I repeatedly had to give my head a shake. A guy in a café was chatting away in French on his cellphone, and two blocks and an hour later two women nattered away in French in a Japanese restaurant. The next day I popped into the Yukon Quest dogsled race office to pick up some information. When a young woman with a French accent answered my questions, I did the only sensible Montreal thing – I switched into French. But I was in Whitehorse – about as far as you can get from Quebec without falling off the continent.
Surprisingly, the Yukon has a vibrant francophone population of about 1120 people. They live mostly in Whitehorse and Dawson City. As I eavesdropped on conversations around the Yukon’s capital, their presence was so strong that it was hard to believe they only make up four per cent of the Yukon’s overall population. Most of the territory’s francophones were born elsewhere in Canada but have made themselves at home. They’ve been coming here for more than 150 years, first as prospectors, trappers, politicians, adventurers or members of religious orders.
The Yukon expanded during the Klondike gold rush and then-Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier encouraged French-speaking civil servants to head west to administer the territory’s affairs. Where there are gold claims and a growing community, there are papers to shuffle. There were soon more francophones than anglophones. But the excitement of the gold rush died down and many people left. The golden era of French in the Yukon was over.
In an all-too-familiar scenario, the francophones who stayed behind became somewhat assimilated to the anglophone population. Then a group of them came together in 1979 to form an association. Whitehorse resident Thérese Nantel says they used more than word of mouth to reach others. “We looked in the phone book for francophone names to try to reach them,” she told me in an interview. “Many spoke more English, but we encouraged them to come and speak French with us.” The Association franco-yukonnaise was born three years later, to improve the quality of life for Franco-Yukoners. The group has since been recognized as the voice of the community in the territory.
People can live en français – or perhaps more accurately en franglais thanks to a French school, daycares, a newspaper, a radio program and a web of services housed under the roof of the Centre de la francophonie du Yukon. As with francophones everywhere, convivial conversation goes with good food. Late on a Friday afternoon, I watch six volunteers in the centre’s kitchen prepare an East Indian dinner for the crowd coming to the weekly café-rencontre that brings the community’s francophones together.
More than an hour later, one is tending the till while two others whirl between the serving area and the front counter handing over plates to some of the nearly 50 people who have come for dinner. Behind them, four other volunteers dish up Indian Dal, chickpea curry, rice and salad. Over the years, this activity has become a staple of Franco-Yukoners’ cultural diet.
Out in the community, anglophone Yukoners apparently do the same thing as their Montreal counterparts, Whitehorse resident Yann Herry tells me. “The Yukon is special. If you go into a store, an anglophone who has some French will try to use it.”
The pendulum has finally swung the other way since the days when being a francophone was almost a solitary experience. Now you could almost live entirely in French – and that would make it harder to learn English. Sounds like Montreal, doesn’t it?
Courtesy of Association franco-yukonaise