When I learned Vern and Cynthia Armstrong of the Yukon have always chosen to make their home in the cold northern parts of Canada, not along the more hospitable 49th Parallel, my curiosity was aroused. I invited them to our home recently to tell Linda and me about their lives. They were in Keremeos to celebrate the 98th birthday of Cynthia’s father, John Merriman.
Even after 22 years, they are probably still a little surprised to be married. Cynthia had planned to be a vet, but was inspired by a nurse to enter nurses training. “I had no plans to ever marry,” she volunteered, “but I knew my mother was experiencing despair because I didn’t have a husband. I put an ad in the Western Producer. The ad asked, Are you the answer to my mother’s prayers?” She received 28 replies which she read to her sisters at a weekend get-away. “It was hilarious,” she said. “We laughed a lot.”
“Those men didn’t have a chance, did they?” Linda interjected.
“No,” Cynthia said, smiling at the memory. “They didn’t.”
Vern’s life and career trajectory had been quite different. “I attended school for 8 years and got to grade 6,” he said. “I quit then because I wanted to be a farmer and I figured I had enough education for that.” He never did farm but was good at math and managed a lumber yard for 30 years. He got married to Edith and they had 2 children and also adopted 2 indigenous children. After 43 years, Edith died of cancer.
During the years while Vern was married and raising a family, Cynthia ‘s nursing career and adventuresome spirit took her to a number of remote northern locations. When she was sent to Wollaston Lake in Saskatchewan, the nurse assigned to train her quit and Cynthia was alone, without the experience or instruction she really needed. Then, at isolated nursing stations along Hudson Bay, she was again the only nurse and there was no doctor.
Her adventuresome spirit wasn’t diminished during a year of training in Ottawa. She suggested to the instructor they invite the Governor General of Canada, Madame Sauve` for coffee. The instructor said this would certainly not be accepted. Undeterred, Cynthia sent the note anyway. Not long after, she and her 12 co-trainees and the doubting, astonished instructor, were in Government House having coffee with Madame Sauve`.
When a Christian mission opened a centre in northern Saskatchewan, Cynthia was hired to run the post office and do maintenance. Vern, now a widower, came to the centre as a volunteer. When he offered to drive her to another location she accepted, thinking he would bring along a male co-worker. Already well into her 30’s, she was considered to have no interest in finding a husband. Vern found her attractive though, and decided not to bring his co-worker. “Until then, I always addressed him as Mr. Armstrong,” she said, “but we took the long way back. That was how it started.”
After they were married, Cynthia suggested they move to the Yukon where Vern had siblings. “I sometimes wondered why they never wanted to leave, even for a visit,” she said. “Now I understand. It really is nice.”
They settled first in Watson Lake where Vern worked with a carpenter, often doing jobs at the local school. Cynthia worked as a home care nurse.
The people in Watson Lake are terrific, they agreed, but the medical care isn’t. “If we needed to fly to a big hospital,” Vern said, “it took an hour for a plane to come from Whitehorse. Also, the town had only 1 grocery store. The 2 gas stations closed at night and the 3 restaurants closed at 7 pm. The coldest it ever got when we were there was -52.”
As people age and are beset by medical issues, it is common to gravitate to a warmer climate and big city medical facilities. Having both had heart attacks, Vern and Cynthia moved to Whitehorse. They have no plans to come further south. “The medical facilities are great,” Cynthia said, “and the government pays most of our medical expenses. It’s called the “golden handcuff.” “There are about 35 restaurants,” Vern added. “Some serve ethnic meals.”
They have learned to live with the cold and to see humour in adversity. The Yukon is fortunate they are there for the long haul.