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Duo love frontier spirit

Kevin Allerston
Northern News Services
Published Friday, May 4, 2012

When Mieke and Les Cameron first came to the North in 1971 as a young married couple in their early 20s, they had no idea what to expect.

NNSL photo/graphic

Les and Mieke Cameron, seated together in Les's Sir John Franklin School physics classroom Wednesday. The two have been staples of Yellowknife's education community since 1971. - Kevin Allerston/NNSL photo

But 41 years later, it is still home.

"There was no information about the North, no pamphlets, no posters, nothing to tell us what to expect," said Les.

They came from Regina, where the two were both working as teachers. When they heard there was an opening to work in the North they decided to take the chance.

"A friend of ours got a job in Fort Smith, and after being there for a year, we were talking to her and she said, 'Oh, it's really a great place - something you've never seen before.'"

After a recruitment seminar in Regina hosted by two educators from the North, they applied to work in Frobisher Bay (now Iqaluit), Inuvik or Yellowknife. They were selected for Yellowknife.

"When we came around the corner and we saw (Long Lake) it took my breath away, and the trees, the very oddly shaped trees, and the pink rock," said Mieke.

They were also impressed to see apartment buildings, three-storey houses and stores.

"We thought it was like a jewel in the middle of nowhere. We had anticipated that we would see the same kinds of things that we had along the drive ... you know, one and two bedroom homes, some of them propped up in corners with logs to level them out," Les said.

At the time, Yellowknife had one set of traffic lights located at Franklin Avenue and 50 Street. The Yellowknife Correctional Centre, which was where the Multiplex is today, represented the outskirts of town.

"We really liked the frontier spirit of the town," said Mieke.

The two became the first Grade 9 teachers at Sir John Franklin School, teaching students from around the North who stayed at Akaitcho Hall next to Sir John Franklin School. Mieke took on English and social studies classes while Les taught math and science.

Though Yellowknife was small, about 8,000 people, there was always something to do.

"There was something happening probably every weekend. The Elks, it was very active, and there were community dances and everybody went. And the legion used to be where Fuego's restaurant is. And if they weren't there they were at The Lion's Den, a little building over on the Sissons school property," said Les.

Their first daughter, Lisa, was born in 1973 at the original Stanton Regional Hospital, where the Aven Centre is today. A year later, their second girl, Marni, was born. Mieke took three years off from teaching to focus on raising the kids.

During evenings in the late 1970s Les would also provide driving lessons, including for Pat McMahon, who would eventually become mayor.

"She was the same as she was as mayor - very ebullient, very vibrant, very confident but very intimidated by driving. And so when she gained confidence in driving she was so happy, just so proud of herself for having gone through it," said Les.

The couple moved to Westlock, Alta., in 1979.

Eventually, though, they began to long for the North and returned to Yellowknife in 1984.

"We quite magically saw the big polar bear in the Edmonton journal in the ads section, and there it was, a job was available (for an English teacher position) and so I applied and I got it," Mieke recalled.

Les worked for a while as a substitute teacher with Yellowknife Catholic Schools before an arts and physics position opened at St. Patrick High School. Mieke became assistant principal of Sir John Franklin High School in 1993 and in 1997 became principal, which she describes as the "highlight" of her career.

"I didn't go into the job as a seasoned administrator, but I sure did enjoy learning how to do the things that needed to be done so that school would hum, and Sir John really hummed," said Mieke.

In 2000 Les moved back to Sir John to be closer to Mieke, where he resumed teaching photography and physics, and still does today. For him, the best part about teaching is seeing students' reaction when they learn something.

"It's those 'aha!' moments that I really like," Les said.

After retiring as principal, Mieke worked for a year in administration for Yellowknife Education District No. 1 before heading to Aurora College where she teaches English and health programs.

The city has grown and changed over the years, but the Camerons agree it's difficult to imagine anywhere else as home.

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