Moving to the Yukon

“Service à la clientèle, Carole à l’appareil, comment puis-je vous aider?” This was a daily refrain for five years of my life. Sitting at my desk in my little grey cubicle, headset on my ears, computer screen in front of me, I was surrounded by about fifty other people doing somewhat the same as me. The companies changed, but the verses remained.

This time, the grey walls of the cubicles were low enough that everyone could see the cityscape that surrounded us. Looking out my window from where I sat, I could see the drab flat roof-top of the mall just down the street, the one I would go to for my daily work-out routine after work. It was the same thing, day after day, of driving forty minutes, working nine-to-five, and another forty minute drive home.

My family was impressed with how far I had come. I grew up in Timmins, a small Northern Ontario mining town. Finding employment proved difficult due to my lack of skills and education. I was a high school dropout. I tried returning on three separate occasions, each time with the same result, even though I told everyone I wanted to become a teacher someday.

Whether you were out shopping at K-Mart, eating french fries at the London Café, or simply filling up at Sunny’s Gas Bar, you could hear broken French everywhere around you. Being bilingual wasn’t a big deal in Timmins. When I moved south to the big city of Toronto, however, I quickly realized that my language skills were an asset. Demand for French speakers was high, which put me at an advantage. I managed with what I was making working in that postage stamp-sized cubicle, but there was little opportunity to move forward.

For several months now, I was seeing someone, and I admired his sense of adventure. He worked as a consultant in car dealerships helping them get back on their feet. He would live in one place after another, helping companies in dire need of his services, but it was always a temporary gig. He announced, one day, that he had received an offer to work in Whitehorse, Yukon for a year, and asked me to come along.

When I was a child, my uncle lived in Whitehorse, and when he and my aunt would visit, they always talked about the Yukon. I remember a lapel pin I received as a gift. It was the Yukon’s coat of arms, and my aunt explained every little minute detail, down to the two sharp peaks representing Yukon’s beautiful mountains.

It didn’t take me long to pack whatever belongings I could fit into my little red Corolla. I sold some larger pieces of furniture, and simply gave the rest away. My car was packed with my life. I showed up for my last day of work, luggage corseted in the back and on the rooftop, ready to leave at 5pm. To make space for a gift-basket I received from my co-workers, I had to leave behind a couple of ceramic vases in the office. They still embellish a co-worker’s little grey cubicle almost six years later.

When five o’clock rolled around, I eased out of the underground parking garage, the yellow-striped gate moving up for me one last time. I drove past the brown brick mall up the street and the smoke-mirrored office building on the right. Concrete sidewalks pushed up against concrete buildings. People walked along going about their usual business: expecting mother pushing a blue baby stroller; a couple jogging toward nowhere in particular; a man smartly dressed in a business suit, briefcase in hand.

My life, at thirty-three, was going to change forever… I hoped for the better.

It was a long drive to the Yukon. The road led from the lush greenery of Ontario, across the endless fields and skies of the prairies, and through the snow-capped mountains of British Columbia. After finally reaching Mile Zero on the Alaska Highway we still had almost another 900 to go (or 1400km).

When we finally arrived in Whitehorse and unloaded the car, tears came to my eyes. The realization that I was the furthest I could be from home without leaving the country terrified me. I couldn’t just hop in the car and visit my family after a day’s drive, it would be more like a five-day road trip, one-way.

I gradually settled into the tiny furnished basement apartment across the river. I knew that my life would be forever changed, but I didn’t know if I would regret my decision. Different scenarios and questions came to mind. The sense of adventure of moving across the country had attracted me, but what would happen if I didn’t find a job? How hard would it be to make new friends and acquaintances?

I spent the free time I had driving around the Yukon to experience its beauty, but worry started hanging around like an unwelcome visitor. Four months and thirty-four résumés later, only two interviews were granted, and I was still without a job. There was no way around it; I simply couldn’t rely on my bilingualism anymore. I eventually found work as a teller, but the pay was low and supervisors treated us like high school kids.

One afternoon, I went up to the local college to see what some of my options might be. A dark blue sign with light blue lettering hanging from the ceiling caught my attention: “Yukon Native Teacher Education Program (YNTEP)”. Would they accept someone who was simply Métis, and not a full-status Native? What about the fact that I was a high school drop-out?

I turned into the narrow hallway and entered the office holding my breath. When I found out that I could apply into the program, I was elated. Determined to get started, I enrolled with a full course load in January in anticipation of getting into the program. In the fall I was accepted and was on my way to becoming a classroom teacher.

Less than a month into the fall term, my partner announced that he was offered work in Manitoba. Knowing the kind of work he does, I knew things would eventually come to this. We tried to keep things going despite living apart, but I still had almost four years of full-time studies ahead of me. Could a long-distance relationship last that long? During a holiday visit, I inadvertently discovered the answer to that question and eventually cut the ties with him.

Post-Christmas music was still warming Main Street speakers when I started having problems with my laptop. I e-mailed a former computer instructor to enlist his help and was grateful that he accepted. A while later, upon our second meeting for more help with my computer, I planned to ask him out for coffee and dessert. He was a soft-spoken guy, very tall with soft blue eyes. He was about my age and had a good sense of humour. I wanted to get to know him better.

It was -47°C that morning. I slipped on my huge Sorel boots and bright yellow winter coat – fashion is not an option at those temperatures – and managed to get the reluctant engine to start. The first few minutes of driving felt like I was on the worse pot-holed road you can imagine, the tires being frozen square solid. Nothing was going to stop me from going to school that day. There are no electrical outlets in the student parking lot, so I reverted to letting the engine run while doing my business inside the college.

While doing a few computer techie things on my computer, I mentally replayed the question I would ask him. Before I could manage to get the words out, HE invited ME out for coffee. The coffee turned into a dinner date, a relationship, and on summer solstice of last year, we exchanged vows on a friend’s wooden deck overlooking a valley and Cowley Lake in the Yukon.

Six months later, I completed my studies in the YNTEP program.

Now I look out my window, and I see mountains in the distance, pine trees and fireweed, and salmon-coloured skies. This fall, there will be little grey desks in a room filled with students. The alphabet will line the top of one wall, and in place of a telephone, there will be a new vase with fresh flowers on the corner of my desk.

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As all Yukoners know, a common question we ask each other is, “What brought YOU here?” and “What made you stay?” So tell me.

Visitor Empties School in Record Time

The biggest time wasters in elementary schools are transitions. Changing from one subject to another, moving from one classroom to another, and coming in and out for recess are some examples of the many transitions that happen in a typical school day. Teachers are always looking for ways to make these transitions go smoothly and get students engaged as soon as possible.

Last week, there was a visitor at our school who literally emptied it in record time. Students rushed so fast out of the school, you could’ve sworn there was a fire. Yes, lights were flashing in the parking lot, but they weren’t from a fire truck. It was the Christmas garbage truck with no one other than Santa at the wheel. You’ve probably seen it around Whitehorse, with the truck decorated with Christmas lights, these stuck on with bright red and green duct tape.

Thank you to “Santa” who made the kids’ day and volunteered his time to come way out to our school to say a big “Ho, ho, ho.” Maybe we should hire him all year long.

Santa’s Garbage Truck
Santa’s Garbage Truck

Santa with Children
Santa Handing Out Candy Canes


Santa Leaving
Santa is Leaving

Are Yukon Schools Politically Correct?

In Arizona, a 13-year-old boy was suspended for for drawing — on paper — a gun on his homework. In 2000, four kindergarten boys were playing cops and robbers at recess using their fingers as “guns”; they were subsequently suspended for three days. These and other stories have led me to wonder whether things are any different in the Yukon. So, I decided to pay a visit to a local school to see for myself.

Upon entering the school, I was immediately threatened by a black-masked figure with a flowing cape, brandishing a long rapier. He wasn’t packing heat, but I’ll bet he’ll be suspended.

Trying to find someone with authority to mete out the suspension, I barely escaped a beheading by a Knight Templar in the principal’s office.

Grateful that I had escaped with my life twice, I decided to stay away from the office and make my way down to the gym, where a flurry of activity got my attention.

Instead of being in class, students filled the gymnasium. In one corner, a crowd egged on two students going at each other with pillows. A bystander was recording the whole incident on his cell phone.

A few feet further, suction-cup guns were being aimed at a boy moving about in a cage-like enclosure. The target was the skull-shaped mask being worn by the kid.

In yet another area, students were wielding hunting rifles, trying for a “kill.” Farm animals were scattered about on a flat board and the ammunition was a coin rolling down a slot on a carved wooden hunting rifle. Thankfully there was a sheriff sitting nearby. Surely he had the authority to take care of these gun-toting kids. But wait! He was the one encouraging the whole thing. Isn’t there anyone in this school that sees this behaviour for what it is?

I’d had enough of this and made my way to the nearest exit, which meant going through the girls’ change room and out the other side. As I hurried through the door, I suddenly heard muffled screams. A grizzly discovery awaited me: the change room was a scene reminiscent of a chainsaw massacre. I found myself in the dark, where flashes of light illuminated walls, ceiling, and floors splattered with blood. Trying to paw my way out of there, something (or someone) jumped out at me from a dark corner. I finally managed to find the exit where I needed a moment to regain my composure. We’re way past suspensions now, expulsion is in order!

By the end of day, the school would have been emptied had suspensions been given out. Instead, everyone had a great time. Kids had been talking about this event from the beginning of school in August and couldn’t wait for this day of Hallowe’en festivities. I’m guessing they’ll be talking about it for a couple of months to come.

Funny thing, I didn’t see any kids fighting at recess, nor any punches thrown. What I did see was a group of kids working the whole day before to set up the gym, and working through recess and lunch the day after to clean up. They were scrubbing walls using lots of elbow grease, while chatting about the day before. Could it be that there is a healthy way of letting kids just be themselves and have a bit of fun? No one condones violence, but could it be that because of news headlines, we have pushed the pendulum to the extreme?

Sled-Dogs

Working in the schools, I had the privilege of meeting one of the north’s favourite mushers, Hans Gatt, and a whole bunch of his sled-dogs. Gatt is a veteran of sled-dog racing, including in the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod.

Gatt ended up leaving Atlin, BC (two-hour drive from Whitehorse) later than anticipated, so the planned morning visit had to be postponed until the afternoon. Considering the late time of day and the long drive ahead of them to Fairbanks, Alaska, I was very pleased at Hans and Suzie’s immense generosity in taking the time to stop at the school, take all their dogs out (one student counted 23) and then “pack ’em all up” for the trip ahead.

The grade six class I was working with were very excited, to say the least. They went around the truck petting each of his dogs, getting to know them and getting answers to tons of questions from both Hans and his friend, Suzie.

Having that many dogs in one place at one time, you’re bound to see EVERYTHING dogs do, all within a five-minute period. And, because sixth graders are, well, six graders, I got a kick out of hearing their reactions to seeing dogs be dogs.

A BIG THANK YOU TO HANS AND SUZIE!!!