Eileen Melnychuk is a returnee. She was born in the Yukon, but is coming home after many busy and exciting years away.
She brings with her a formidable resume of talent and accomplishment, a tremendous energy and a belief that, in the Yukon, one can do and be anything one wishes.
Oh, did we mention her contagious sense of humour about nearly everything.
She was born in Whitehorse, but her family moved to Watson Lake where she and her two sisters and two brothers grew up.
“It was the best of childhoods,” says Melnychuk. “It was pre-TV, except for canned stuff in the evening, and I don’t remember ever being bored. We had a four-storey fort! We walked everywhere, no such thing as parents who would drive kids around in those days. And we were outside winter and summer.
“There was so much to do: ice-fishing, hiking, canoeing, to name a few.”
Her dad, Jake, was a man of many businesses. He owned and operated the Venture Hotel, which contained a barber shop and a hairdresser as well as a restaurant. There was a laundromat, a taxi business as well as a popular bar.
He was also a prospector.
Melnychuk’s 16th birthday was unforgettable in that it marked a dramatic and traumatic change in her family circumstances.
Her parents split up, with her mother taking the five children to live in Tsawwassen, BC.
“I not only had my parents’ divorce to deal with, but I was in a school with more pupils in it than the entire population of Watson Lake.” Melnychuk says. “It was a sad, hard time for awhile.”
She returned to her home town every summer to work and maintain ties with friends, though there was never a time when she thought of living in the North again.
“To me, during those years, the Alaska Highway was a way out, not a way in,” she says
Melnychuk always knew she wanted to write.
She got a diploma in journalism and landed a job in Rimbey, Alberta.
Though she won three newspaper awards during her years there, when the job of editor came up she, a single woman, was passed over in favour of a married man.
She quit, and headed home to Watson Lake to consider her next move.
“When I got to town from the airport, there was Sandy Grunow refereeing a Jell-O-wrestling event in front of the Watson Lake Hotel – I stayed, to work as a barmaid,” Eileen says. “It was a new experience, being in town as an adult. I had a lot of fun, and I stayed all winter. In the spring I went gold mining in Dawson City. I panned gold, and I learned to drive a Cat – I loved it! I loved gold mining.”
From there, she went to Inuvik and worked in community development for two and a half years. There, she realized she wanted and needed more education.
She applied to Carleton University in Ottawa and was accepted. She graduated with a BA Honours in Communication and Sociology.
At Carleton, she met Gail Valaskasis, the Dean of Arts and Science at Concordia University. She became her research assistant, and, to continue working with Valaskasis, she decided to do a master’s in communications at Concordia.
While the master’s was still in progress, Melnychuk started a business in Montreal: Business Language Essentials, because she wanted to learn French, continue working with Gail and finish her degree.
A lifelong volunteer, Melnychuk recounts how once in Montreal, on her own, she organized a three-day event to honour International Women’s Day.
The event featured emerging women artists and attracted a host of people and a lot of interest.
During all this activity, Melnychuk never took her eye from the writing ball, taking courses through the Quebec Writers’ Federation.
It was at one of the events hosted by that organization that she met and fell in love with a fellow author.
They lived a full, busy and happy life for two and a half years, doing a lot of travelling together and sharing a dream of writing. They separated after their auspicious beginning. The separation, combined with the accidental death of her sister-in-law and the death of her father, all in a space of nine months, sent Melnychuk home to the North again.
“I realized I had not taken time to grieve any of these three huge events; I was too busy.” says Melnychuk. “When the opportunity came to come to Whitehorse to work with cabinet in my field of communications, I recognized it was time for the geographical solution. I came back in June 2006, and, aside from several trips to Montreal to sell my business, it looks like I am going to be here for awhile.”
From working with cabinet, she went on to a job with the Canada Winter Games.
“I not only worked for the Games, I volunteered as well; in other words, I lived that job for the duration. I had never had anything to do with sports-oriented work before and it was a terrific, exhausting experience that I would not have missed for anything.”
She went on to work as the communications advisor for the Kwanlin Dun First Nation, a job that finished in August.
During that time she got involved in film production, attending workshops and being part of every aspect of producing a completed film. Today she is the vice-president of the Northern Film & Video Industry Association and is deeply interested in continuing to work in the medium of film.
Melnychuk has started a new business, executive writing services. She has been too busy to come up with a formal name for the business, doing everything from speech writing, working on her own scripts, editing, doing some film work and many other related activities as well as continuing her tradition of volunteering.
At this moment she is a member of the Midnight Sun Rotary Club and on the boards of the Northern Cultural Expressions Society and The Victoria Faulkner Women’s Centre.
“I love living here; I love that I have family here and that many old friends are here,” she says. “There are quite a few people who used to live in Watson Lake now living in Whitehorse, and the friendships from childhood in that little town tend to last a lifetime.
“I love that I can do all my necessary errands around town in half an hour. The air is clean and the scenery beautiful. I find I have achieved a better balance in my life living and working in Whitehorse; there seems to be more time to exercise, to visit and to volunteer. I feel like I have a whole life.
“One of the best things about the North is the opportunities, career-wise. I must like it; I’m buying a condo here.”
What about her apartment in Montreal?
“Well, what can I say? I’m not ready to give it up yet. Besides, look at the similarities between Montreal and Whitehorse. It’s hard to choose.”
Melnychuk finds the interviewer’s look of bafflement amusing.
“Both places have bad weather,” she explains. “They each have specialty bread; bagels in Montreal, bannock in Whitehorse. People in both places love dogs, though I have noticed there are more three-legged dogs in Whitehorse than in Montreal. I wonder why?”
Now we can all wonder why, and hope this vivacious, bright woman will sometime provide us with an explanation.
Tor Forsberg is a freelance writer
who lives in Watson Lake.