Almost 40 years ago, Terry and Michel Markley were shipped abroad to promote world peace and cultural harmony.
They went one better.
They found love and, in their own small way, helped unite Canada’s two solitudes.
When she landed in Senegal in 1976, Michel, a francophone from Quebec, couldn’t speak English. Terry, an anglophone from Vancouver, could only speak a smattering of French.
Still, they shared the language of love.
“I would talk and talk and he would look at me with stars in his eyes and pretend to understand me,” said Michel.
“I thought I did,” said Terry with a shrug.
“He understood what mattered,” said Michel.
The two were united by Canada World Youth – Terry was Michel’s supervisor on a mission to the French-speaking West African nation.
The two Whitehorse transplants are among the 34,000 Canada World Youth alumni celebrating the 40th anniversary of the non-profit society this week when the city joined 140 other Canadian municipalities to declare Canada World Youth Week.
About 200 people showed up at Yukon College Tuesday night for a Ukrainian-style celebration.
There was plenty of perogies, cabbage rolls and other Ukrainian fare.
Since September, Whitehorse has played host to a contingent of volunteers from Canada World Youth, half of which are from the Ukraine.
The rest – there are 18 in total – are Canadian volunteers.
The crowd was entertained with traditional Ukrainian dancing followed by speeches by former alumni.
The cultural exchange program started in 1971.
And, for its size, the Yukon has plenty of alumni.
“For a city like Whitehorse, it was surprising to see how many people have been involved in the program,” said Simon Schachner, the organization’s local program co-ordinator.
Whitehorse resident Wendy Baker participated in the very first Canada World Youth program.
Founded by the late Liberal senator Jacques Hebert, it is dedicated to tapping youth to develop “just, harmonious, and sustainable societies.”
The first volunteers travelled abroad in 1972.
“They told us if we screwed up, the whole program would have been nixed,” Baker said. “It was a huge responsibility for us as young kids.”
At the time, the program was quite different than its current incarnation.
There were 80 volunteers on that first program who spent five months in Malaysia followed by three back in Canada.
Today, Canada World Youth volunteers are billeted with host families. But when it first began, all volunteers stayed in camps.
Because they were representing Canada, there was a lot of pressure put on the group to abide by conservative Malay cultural norms, said Baker.
Men had to keep their hair short, and women had to wear long sleeves.
Drinking and smoking in public were frowned upon.
Of course, they pushed those boundaries occasionally, said Baker.
“It was hard, but it was the best year of my life in the end,” she said. “It really gave me a sense of adventure and got me out of my small-town Ontario mindset.”
Four decades later, Baker still keeps in touch with some of the friends she made on that trip.
She’s not the only one.
When Michel and Terry returned to Canada, they went back to their homes on the opposite sides of the country.
Soon, they discovered they didn’t want to be separated.
Michel moved to Vancouver to be with Terry, who got a job in the North to run the Yukon’s Katimavik program.
They bought a lot in Atlin and lived in a wall tent with their first child while they built a house.
Canada World Youth didn’t just bring them together but helped make them who they are today.
“Canada World Youth really shaped our sense of adventure,” said Michel. “Adventures like going to the Yukon.”
The influence of Canada World Youth for them was both personal and professional.
“As a teacher it informed how I taught kids,” said Terry.
The educational aspect of the program is one of the things that attracted Schachner to the organization.
He went through the program in 2004 traveling to Uruguay and Nelson, BC.
“I loved every bit of it,” he said.
Working on another Canada World Youth program has been something he’s wanted to do for years.
Schachner, the 18 volunteers and his Ukrainian counterpart have been in Whitehorse since December.
The youth volunteer around Whitehorse at places like the animal shelter and Raven Recycling.
In December, they will travel to Ostroh, Ukraine, where they will spend another three months.
One of the things they will be working on is an environmental sustainability project at a local university.
The exchange program between Ostroh and Whitehorse will be happening for three more years.
“It’s a really special opportunity we have in Canada,” said Schachner. “Particularly for youth in the North and small communities.”
Anyone between the ages of 15 to 29 is eligible for the program. More information can be found on their website: www.canadaworldyouth.cwy-jcm.com.
Contact Josh Kerr at