Instead of being home for the holidays, a group of francophone classroom assistants in Yukon are spending time away from family. And even if their routines and traditions have been derailed, some are delighted to be staying put in the North.
The language assistants are part of the federal government's Official Languages Programs. They work in classrooms in minority language settings across the country.
In Whitehorse, the assistants, like Marilyn Ferland, are French-speaking. She had expected to return home for the holidays.
"It's the first time in 30 years that I won't be near my family," she told Radio-Canada.
"With all the restrictions, the quarantine obligations, especially on return, I would have lost work days. So finally considering all that, I decided to stay here and make the most of the Yukon winter," she said.
Ferland got a job as a language assistant after she lost her job in a Quebec restaurant as a result of the pandemic.
"I feel so lucky to be here right now, when I see the situation in Quebec. For me it's a blessing to be able to work in the schools. All the schools are open," she said.
Annie Maheux is in a similar situation.
"I promised my family when I left [that I would be back for Christmas], but we decided to stay and together with my roommate, we wanted to do some volunteer work. We're going to cross-country ski, we'll focus on outdoor activities," she said.
Both women, like their coworker Alexis Grenon, are happy to find themselves stuck in Yukon. "I feel lucky to be in Whitehorse right now," Grenon said. "I find that, even if there wasn't a pandemic, we can still go out."
Since their arrival in September, the language assistants have been discovering all the various facets of Northern living and falling for the territory's charm, despite the pandemic.
"The fact that we're surrounded by other language assistants gives the impression that we have a little family. It's like we arrived with friends," Maheux said.
Grenon is surprised by what he has found in Yukon. "There are lots of people who speak French. We don't learn that in Quebec, that in Yukon, there are so many people who speak French."
He doesn't expect to stay after the year is over, but his experience in the French immersion program here has inspired him to return to school to become a teacher when he returns home.
"I am surprised by the level of French. I can have conversations in French with fourth and fifth grade students without having to change my vocabulary," he said.
Part of their mandate as language assistants is to help make learning French fun. The pandemic has presented challenges in some ways. Maheux's work has been all online as she works with students in rural parts of the territory.
"I didn't know what to expect, it's been an adventure, but I have a lot of freedom," she said.
"My impression is that the Yukon adventure needs to be at least two years, especially during these COVID times, because there are so many things here that open our eyes as newcomers."