Yann Herry is drawn to true stories of daring. Ask him about his favourite characters in the Yukon’s Francophone history and he’ll tell you about the people who took chances, cut their own trails and lived their dreams.
“It’s the French-Canadian spirit, going back to the voyageurs,” he said. “We’ve always been pulled toward big adventure.”
Back in the 1970s, Herry became an adventurer himself. He left his hometown in Québec and came to the Yukon, following the mini migration of young people moving to Western Canada from the East.
Herry landed in Elsa in 1979, to work at the United Keno Hill Mine. While at work, he made friends with older miners who had come from all over North America, and many were Francophones.
“They had interesting stories about their lives and the way they saw Canada,” said Herry. “For the first time, I discovered there were Francophones living all over Canada and they were a part of the history of Canada, so I was intrigued by the stories.”
In 1981, the mine closed and Herry and his colleagues found themselves out of work.
“We were waiting around for the mine to reopen, but there wasn’t much work in Whitehorse,” he said.
Fuelled by his newly inspired interest in Francophone history, Herry hit the books. He started haunting the public library and discovered there was a rich Francophone history in the Yukon, but no one was talking about it. He wanted to help bring those stories into the light, and so began his lifelong project.
“We started by having meetings and supporting the work done by other Francophones in the community, and we established [the] Association franco-yukonnaise,” said Herry. “It was a huge step forward.”
While Association franco-yukonnaise (AFY) looked to the future, Herry realized it was important to talk about the past and the stories that rooted Francophones in the Yukon since 1838. His work got noticed, and Herry started fielding research requests from all over the world.
“There were a lot of Francophones in the Yukon during Klondike Gold Rush times, and lots of their relatives have questions about what happened to these people. It was time-consuming, but I did my best to answer them.”
Herry logged countless volunteer hours and eventually parlayed his passion into a master’s degree in Education in 2002. For his final project he created a book of the Yukon’s Francophone history and a gallery show featuring 20 portraits of Francophones who had a role in Yukon history and society.
Over the past few decades, French-language representation in the Yukon has grown with the addition of dedicated Radio-Canada reporters stationed in Whitehorse and in French immersion schools.
In April 2021, Herry and a group of like-minded history lovers incorporated a new society called Société d’histoire francophone du Yukon, as a group that could collect those stories and make them available for people to learn from.
“It’s important to me to share the language and the culture,” said Sylvie Binette, another founding member of the society. “I have a passion for the Yukon’s natural and cultural heritage, and I want to share it with others.”
Like Herry, adventure also lured Binette to the Yukon from Québec. She came in 1985 to become a French-language teacher’s assistant with the national language program, now called Odyssey.
Binette has always been interested in history, but that interest really hit home for her in the early 2000s, while she was walking through the AFY community centre. On the wall of the staircase hung a portrait of a man who looked a lot like her great-grandfather, Aldéric Binette. After some genealogical research, she discovered that the man in the photograph was named Joseph Eugène Binet (called Gene Binet, in Mayo). And she was related to him. In fact, their ancestors were brothers.
By all accounts, Binet had a big heart and he was involved in the community of Mayo. Over the years, he owned a sawmill, hotel and general store, and now the Binet House Museum is located in his former home.
Once Binette found the stories of her distant relative, she felt like she better understood her call to the Yukon.
“For me, it was anchoring, and I felt a connection because no one else in my family moved far away from home,” said Binette. “I now know that I have some roots here.”
In 2017, she was able to deepen that connection by working on interpretative text for a redesign of the Binet House Museum exhibits.
That same year she also participated in a larger AFY history project, “De fil en histoires; Les personnages d’un territoire,” where she handmade a doll version of her ancestor, Joseph Eugène Binet, for display.
For both Herry and Binette, it’s important to keep the language, culture and stories alive in the Yukon—for their children and for future generations.
“To me, it’s important that we can all live side by side, whether we’re Francophone, Anglophone, Indigenous or from another cultural background,” said Herry.