#Immigration Matters in Whitehorse, Yukon - Taking Whitehorse’s music scene to new levels

#ImmigrationMatters in Whitehorse, Yukon

Olivier de Colombel was drawn to the Yukon, and now Whitehorse’s only French elementary school has a music teacher and dedicated volunteer.

Taking Whitehorse’s music scene to new levels


Olivier de Colombel performs in Whitehorse

Olivier de Colombel’s first encounter with Canada’s North was through photographs. On an international bicycling tour, he got to know a Yukon resident, who showed him pictures of the territory’s vast, pristine landscapes. He vowed to see it for himself someday and made good on that promise in 2013, with a 6-week visit that cemented his determination to live there.

By 2014, Olivier returned to Whitehorse with a work permit. A classically trained musician and saxophonist from Paris, France, he threw himself into Whitehorse’s music scene. He also joined the Association franco yukonnaise (AFY), working in communications. “The AFY helped me integrate into the community really quickly”, says Olivier.

These days, he writes for Yukon’s local French-language paper, L'Aurore Boréale, teaches French to adults, and gives music classes and workshops to students at École Émilie-Tremblay, Yukon’s only French-language elementary school. He’s married to a woman he met near the end of his 2013 trip, and he’s working to obtain his Canadian certification in music therapy, a field he worked in back in France, where he helped children with disabilities.

“Because he is bilingual, and I am bilingual, he helped me learn 3 languages all at once: The language of English, the language of French and the language of music”.
– Riley Heal

Riley Heal, a 14-year-old student at École Émilie-Tremblay, picked up his first saxophone about a year ago, after meeting Olivier. Riley’s mom, Shari Heal, says, thanks to his music teacher, Riley already has the skills and confidence to improvise on stage.

Riley loves Olivier’s sense of humour. “But, most of all, because he is bilingual, and I am bilingual, he helped me learn 3 languages all at once: the language of English, the language of French and the language of music”.

Learning from the best

Shari Heal’s son, Riley, studies saxophone with French immigrant Olivier de Colombel. Her favourite memory so far is the glimpse she once caught of them backstage before a performance.

“They both had their saxophones, and they began spontaneously having an improvised sax ‘conversation’”, says Shari. “It was so neat to listen as their saxophones talked back and forth, each building on what the other had played. I feel that Olivier helped Riley glimpse the soul of his instrument”.

Olivier has also contributed to the community as a volunteer, providing musical direction and vision to Onde de choc, a unique multidisciplinary arts performance, and training the young people on the Canada Games musical team, in 2014.

In September 2017, he began devoting himself to yet another community project: Starting up a music school. The Heart School of Music launched in September 2017 and teaches music theory, ear training and ensemble playing to both children and adults, at amateur and professional levels.

Virginie Hamel, AFY’s arts and culture manager, appreciates Olivier’s leadership. “He has inspired artists here to try different musical styles and is keen to help those who want to go further”, she says. “He has the genius to present new ways of seeing things without imposing them and has always seen the Yukon community as a place with enormous potential”.

Olivier brings much-needed skills and expertise to Whitehorse, she adds. “It’s not always easy to find Francophones this far north who are also qualified music teachers. Specialists like Olivier provide northern youth with the same learning opportunities as young people in other parts of Canada”.

Immigration profile: Whitehorse, Yukon

Quick facts:

  • Immigrants represent about 13% of Whitehorse’s population.
  • The Philippines is the biggest source country of immigrants in Whitehorse, followed by the United States and the United Kingdom.
  • More than half, 65%, of all immigrants who came to Whitehorse between 1980 and 2016 were economic immigrants, while 31% were sponsored by family, and 4% were refugees.

Did you know?

  • When gold was discovered in the Yukon, in 1897, many of the people who rushed there to make their fortune were Americans. While most never struck it rich, they were able to make a living and bring their families to settle in the North.
  • After Quebec and New Brunswick, Yukon is the third most bilingual province or territory in Canada. French speakers comprise 14% of Yukon’s population.

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