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History Hunter: New book a tribute to the Father of skiing in the Yukon

Book explores the life and impact of Father Jean-Marie Mouchet
The cover of John Firth's North Star: The Legacy of Jean-Marie Mouchet. (Submitted)

In the introduction to his new book, North Star: The Legacy of Jean-Marie Mouchet, author John Firth relates the difficulties he encountered finding a publisher.

“One told me that only a First Nations writer could properly write it. Another said her firm may one day publish a book with stories about ‘do-gooder priests,’" he said. "Yet a third suggested that a book about a Catholic priest, no matter his individual character, so soon after the heart-breaking revelations of the residential school legacy, was insensitive. The fourth explained that publishing First Nations books was a core of their work, and they feared losing that business.”

It is a sad state of affairs that publishers from southern Canada display such a lack of comprehension of the Yukon and its people, and decide what is worth writing about, and who should tell their stories. It is about time that Yukoners should write our own books. 

So, Firth, a life-long Yukoner, published the book himself, and what a remarkable story it is.

Mouchet was born in France on May 17, 1917. He grew up in the small village of Malbuisson, in the mountainous country near the border between France and Switzerland. While growing up, he enjoyed the alpine region where he lived, hunting in the summer, and skiing in the winter.

Being the youngest in a family of five, it was tradition that he should become a priest. So, from a young age, he was schooled with that objective in mind. He would have been ordained a priest in 1942, but his fourth year of seminary was cancelled in September 1939 when Germany declared war against France. Instead, he enlisted in the army.

Because of his skill at skiing and familiarity with the mountainous “boundaryland,” he was assigned to an elite unit guarding one of the passes between France and Italy. That lasted only a few months as France surrendered to Germany in June of the following year.  

He became involved in the French resistance, was captured by the German Gestapo, was almost executed and became a prisoner of war. He was almost sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, but in August 1944, he was liberated instead. He returned to the seminary and was ordained in 1945.

The following year, he was assigned to a posting in northern Canada, first at Lower Post near the Yukon/British Columbia border, then from 1947 until 1954, at Telegraph Creek. While there, he lived with and came to understand Indigenous people. He also started a ski program.

When Mouchet was transferred to Old Crow, in the northern Yukon in 1954, he was already his own man. Rather than a man of the church, he saw himself as a man of God, whose calling was to make lives better, not to baptize babies. In Old Crow, he saw an opportunity, through skiing, to combat the destruction of traditional culture brought on by Canadian colonial policies.

He created a ski club in Old Crow in 1955. The club spent the following year getting set up, preparing ski runs on nearby Old Crow Mountain. In 1957, they had their first race, and the following year, he was able to take two of his young skiers, Isaac Thomas and Irwin Linklater, to Anchorage, Alaska, to compete in a ski meet. They finished first and second in their downhill event, and at the suggestion of one of the officials, they entered a cross-country event as well. 

They had never had any experience in cross-country, nor had they ever worn cross-country skis, but nevertheless the two young men finished first and second in that event as well. So, in 1960, Mouchet changed the focus of the ski club to cross-country.

The demanding lifestyle of Old Crow residents had prepared these athletes physically and mentally for cross-country skiing, and they excelled at it. Included is an account of the development of outstanding ski athletes, a ski program known as TEST, or Territorial Experimental Ski Training, and of a sports dynasty that left a lasting impact on the development of cross-country skiing in Canada.

What follows is an enumeration of the accomplishments of Mouchet’s ski program, which expanded to include Inuvik, and then later, Whitehorse. In 1963, Martha Benjamin from Old Crow became the first woman to ever win a cross-country skiing championship in Canada. From being an unknown village hidden in the farthest reaches of the northern Yukon, Old Crow was suddenly featured in newspaper headlines across the country.

For the next two decades, cross-country skiers coming out of the TEST program dominated the sport, an accomplishment, unmatched in Canadian sport history, except perhaps, by the Edmonton Grads women’s basketball team in the 1930s and 1940s.

Between 1968 and 1980, TEST skiers captured 128 medals (69 gold) at Canadian championships and 18 medals at U.S. national championships, 11 of which were gold. After Inuvik skiers won the American national championships three years in a row, the U.S. changed the rules so that only American skiers could win the title, no matter how many Canadian skiers finished before them!

Mouchet was a man thinking 25 years ahead of his time, and many of his training concepts eventually became accepted as standard around the world.

Author Firth details the astounding accomplishments of the TEST program over a period of more than 60 years. Knute Johnsgaard of Whitehorse became the last of Mouchet’s students to earn recognition. In 2012, he was the Canadian junior champion, and a member of the national ski team from 2016 to 2018. In 2017, he won a bronze medal in a World Cup ski event, which earned him a place on the national team at the 2018 Olympics.

But this book is not about winning medals; it is about a remarkable man who had a vision in which skiing would bridge a cultural gap and restore pride in northern Indigenous communities. It is as much about building self-confidence and pride as it is about grooming champions.

In a thoughtful narrative, Firth’s book reveals a remarkable man, neither saint nor villain, with a vision of what was possible. It was not Mouchet’s calling to push religion, but to work for the betterment of the community.

This story is as much about communities like Telegraph Creek, Old Crow and Inuvik, as it is about Mouchet. His account is filled with well-informed contextual details about the communities and life in the North, that can only be captured by someone who knows the land and people personally.

The truth is, I can’t say everything that needs to be said about this story in one short column, nor can I say it as well as author Firth, so I recommend that you buy a copy and read it for yourself.

North Star: The Legacy of Jean-Marie Mouchet was published by Firth and printed by Friesen Press in Altona, Man. It's 287 pages and contains 90 photos, all interesting, though many are too small to appreciate the content. 

The two maps, one of Mouchet’s home country of France, and the other of the Yukon, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories, provide geographical context. There is a bibliography, but I note that some of the published works mentioned in the text are not included. These are small issues in a book that I recommend be added to your northern library.

Michael Gates was the Yukon’s first Story Laureate from 2020 to 2023. His latest book, “Hollywood in the Klondike,” is now available in Whitehorse stores. You can contact him at