Émilie Tremblay (née Marie-Émilie Fortin 5 January 1872 in Hébertville, Quebec; died 22 April 1949 in Victoria, British Columbia). A major figure in the history of Yukon and of the Franco-Yukonnais, she was a pioneer during the last gold rush of the 19th century. Émilie Tremblay was one of the first white women to cross the Chilkoot Pass. She was a business woman and President of the Yukon Women Pioneers (seeFranco-Yukonnais.) The only French-language school in Yukon, established in 1984 in Whitehorse, was named after her.
courtesy Yukon Archives, coll. Veazie Wilson, 82/3.
Background and context
Gold deposits were found in Yukon as early as 1863. However, the Klondike gold rush only started in 1897 with the discovery of alluvial gold, and tens of thousands of prospectors travelled there to try their luck. Almost 10,000 of those who arrived between 1897 and 1899 were French Canadians, hailing from Quebec, Acadia and the Prairies. These were mainly men, but some women, including Émilie Tremblay, also contributed in building the mining towns in the region, namely Dawson. In 1898, the federal government recognized the value of local administration and created the Yukon Territory.
Early life and life in Yukon
Émilie Tremblay was 15 years old when her family moved from Quebec to Cohoes (New York), where she married Pierre-Nolasque Tremblay, nicknamed “Jack”, on 11 December 1893. During their honeymoon near Miller Creek in Yukon, Émilie Tremblay became the first white woman to cross the Chilkoot Pass. She defended this merit her whole life, even when disputed by others. The couple settled in Yukon in June 1894. Émilie learned to cook with game from the region and vegetables which people managed to grow at this latitude. During her first winter in Yukon, Émilie Tremblay invited the minors to share a Christmas meal. Soon, she had made a reputation across Yukon. In spring 1895, Émile and her husband grew a garden on their cabin’s roof to grow radishes and lettuce.
The Tremblays participated in the gold mining and visited one mine to the next in the Klondike River region. Their mining adventures were fruitful enough to allow for trips lasting months in the United States and Quebec between 1895 and 1898, then in Europe in 1906.
Back in Yukon, Émilie Tremblay opened the first general store in Dawson in 1913. Still in business today, the Mme Tremblay’s Store is a federal heritage building recognized by Parks Canada. Some stories also suggest that Émilie Tremblay was a member of several elite social organizations, namely the Ladies of the Golden North, the Yukon Women Pioneers and the Daughters of the Empire. Her social engagements were not limited to such organizations. Émilie Tremblay offered shelter to missionaries, widows, orphans and travellers in her large house. She was godmother to 26 children and raised one of her nieces. During the First World War, Émilie Tremblay allegedly knit 263 pairs of socks for the soldiers.
On 16 July 1935, her husband Pierre-Nolasque Tremblay died. In 1940, at the age of 68, Émilie married Louis Lagrois in Dawson. She sold her business and spent her remaining years in Victoria in British Columbia, where she died on 22 April 1949.
École Émilie TremblayThe first and only French-Language school in Yukon was named after Émilie Tremblay. After the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was adopted in 1982, granting the right to French-language education in every province where the number of children warrants it, Yukon opened two French-language classes in the Whitehorse primary school in 1984. The following year, the program became the École Émilie-Tremblay. By 1992, additional school grades and increasing numbers of enrolment warranted the construction of an independent building for this school. Since its establishment in 1996, it has been managed by the Francophone school board. Today, the École Émilie-Tremblay teaches the curriculum from kindergarten to grade 12. In 2017-2018, 283 students were enrolled there.
King George VI Coronation Medal (1937)