Landsape view of the village of Tête-à-la-Baleine.

Connecting Canadians

Ukrainians in Tête-à-la-Baleine

May 10, 2024

(Above) Photo credit: Ivonne Fuentes

Mickael Lambert and Ivonne Fuentes are a couple living in Tête-à-la-Baleine. She hails from Mexico and came to Quebec in 2017, while he’s originally from Orford, in the Eastern Townships. In 2020, as they were shifting their career plans, an opportunity came up to work in this village in the Basse-Côte-Nord region.

Tête-à-la-Baleine, with a population of 129, is halfway between Natashquan and Blanc-Sablon, in a vast area without a road network spanning 375 km along the north shore of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.

While having high-quality communication links with the rest of Quebec and the world is clearly important throughout the area, it’s perhaps even more so for a small community like Tête-à-la-Baleine. As Mickael and Ivonne discovered when they moved there, the population is aging. In order to maintain services and preserve the vitality of the community, the village needs to draw families from elsewhere and implement development projects. In other words, engagement and communication are the keys to ensuring that the population thrives.

TELUS deployed its 5G network in Basse-Côte-Nord in 2020. Nearly 10 communities in the region, including Harrington Harbour, Kegaska, La Romaine and Tête-à-la-Baleine, now have access to cell phone service and high-speed Internet, with a browsing experience similar to that available in an urban centre. All 14 villages in the region have been connected to the digital highway.

A trail leading to the coast of Tête-à-la-Baleine where a ship awaits.

Photo credit: Ivonne Fuentes

“We’ve really seen two different worlds. When we got here, there wasn’t a cellular network, and people still had landlines. We found the first year really difficult, as it was hard to stay in touch with our families. We felt very far away. But now that we have a cellular network, we talk to each other like we’re in the same city. There’s no lag. I just feel like I live in another part of Quebec.” - Mickael Lambert

Shortly after they got there, Ivonne and Mickael found out that the village school was in danger of closing due to an insufficient number of students. The community rolled up its sleeves to find a solution, including trying to draw newcomers to the village.

“Before we got here, we had a meeting with the Centre de service scolaire. To keep the school open, they needed at least five students. But, at the time, they were down to three. Immigration was brought up as a possible solution. However, we didn’t take any immediate action.” - Mickael Lambert

In February 2022, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine rattled the world, and while watching the news, the seeds of an idea began to take root for Ivonne and Mickael.

“When the war in Ukraine broke out, Ivonne was watching the televised images of people fleeing combat zones. She was really moved and said to herself: “They need to come here. It’s a welcoming place and the people are friendly. As an immigrant, I would have liked to have come to Tête-à-la-Baleine right away.” - Mickael Lambert.

For Ivonne Fuentes, it’s less complicated to integrate into a small community, where you can easily get your bearings and forge ties.

“It’s easier to begin integrating and get to know people’s last names and street names in Tête-à-la-Baleine. It’s really complicated in a city. Here, it’s so straightforward!” - Ivonne Fuentes

While it’s much easier for a newcomer to integrate into a small community or adapt to a village lifestyle, attracting Ukrainian families who were fleeing conflict to Tête-à-la-Baleine was no small feat. But Mickael and Ivonne were up to the challenge and got actively involved.

“The pieces gradually fell into place. We compiled the information needed to present the project in an attractive way. There were groups on social media for Ukrainians who were looking for places to go. This was in May 2022. The war had begun a few months before, but we began to get organized. We got in touch with families fairly quickly. By late May, we were communicated with two. Then we set up a crowdfunding campaign. I expected it to go well and for us to reach our goal, but it was amazing. We raised $10,000 in two weeks, in a village with just 100 people!” - Mickael Lambert

What’s remarkable about this story is the determination of a small community to use every means at its disposal to find a solution to a problem: an action plan, communications, networking via social media and even fundraising. Local residents simply invented a program to welcome newcomers.

“The people who contributed to the project didn’t see it as humanitarian aid or charity. It was really an exchange: we needed young people and families, and they needed a place to live in Canada. We needed each other, so it was perfect. I think the families sensed and saw that they could make an immediate contribution to the community.” - Mickael Lambert

In the end, three Ukrainian families tried out living in Tête-à-la-Baleine. One family successfully acclimated and integrated into the community. The two other families left for various reasons. Regardless, the project was considered a success, as the children from Ukraine now go to the small school in Tête-à-la-Baleine alongside their new classmates. 

“I hope the experience of welcoming immigrants here will resonate with the decision-makers, not necessarily so that all immigrants come to Basse-Côte-Nord, but to show how important it is to be open-minded and flexible, and to help communities come together to meet a need. Let’s give immigrant families a chance to experience a truly warm welcome.” - Mickael Lambert