Yukon’s Francophone Community: A Golden Presence

Yukon, whose francophone community has grown in recent years, is today home to some 1,500 native French speakers. Most live in the capital, Whitehorse, which has a wide range of French-language services. The territory’s Francophones, 9 in 10 of whom are from other countries or other parts of Canada, account for 4.6% of the population. The Association franco-yukonnaise plays a leading role in Yukon’s francophone community, which is distinct from the pioneers of European descent who settled the traditional lands of the Dene, Gwich’in and Tlingit in the fur trade era. Many francophones also took part in the Klondike gold rush. Given its lack of French-language infrastructure, most of these pioneers eventually left Yukon or were anglicized.

Francophone Whitehorse

More than 1,000 Francophones live in Whitehorse or the surrounding area. Many attend Friday coffee meetings at the Centre de la francophonie, which houses the Association franco-yukonnaise, the French-language newspaper L’Aurore boréale, and Les EssentiElles, a group that advocates for Yukon’s francophone women. They also meet at Baked Cafe, an informal gathering place for Francophones. One Thursday a month, the cafe hosts a musical happy hour featuring local francophone talent.

Francophones have a daycare, École Émilie Tremblay primary school, Académie Parhélie high school, and École Nomade, which offers French-language home schooling from grades 1 through 12. L’Aurore boréale, a French-language bimonthly newspaper with a circulation of 1,000, is available by subscription or at newsstands in Whitehorse and Dawson City. And for one hour each Saturday, the SRC radio show Rencontres provides information on Yukon news and current affairs.

The Association franco-yukonnaise’s Arts and Culture Service develops a wide range of cultural programming to promote local artists, strengthen francophone identity, and give Yukoners access to French-language leisure activities. Regular events include Onde de choc at the Yukon Arts Centre, an event featuring Franco-Yukon artists from a range of disciplines. Whitehorse and Dawson celebrate Yukon Francophone Day every May 15. Journée Cabane à sucre (Sugar Shack Day), an event held during Whitehorse’s annual Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous winter festival, is also popular.

An Empowered Community

In the mid-20th century, Francophones were assimilated into the English majority at a high rate. At the initiative of some steadfast activists, in 1979 a core group of Francophones formed an association to establish French-language services and promote the vitality of their language and culture. The Association franco-yukonnaise, incorporated in 1982, would soon play a key role in the community’s development. While Franco-Yukoners at the time accounted for just 2.4% of the population, today they comprise 4.6 % of Yukon’s some 35,000 residents.

Together with its partners, the Association franco-yukonnaise is mandated to create and develop services, activities and institutions to help Yukon Francophones reach their full potential. With some 30 permanent and contract staff, it consults and works with community, government and private stakeholders to ensure the Franco-Yukon community succeeds and thrives over time. It lobbied for the creation, in 1996, of the Yukon Francophone School Board, Education Area #23 to oversee French first-language education throughout the territory. Growing enrolment in École Émilie-Tremblay, Académie Parhélie, and École Nomade led the Yukon government to expand the primary school and build a new francophone high school in Whitehorse.

The number of Yukon residents claiming to be bilingual (English/French) also rose to 13.1% of the population in 2011, Canada’s largest per-capita francophone minority after New Brunswick.

Francophone Pioneers: Yukon’s First European Inhabitants

Some of Yukon’s first residents of European descent were French Canadians and francophone Métis who worked for Hudson’s Bay Company. Many of these Francophones accompanied Robert Campbell when he explored the Yukon and Pelly rivers in 1840, in return for which he named numerous geographic sites in their honour.

François-Xavier Mercier, who dominated the Alaska and Yukon fur trade in the late 19th century, was born in Lower Canada (present-day Quebec). As a general agent for the Alaska Commercial Company in the early 1870s, he oversaw the establishment of Yukon trading posts and supplied them via steamboat from the mouth of the Yukon River in Alaska. He was the first to use this way rather than the arduous Mackenzie-Porcupine route. With his associate Jack McQuesten in 1874, he founded the Fort Reliance fur trade post near present-day Dawson City, an area where the first seams of Klondike gold were discovered in the 1880s. It was also François-Xavier Mercier who suggested, in a letter to his family in Quebec, that Oblate missionaries would be welcome in the region. Along with other francophone religious orders, the Oblates were to play a key role in education and health care in Yukon.

In the 1880s and then at the height of the Klondike gold rush (1896 to 1900), some 3,000 Francophones were swept up in the fever that brought more than 30,000 migrants to the Klondike River region and Dawson City, the settlement founded by Franco-American Joseph Ladue. However, Yukon’s transient population swiftly declined after the gold rush, until by 1921 just 4,157 people remained. It saw a new influx of migrants in the Second World War when a road was built to address the fear of Japanese invasion. But it was not until 1991 that Yukon’s population would reach levels seen at the height of the gold rush.

Today roughly 76% of Yukon’s population is of European descent, mainly anglophone. It is also home to some 7,500 Indigenous people, mostly in Whitehorse and the surrounding area. Few traces remain of the region’s francophone pioneers. École Émilie-Tremblay in Whitehorse is named after one of the first “white” women to cross the Chilkoot on the way to the gold fields and settle in Yukon in 1894. Ms. Tremblay owned a women’s clothing store in Dawson for many years. Her former store is one of the buildings preserved for Parks Canada’s Dawson Historical Complex National Historic Site, itself part of the Klondike Gold Rush International Historical Park.