Shao Yu arrived in Yellowknife for the first time on Dec. 16. That very night, he was driving a group of tourists down the Ingraham Trail, hunting for aurora. The temperature was –39 C.
"I lost my way three times," Shao said.
"I don't think that's safe enough for me and also for the guests. We don't have enough time to train. We don't know the road conditions, we don't know where to go, we don't know who to call."
Shao Yu and two friends came to Yellowknife expecting to earn $5,000 to $6,000 a month as aurora tour guides and bus drivers, with good accommodation.
Instead, Shao says they learned they'd be earning half the promised wage, sharing a small apartment with 12 other people, and working "crazy" hours in dangerous conditions.
"You don't have time to sleep," Shao said. "It's non-stop, we just work day-by-day, seven days a week, non-stop."
Fearing their own safety, and that of the tourists they were guiding, the three quit their jobs with Aurora Story after just 12 days and say they still haven't been paid.
Shao said he filed a complaint with the territorial government's Employment Standards Office.
He spoke with the CBC before flying back to Toronto last week.
CBC made multiple efforts to speak with the company owners.
In an email, Agnes Ma, a spokesperson with Aurora Story, said her boss declined an interview, but said Shao and his friends are the company's competitors.
She said the company has hired a lawyer "to act on our behalf," adding: "Aurora Story does not bully employees, but she [sic] does not allow herself to be bullied either."
Ma referenced court proceedings and indicated Aurora Story will only speak after those proceedings have ended. CBC contacted Ma again to get clarification, but was unable to confirm what court proceedings she was referring to.
Long hours, little sleep
Shao said he often drove to places with no cell service, on dark roads packed with other aurora hunters. He recalls working from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. aurora hunting, processing photos until 4 a.m., then being woken up to drive guests to other activities at 8 a.m. the next day.
Accommodations were an apartment with more than 12 people sharing one kitchen and bathroom, Shao said. Men and women were expected to share rooms, which made Shao uncomfortable. Between his long hours and the lineup to use the bathroom, it was a week before he got to take a shower.
Shao, 37, used WeChat to arrange the job and learned it would be cash only, with no protection through the Workers' Safety & Compensation Commission, after he arrived.
He's speaking out in part because he's a permanent resident of Canada. He said most of the other workers he met in Yellowknife held tourist visas, working holiday permits, or other precarious statuses.
They come mainly from Taiwan and Hong Kong, he said — countries that have working holiday agreements with Canada — and are usually in their twenties.
"Even though they know Aurora Story is exploiting them, they cannot fight. They cannot say anything."
'An industry problem'
"Obviously it's an industry problem," says David Bob, the president of the Northern Territories Federation of Labour. He started hearing complaints like Shao's eighteen months ago and said he has since heard similar stories from "more than half a dozen" people about Aurora Story and other companies.
Bob says there is recourse for workers who want to assert their rights, either through the N.W.T. government's Employment Standards office, the courts, or the Human Rights Commission.
The government's Employment Standards office did not respond to CBC's request for an interview.
Bob confirmed Shao had filed an employment standards complaint. Shao said he also plans to reach the Human Rights Commission and the Workers' Safety & Compensation Commission Monday.
But most others don't get that far.
"Where it falls down," Bob says, "is when they ask the question: what protection do I have when I return to my home country? All of a sudden they become silent and then quietly leave Canada and don't pursue the matter."
Bob wants to see the legislative assembly take action, and said he has been working with one MLA to try to get this issue on the agenda.
"We need to see proper oversight and proper protection put in place not only for the workers but also for the consumer."
The CBC spoke with one other person who worked as a driver with another aurora tourism company last winter. The driver, 49, asked to remain anonymous for fear of being blacklisted by future employers.
This person met young people working 60- to 70-hour weeks, making bookings and arranging travel plans when not driving or guiding. The driver met one young man who was living in a storage room, with no window or emergency exit.
Most worrying were the nighttime drives up to 40 minutes out of town, with no backup vehicle and no rules or guidelines — for the staff or guests — on how to stay safe in the cold. The driver made a personal rule to honk the horn after 45 minutes, otherwise the young staffers "would come back into the van and they'd be frozen."
"I felt it was a liability on my part."
The driver quit the company after four months, irritated at not being able to get more shifts while foreign workers were being "taken advantage of."
Before coming to Yellowknife, Shao worked as a tour guide for more than 10 years, starting in his home city of Guilin, China. He's guided Chinese tourists in the U.S., Australia, Argentina and the South Pole, and moved to Toronto to work as a guide there in 2017.
Shao said he'll tell anyone in Toronto who asks him what Yellowknife's aurora industry is like.
"It's a terrible experience."
But Shao is also thinking about coming back and opening his own tourist company, one that follows the rules and puts customer safety first.
"The aurora here is very beautiful."