Ukrainian family moved to remote Quebec town and rescued the local school

A Ukrainian family moved to Tête-à-la-Baleine, Que., and helped save the local school when they registered their three children in September.

Ukrainian family moved to town of 100, doubling student population from 3 to 6

A group of people stand together, smiling.
A Ukrainian family moved to the remote town of Tête-à-la-Baleine in September and helped secure the future of the local school, which had plans to close in the next few years. Ivonne Fuentes, centre, was one of the residents who helped welcome the family. (Submitted by Ivonne Fuentes)

Ivonne Fuentes cried happy tears the day a Ukrainian family arrived in Tête-à-la-Baleine, a remote town on Quebec's Lower North Shore.

Fuentes, who works at the local school, helped co-ordinate efforts to welcome the family of five fleeing the war in Ukraine.

"It really moved my heart to do this," said Fuentes, who immigrated to Canada from Mexico City. "I really cried of happiness when they were safe and just landed."

In addition to bringing a breath of fresh air to the town of 100 people, the family's arrival likely ensured the survival — at least for now — of the community's only school, École Gabriel Dionne.

Before the family's arrival, the school could have closed in the next couple of years, said Fuentes, because only three children were registered and the administrator of the school board has said a minimum of five children must be enrolled, based on the town size and population.

But things changed in September when the three school-aged Ukrainian children arrived on the last possible day to register.

A snow-covered road leads to a school. The sign reads Gabriel Dionne.
Ivonne Fuentes says Gabriel Dionne school is in great condition and has resources that should not 'be wasted.' (Submitted by Ivonne Fuentes)

Fuentes vividly recalls the day the family stepped off the boat on Sept. 19.

"We brought them directly to their home," said Fuentes, who has lived in Tête-à-la-Baleine for three years — and then immediately registered them for school.

"It was hard to really believe they were there," said Fuentes.

two rusted poles hold up a sign reading Tête-à-la-Baleine
Ivonne Fuentes says the second Ukrainian family could move to the town as early as this month, depending on paperwork. (Submitted by Ivonne Fuentes)

Gabriel Dionne school 'cannot be wasted'

The three Ukrainian children — aged nine, 12 and 14 — are joining three local students, aged four, 11 and 15, said Fuentes.

Fuentes is the facilitator of spirituality, community involvement and recreational activities at Gabriel Dionne school, teaching children about arts, culture, dancing and cultural and international events.

Having taught children in Mexico City previously, she says teaching in a remote town is not as challenging as it might seem.

"It's just different because it's very small. But at the end, it is the same," said Fuentes.

"This school is beautiful. This school is in wonderful shape. They have everything, the keyboards, electronics … And I have seen children that don't have a school like this. So this cannot be wasted. This has to be really enjoyed by children."

The sun sets, turning the sky shades of pink and purple. A long snow-covered road surrounded by trees leads to a white church in the distance.
The beauty of the outdoors is part of what Ivonne Fuentes loves about Tête-à-la-Baleine. (Submitted by Ivonne Fuentes)

Fuentes notes that having kids learn in-person and interact with peers is essential when they are young.

"It's absolutely different to meet with your friend and share their lunch and hug each other and play. This is the part that's very important," said Fuentes.

School once had 125 students

Madeleine Le Breton, a former teacher at the school, is the grandmother of its youngest student, aged four. She says welcoming new students has taught her granddaughter new skills.

"She explained to us that sometimes she doesn't like it because she has to wait her turn. But we tell her it's important to share and wait until it is her turn to speak, and her turn to choose a game," said Le Breton. "These are things she never had to do before because she was always playing with adults."

Le Breton has her own ties to the school. She taught at Gabriel Dionne for close to 33 years and says the school has changed significantly from when she was a physical education teacher to 125 students.

Part of the drastic change in the school's student population has to do with young people moving away for higher education and not returning because of limited career opportunities, said Le Breton.

A group of a dozen children sitting on a bench lean in to look at the camera. They are dressed in running shoes and shorts.
In 1978, students at the Gabriel Dionne school invited their parents to the gym to watch a dance performance. (Submitted by Madeleine Le Breton)

"We hope one day more families will live here," said Le Breton, adding that they don't want the same fate as Aylmer Sound, a Lower North Shore town that saw its population shrink to the point where it closed down in 2007.

"We definitely think about it once in a while. But we try to stay hopeful that some families will come here," said Le Breton. "We have to prepare to try to find a different type of employment to bring people here."

They don't want to be the next Aylmer Sound

It's a scenario Fuentes also thinks about.

The provincial government and local residents decided to shut down the community of Aylmer Sound after its school and grocery store closed. The 2007 closure cost the government $1.7 million.

"When I was in the helicopter … I saw the town and I took a photo. You can see the three houses existing … There's nothing else," said Fuentes.

A photo taken from the sky looks down on a forested area surrounding a few structures and homes.
Ivonne Fuentes snapped a photo of what remained of Aylmer Sound, a small town that closed down in 2007. (Submitted by Ivonne Fuentes)

"It's very sad because it's not just about material things that disappear. It's about people's stories … Their grandparents, great-grandparents, it disappears when you close it down. It's just history."

She hopes Tête-à-la-Baleine can be saved. If the school closes, the facility would have to be torn down and students' families would have to either homeschool their children or move to another town, said Fuentes.

It's part of what makes the arrival of new residents and children exciting, said Fuentes.

Over the summer, almost $10,000 in donations from people all over Quebec came in to pay for travel, food and accommodation costs for two Ukrainian families, said Fuentes.

A small town of 100 people is about to get some new additions this year. Tête-à-la-Baleine is welcoming two Ukrainian families. And residents are organising a Go Fund Me campaign to support them.

She says depending on paperwork, the second Ukrainian family is set to arrive in the town as early as this month.


Rachel Watts

CBC journalist

Rachel Watts is a journalist with CBC News in Quebec City. Originally from Montreal, she enjoys covering stories in the province of Quebec. You can reach her at