist lady? And I said yeah, as a matter of fact, I am. Oh, well, you’re here to work. And I said, well, actually I’m on my way out. Oh, where are you going? And so I told her the next community I was flying to. Oh, good. I have a cousin there. They were talking about needing to maybe see you because we were talking about the work you were doing here. I’ll call them. [00:23:00] Okay, fine, great, whatever.
By the time I got into that next community which was probably about 7 hours later, the cousin had already been to the school to say to the principal, hey, I understand that psychologist lady is coming back here. I want my child to see them.
Dr. Sharp: That’s amazing.
Merril: At that point, I thought, okay, this persistence of coming back and being here and being open and being flexible is quite important and it helped the relationship in that regard.
Dr. Sharp: That’s a great story. You’re singularly known– that psychologist in the territory. That’s great.
Dr. Sharp: Before we pivot, I want to ask what you love and maybe don’t love about this kind of work, but I feel like I have to ask about the travel and the [00:24:00] planes. I looked up some pictures of the airport at Yellowknife and it seems like there are a lot of tiny planes, some big planes, but a lot of snow. As someone who is not the most comfortable flyer, I’m personally curious how you work with this. Have you ever had to deal with any kind of anxiety about being on prop planes or flying in bad weather? How do we tackle this?
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Merril: It’s funny. When I first started doing this job, I had originally said I wouldn’t travel on planes because I also don’t like flying. I had a previous job in a previous career 45 years ago where I did do flying in small planes and had some incidents that made me re-examine my position on small plane flying at which point I quit doing that.
And so, going into this position, when I first started my private practice, I had said to people I would do only on-road communities, communities I could drive to. Some good friends who I worked with in education came back to me and said, Merril, you’ve said you want to do this work for Northern kids. If you’re refusing to fly, then you’re refusing to provide service for a good portion of our population. [00:26:00] Essentially, they guilt-tripped me into it. There’s no other way to describe what they did.
I agreed that I would give it a shot. I would at least give it a shot because it had been maybe, I don’t know, 25 years since I’d been on a small plane. So my first trip out on a small plane, I got to the airport to the terminal building for the small airline, I looked out the window and I saw this tiny little Cessna. I looked at it and I thought about the testing bags and the kits because at that point I was still hauling all my kits. And I thought, my kits are bigger than that airplane. I swear my kids are bigger than that airplane and I suspect that between me and my kits, I weigh more than that airplane. I can’t do this.
And I quite literally got sick to my stomach. I went into the bathroom and threw up and I thought I’ve got phone and tell them I can’t come. I don’t know, do I go see my [00:27:00] doctor and talk about medication so I can get on a plane or something? I came out, looked out the window, and there were two people getting onto the Cessna and flying off. It wasn’t my plane. And I just said to them, thank God, it, wasn’t for me.
The next plane that they brought over was a little 8-passenger caravan. I looked at this plane and I thought, it looks huge. It’s way better.
Dr. Sharp: It’s all relevant.
Merril: It’s all relevant. And so, I got on the plane and I made it and it was okay. Generally speaking, that seemed to get me over the hump. The smallest planes I’ve flown on are Twin Otters- they might take upwards of 12 passengers. Caravans, I’ve not had to fly anything smaller than an [00:28:00] 8-passenger plane.
Now, sometimes it’s me and the groceries for the store for the community for the week in the plane. That’s it. I have lots of pictures of me sharing my seat with the salads that people will be eating that night in the community or whatever food they’re bringing in.
A few pictures of sitting beside the door on the plane and you can see out cracks. One appeared in my Facebook memories the other day from about five years ago, and it was on a Twin Otter flying somewhere. Some of the seal had gone away. And I remember posting before I left. Is this plane safe to be on? And a pilot friend responded. Oh, yeah, it’s a Twin Otter. Absolutely. No problem. It doesn’t go high enough for you to worry about that crack in the door. Although he says you better be dressed warm because if it’s middle of winter Merrill, it’ll be cold in the plane and it was.[00:29:00] Generally speaking, you do that. We have had some periods of times, I think, where there’s been higher anxiety about travel just because there were some periods of time where we’ve gone through series of Air crashes or downing of planes and that makes it just a little more stressful getting on the next plane, but you do it. That’s the downside. You talk about the pluses and minuses.
I think, overcoming that nervous flyer aspect and stealing yourself to get onto a plane and get off a plane is the hardest part of the job in many ways.
Dr. Sharp: Well, I can certainly identify with that. That was one of the first things I thought of when you described what you do. I thought, Oh, my gosh, [00:30:00] what would that be like to do so much flying on these tiny planes?
Merril: I communicate sometimes with a school psychologist over in Alaska. We share a lot of the same types of experiences, but it’s interesting. She talks about standing out on the tarmac waiting for a plane to come. And I have to say, every community I fly into actually has an airport building. But apparently, in Alaska, some of them just have airstrips and no airport buildings. So, relatively speaking, I’ve got a good.
Dr. Sharp: Nice. Well, let me ask, how did you end up in this work setting? Was it purposeful? Did you go out searching saying, I want to be the only psychologist in the Northwest? How did you end up here?
Merril: I started my career in the North as an educator. My husband and I came North for an adventure for a year or [00:31:00] two. He was also an educator. I finished my education degree while I was up here. I taught in the system for many years. I went into administration, became a principal, and then became a regional inclusive schooling coordinator. So I worked for a school district working on inclusionary education, which is essentially our special education equivalency.
I became, well, first of all, I’m a bit of a perpetual student anyway, but it bothered me that I felt we were spending a lot of money bringing psychologists up north to test our kids. Despite the fact that they were excellent psychologists, they didn’t have an understanding of what our students’ life experiences and our education system were up here because it’s not the [00:32:00] system they work in.
And so I made a decision to go back to school and become a psychologist which is what I did. So at 50, I went back to school and did a psychology degree. I worked for my own district for two years after that in inclusive education as their coordinator, and also did their testing and things, and then decided, as my husband retired that I would see if I could set up a private practice and do a small number of assessments a year. We would semi-retire and in the middle of the cold winter, we would head South Arizona or somewhere warm and get out of the -40.
I didn’t think that clearly though obviously. If you think about it, school is between September and June. Our winter is [00:33:00] November to April and of course, that’s when they need people who specialize in school assessments and educational assessments. So, I didn’t clearly think that through. I set up a private business doing this form of work thinking that I might do 30-40 assessments a year. And I do considerably more than that.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah. I want to touch on since you brought that up, it made me think just briefly about the financial structure. I’m guessing these sites pay for your travel and your hotel. All of that is included. And of course, for the evaluation and the time. Is that fair?
Merril: Yeah. That’s how it works. It’s all privately funded by the districts or private assessment. In Canada, [00:34:00] I know in the States and I’m constantly puzzled by some of the insurance things that happen in the States, but essentially, where I am in Canada, people who have private health insurance can access it for psychological services including testing.
Many people here don’t have private insurance because we have universal health care, but universal health care does not cover psychological assessment, and in most provinces also doesn’t cover private clinical psychology only if you have the additional funding for it. And so, I know in the States, for example, Medicare will cover assessments for some students within the school system, or some types of assessment, I think is maybe what my understanding of it is, but there’s none of that up here.[00:35:00] It’s all funded through. If I’m working for a school district, it’s funded through the school district and they’re inclusive schooling dollars. Part of those are budgeted for assessment if necessary.
Dr. Sharp: Great.
Merril: Because the education system in our two territories is fully inclusionary as well, it’s an interesting situation because you don’t need a diagnosis to get services.
And so, it forms a different kind of need for assessment. So I’m not assessing kids to get diagnoses. I do diagnoses and I provide diagnoses if there’s a diagnosis there to have happen, but typically, assessment is more done because the kids are head-scratchers. The school is saying, we don’t know how best to support this student. This is what we’ve tried. This is what we’re trying to do. It’s not [00:36:00] working. Can you come and give us more insight into how to help the student? And honestly, they don’t care if there’s a diagnosis or not. They want the help to provide the best services.
Dr. Sharp: Got you. It’s a nice model.
Merril: It’s an interesting model. It provides for a very different kind of…I think talking to psychologists and particularly people who work in school psychology or educational psychology, it’s a very different kind of approach and it allows you very much, I think, to practice from a much more strengths-based perspective, which is also really important I think, too, when you’re working in with a population that has significant culture and language differences from the basis of all these norm-based tests, we use, right?
Dr. Sharp: Of course.
Merril: There are no standardized tests that are translated into any of the [00:37:00] […] There simply aren’t and many of our students and many more of our adults, particularly in the indigenous populations are English Language Learners or English second dialect learners and speakers. And so, there’s many contributing factors into looking at what is weighing into the problems the child is facing or an individual is facing.
Dr. Sharp: Sure. Well, I know we could do a whole other podcast just on that particular topic, but I appreciate you touching on it. I wanted to start to wrap up just by asking if there are any resources or recommendations. If someone out there is listening and saying, I would love to be the third psychologist in the [00:38:00] Northwest Territory and Nunavut, how might I do that?
Merril: Reach out, contact me, or contact Shayla, the other psychologist out there. We would welcome more people. There’s lots of work. Honestly, both of us are probably spending far too much time at work. We’d love to see more people. If it’s something that you think you have to take that risk. There is a bit of a jumping point to say, I’m going to give it a shot and see what happens.
For me, it has been the most rewarding work I believe I have done in my lifetime. And having said that, I think I’ve had some pretty [00:39:00] remarkable jobs and careers across my lifespan but this, to me, has been some of the most meaningful work I’ve done. I feel at points that I’ve managed to make some pretty significant differences for some people that I work with. And that, to me, has been really huge.
So, take the leap of faith and go for it, reach out to people who are already working there, and say, how can I try it? How can I come in and do it? Because the distances are vast, the population is small and the weather is really cold, but we’ve all got pretty warm hearts and we’re always open to others coming.
Dr. Sharp: I like that. That’s that’s a really nice way to end, I think. That’s a really heartwarming invitation. Well, maybe there are folks out there who are [00:40:00] listening who want to take an adventure. I hope so.
I really appreciate you being here. Thank you for talking through what you do. This is truly fascinating and it sounds like you’re doing some really meaningful work.
Merril: Okay. Thank you very much, Jeremy.
Dr. Sharp: All right, y’all. Thank you so much for tuning into this episode. Always grateful to have you here. I hope that you take away some information that you can implement in your practice and in your life. Any resources that we mentioned during the episode will be listed in the show notes, so make sure to check those out.
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