Dianne Whelan ‘83: 2017 YHS Alumnae Special Achiever

This year’s Special Achiever, Dianne Whelan ‘83, made a special effort to be at York House to speak at both Founders’ Day and Alumnae Day to celebrate our 85th Anniversary. In fact, a bush pilot extracted her from a remote area along the Trans Canada trail where, since July 2015, she has hiked, biked, snowshoed, skied, and canoed across the country. As she passes through some 15,000 communities along the 24,000 kilometers of the trail, she’s filming her next adventure documentary, 500 Days in the Wild.

Former York House School Head Girl, Dianne Whelan ’83, an explorer, award-winning Canadian documentary filmmaker, author, and multimedia artist, is no stranger to extreme adventure. In 2007, Dianne was the first woman to travel as an embedded media person with a team of Canadian Rangers to a never patrolled route of the northwestern coast of Ellesmere Island, Nunavut. In the middle of winter, they traversed close to 2000 km in the Canadian High Arctic from Resolute to Alert, the most northerly human habitation in the world. Her film, This Land and first book, This Vanishing Land A Woman’s Journey to the Canadian Arctic, depicts her epic journey. In 2010, she filmed her award-winning film, 40 Days at Base Camp, which recounts her eye-opening experiences on the world’s highest mountain, Mt. Everest.

In support of her journey along the Trans Canada Trail, Dianne was recently honoured to receive an expedition grant from the Royal Canadian Geographic Society for the 2,300-km paddle of Lake Superior. With North America’s largest lake behind her, Dianne is continuing along “The Path of the Paddle”, a water route in Northwestern Ontario, which follows centuries-old traditional First Nations and Metis trails. Dianne received another honour earlier this year when her film, This Land, a National Film Board documentary, made the Celebrate Canada 150 list.  

We were fortunate to be able to sit down with Dianne while she was here to talk about what her Trans Canada  journey has shown her so far.

Before setting out, Dianne had titled the trip and pending film, 500 Days in the Wild. This was when she thought she would be travelling the longest trail in the world at a pace of 70 km per day. She lets out a good natured laugh when she thinks back on her ambition. By Day 3, after leaving Newfoundland, Dianne soon came to the realization that it was going to take her considerably more time. In fact, it will likely take her four years, or 1,460 days, to complete but she is no longer in a hurry. But now, more important than how hard or fast she goes, is her interactions with people along the trail.

Now, at the halfway mark, she has been particularly impressed with the kindness that people have shown her along the way. Their generosity has confirmed for her that people truly are good in a way that we often forget.

When asked about how her expectations have changed from the start of the trip, Dianne comments, “It has definitely been harder physically than I had expected. But I haven’t been sick or hurt. I thought I would be more fearful being a woman on my own but that fear is gone. Of course, what I thought would be one film has now become a trilogy (I hope to release part one in the fall of 2018).”

“One thing I really didn’t expect is the exchanges that I have had with indigenous people, particularly the women,” she continues. “First Nations culture teaches us to honour the earth and to honour the women. A Cree grandmother shared with me their collective belief that no decision should be made without thinking of seven generations ahead, which is why I believe that the answers for sustainability are with the First Nations.

Her time with indigenous women across the country has also shown her the importance of humility and having an open heart.

“For me, my goal is to make sure that every day is a sincere expression of myself. When I filmed at Everest, I had lost my balance and went into my ego. Now I know that you need to hang onto a certain amount of humility and grace. I think I have learned from my past mistakes.”

With so much time in isolation in nature, Dianne has had much time to reflect on the importance of following her heart. While here celebrating Founders’ Day with us, she reminded us all of the importance of not forgetting where we come from and how empowering our motto, Not for Ourselves Alone, truly is.

Dianne had come to York House School in Grade 9 as a shy and quiet student, but by Grade 12 she was Head Girl. “When I graduated from York House, I had the confidence that I could do anything I wanted; I left believing in myself. For me, York House is the foundation upon which I built my dreams. We need places like York House to breed strong women,” says Dianne.

Thinking back on her path after York House that has led her to this point, Dianne recalls the eight years at McGill University where she studied philosophy, political science, and religious studies. She was on her way to law school at Dalhousie University when she had decided to take a break and work for her father’s fashion company in Vancouver, Marquis of London, where she learned multiple facets of the business ranging from marketing to production.

The realization that she needed to follow a different path led her to Langara College where she studied journalism and Emily Carr where she studied multimedia including photography and film.

She now recognizes that everything that she has learned, whether at school or in life, has led her to this journey she is on now. This journey to see and to know, that we are not alone.

To read more about Dianne’s adventures visit http://500daysinthewild.com.

Photography, a Food Blog and Two Weddings: Danielle Wong ’10

What did you do after graduation from York House?

After graduating, I went straight to the Ontario College of Art and Design University – where I first studied in the design program but then switched to fine arts and discovered my passion for photography.

Did you have a lot of exposure to photography at York House?
Not really, I didn’t discover photography until my graduating year at YHS – after our grad trip to NYC and visiting galleries and discovering photographers; that’s when I realized perhaps I wanted to make a different path for myself and the desire to be in design started to fade away.

Describe a typical day in the life of Danielle Wong Photography?

I started my company in 2014 after I came back from my post-graduate studies. It was a little slow at first, but thanks to my fantastic mentor who is also one of my closest friends today, she has guided me and taught me almost everything I know. Wedding season in the summers is always hectic but very rewarding. Taking pictures of families and actor portraits was how I first kickstarted my business in Vancouver, thanks to friends and a lot of networking! I love working with people and hearing the feedback (usually positive) afterwards is very humbling and I treat every opportunity I receive as an honour.

You’re a food blogger as well. Tell us about your blog?
I am! I LOVE food! I feel like my life revolves either around photography, fitness, wine and food. I live to eat. In my last year at university, I focused on food photography. Food doesn’t talk back – you’re basically in control all the time. Since graduating, I haven’t really touched food photography at all. It’s hard in a market like Vancouver with a saturation of photographers.

My dad is in the wine and sake importing business and to learn more about pairing wine with foods I took the WSET (Wine Sommelier Education Trust) Levels 1 & 2 courses.

Then, I started The Gourmoo – my food blog – about a year ago now. I had missed photographing food so much. I’m always looking for the opportunity to photograph new menus for chefs in town, or if your restaurant is just starting up and you need really delicious shots of your masterpieces – this is what I love doing most. I can’t deny my love for food.

I was featured in WestJet’s Magazine last year for a piece on Dublin, Ireland. I had visited the city that year and took a photo of a delicious dish of Vitello Tonnato – sliced veal served cold, covered with a creamy, tuna mayonnaise-like sauce.  I was honoured to have my photograph published in their magazine!

Are you a good cook or do you prefer to eat and photograph it?
I’m not a bad cook (so I keep telling myself) – my parents are the real cooks. I definitely prefer to photograph food rather than make it – however I love  marinating meat or making desserts. I love to cook, but I think I love photography a little more. I’m that person who takes photos of their dishes (and others) before eating.

You’re getting married soon and getting married twice!  How are the wedding plans going? 
I think I will need a long vacation after the two weddings… It’s been a lot of hard work, and the first one is less than a month away! My fiancé and I are very excited to have both our families gather to celebrate our marriage. We are eternally grateful for everyone being able to travel from all over the world to celebrate with us.

As a photographer, I know how much work goes into planning a wedding – let alone two! I not only photograph weddings, but I help the couples to plan out their day too. It is so important to keep the bride and groom relaxed on their big day – reminding them to enjoy it and just have fun. It is so easy to forget why you’re having a wedding in the first place – you are marrying the love of your life! You must cherish every moment. Being able to treasure those moments through photographs is something very special.  I cannot wait for what the future brings!

Not for Ourselves Alone: Skylar Gordon, Class of 2014

Continuing her commitment to community through University

Skylar (centre) with her friends in New Orleans

Skylar, community service is important to you. Was this from attending YHS?

One of the reasons I decided to attend YHS was because of the high value placed on community service.    As far back as I can recall I’ve always taken the time to volunteer, so attending YHS really instilled this emphasis on community engagement in me.  Community service has allowed me to take an active role in my community, and has given me the opportunity to acquire knowledge and life skills while providing service to those who need it most.

Please tell us about your involvement with Habitat for Humanity?

I joined Western University’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program during my freshman year. The program is designed to provide students with “Community Engaged Learning” by holding workshops throughout the year on intercultural communication, persistent social issues, and what we as students at a Canadian university can do about it.  The program culminates into a both a local and global part of service learning.

For the global portion, I travelled to New Orleans, Louisiana during my Reading Week in 2015 to work with Habitat for Humanity on a few build sites.  I was drawn to Habitat for Humanity because their business model engages both volunteers and the people who benefit from the housing projects.  Volunteers are trained on how to work tools and residents of Habitat houses must dedicate hours of their own service into building the house.

I chose to work in New Orleans because I wanted to see the progress that the city had made in rebuilding itself during the ten years post Hurricane Katrina.  I was surprised when I arrived in New Orleans: some wards I visited only contained empty lots and unpaved streets where vibrant houses and communities used to be.  Districts that once were home to eight elementary schools now relied on only one because there weren’t enough funds to rebuild the rest.  I found my experience so impactful in first year that I decided I wanted to develop the ASB program further, so during my second year I became one of the team leaders of the program.  I helped to lead the workshops and organize the program, and in February of 2016 I led 40 students back to New Orleans to work on more house builds.  The year that I led the New Orleans program was especially rewarding because I was able to help other students enjoy the same positive experience that I had from the year before.

Here’s a video that my co-leader made of the trip (I think I have a short cameo at the 11 second mark and a couple other places).

How did you find out about it?

Shortly into my first year of university, I started to feel overwhelmed.  I was taking some lecture-based courses in which more than 550 students were enrolled and my university residence building housed over 1,000 students.  Combined with living across the country and away from my family, I was exhausted from trying to keep up in school and get enough sleep and stay in touch with my friends.  I realized that I really missed the feeling of fulfillment that I had from volunteering and working on community projects at YHS and the network of like-minded people I met through it.  I felt disconnected from the very city I was living in (we call it the “Western University bubble” because the school acts as its own community): I couldn’t even name the major streets that were off campus.  I decided to look for opportunities to involve myself in the London community and discovered the ASB program, offered through Western.
Do you see yourself continuing your community service after graduation?

Absolutely.  Giving time to my community is important to me and I can’t imagine it not extending beyond my graduation.

What are you studying and what do you see yourself doing after graduation?

I study business at the Ivey Business School, at Western University.  I hope to work in health sector innovation after I graduate, possibly doing quality improvement projects in hospitals. I see myself at the intersection between healthcare and business – working to improve quality of life through improved healthcare.  In this respect, I see myself managing projects to improve the quality of processes and care in hospitals (in a business operations or analytics capacity).  I am also interested in how to incentivize profit-seeking medical device and pharmaceutical companies to invest in better healthcare innovation, while keeping the products of this innovation affordable to patients.

Any advice to new grads heading to Western this September?

Keep in touch with other Yorkies at your university!  They know what you’re going through better than anyone.

You’ll learn just as much, if not more, outside of classes as you will in them, so be open to new opportunities and get involved with clubs, sports, and causes that you’re passionate about.

Buy a good quality winter jacket and snow boots (we had snow into April this year)!