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Lt.-Col. Roger Gagnon in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Lt.-Col. Roger Gagnon is on his first UN mission in Haiti, and will be spending this Christmas (2011) with his fellow Canadian soldiers and local orphans. (Handout/Handout)
Lt.-Col. Roger Gagnon in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Lt.-Col. Roger Gagnon is on his first UN mission in Haiti, and will be spending this Christmas (2011) with his fellow Canadian soldiers and local orphans. (Handout/Handout)

For these three, it's a Christmas of firsts Add to ...

For many, Christmas is all about adhering to traditions – dusting off heirloom tree ornaments, hanging up time-cherished stockings and making the same turkey stuffing that Grandma used to make. But Christmas can also serve as a milepost or significant turning point in one’s life. What parent doesn’t remember his child’s first Christmas? What newcomer doesn’t recall the first Christmas in Canada?

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For Roger Gagnon, Linda Johnston and Brian O’Keeffe, this Christmas marks an important moment in their lives. They shared their stories with The Globe and Mail:

Away on duty

This Christmas, Roger Gagnon can’t be with his family in Ottawa. Instead, he is spending the holiday with children who don’t have any family.

Lieutenant-Colonel Gagnon is one of five Canadian Forces members based in Port-au-Prince as part of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. This is the 54-year-old’s first UN mission.

On Christmas Eve, he and his fellow soldiers plan to visit one of several orphanages supported by the Canadian military and UN police to share a Christmas dinner and spread some holiday cheer.

“Some of us, through our families, have obtained funds so we’ll subsidize the gifts [for the children]and give them a Christmas tree,” Col. Gagnon says by phone. “It’s great to see all the smiles, so that goes [a long way]to sort of counterbalance not being with your family at Christmas time.”

The UN mission in Haiti was established in 2004 to help bring order and security to the country after president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted amid a violent rebellion. The mission has been repeatedly extended and was expanded after the January, 2010, earthquake claimed more than 220,000 lives and left a 10th of the population homeless.

“We make a connection with the country and its people, and we help them through a difficult situation,” Col. Gagnon says. “We see a lot of pain, but there’s always hope, and it’s always in the eyes of the downtrodden and the poor. ... It’s all about the accumulation of small acts of kindness.”

He plans to catch up with his two adult daughters and his parents and siblings via Skype as they gather in Ottawa for Christmas Day. But his actual reunion with his family will have to wait until he finishes his Haitian stint in January.

Col. Gagnon says he hasn’t yet decided whether he will participate in further UN missions. “I guess I’ll have to cross that bridge next year.”

Finding her footing

Linda Johnston has spent much of her life without a place to call home. This Christmas, she finally feels as though she has found one.

“It’s very safe here,” Ms. Johnston says of her bachelor suite in the Rhoda Kaellis Residence supportive housing development in New Westminster, B.C. “I plan on being here forever. ... I just love it.”

Only a little more than a year ago, Ms. Johnston was in a much more precarious situation. She was staying at a rodent-infested shelter for homeless women, having been forced out of her sister’s house after a messy dispute that ended with the court imposing a restraining order on her. She had nowhere to go.

“I was trying and trying and I just couldn’t find a place,” the 45-year-old says. “I was staying everywhere, with friends and everywhere else. ... It was [tough] but I made it through.”

Ms. Johnston has, in fact, made it through a lifetime’s worth of tough times. As a child growing up in Vancouver’s east side, she frequently ran away from home. “My mom used to hit me and give me lickin’s,” she explains. “She was an alcoholic, my mom.”

Ms. Johnston developed a taste for alcohol herself at an early age. “My first drink ... I took the liquor out of my mom’s fridge, and she found me on the floor ... puking my guts out. I was maybe 11.”

At the age of 15, still a child herself, Ms. Johnston met a young man and they had a son, whom they lost to foster care. The boy’s father eventually signed him away for adoption, Ms. Johnston says.

The loss of her boy had a devastating effect on Ms. Johnston. “I freaked out a lot. It was hard on me,” she says. Over the next few years, she wound up living on the street, drinking and smoking crack cocaine. In her late teens, roughly around the time she took up smoking the drug (her memory is fuzzy about when she was introduced to it), she gave birth to two daughters and lost custody of them as well.

“I kept in touch with them a few times, and then afterwards, they didn’t want to see me or talk to me any more,” she says of her daughters. “I don’t know what they look like [now] so if they came [to visit] I wouldn’t even know.”

Even so, reconnecting with her children is one of Ms. Johnston’s greatest hopes. And now that she has gained some stability in her life, she feels in a better position to do so. Since she moved into the Rhoda Kaellis Residence a year ago, she has developed a “friend family” of other residents, and has even adopted a dog. She plans to celebrate Christmas dinner with them, and then visit with her boyfriend, whom she has been seeing “off and on” for five years.

Although she has been in and out of addiction treatment over the years, having a secure place to live has made all the difference, Ms. Johnston says. “I’m in my nice home now. No drugs. I’m keeping myself clean.”

Starting anew

Since relocating from the town of Killarney, Ireland, to Toronto in October, Brian O’Keeffe has been too busy settling into his new city to feel homesick.

But even though he is looking forward to celebrating his first Christmas in Canada, there are certain holiday traditions he reckons he will miss. “Just the small things, like having a real fire and things like that, you know?” he says.

A roaring, wood fire may not be possible in his rented downtown apartment, but Mr. O’Keeffe and his younger brother, Derek, who migrated to Toronto in 2010, plan to observe this Christmas in their own way. The brothers have bought themselves a modest, artificial tree from Canadian Tire and are looking forward to spending the holiday relaxing, playing video games and watching Die Hard movies. They have also decided to cook some sort of Christmas dinner together, having nixed earlier plans to buy a ready-made meal from the supermarket.

“It’s really just going to be a really lazy day,” Mr. O’Keeffe says.

Mr. O’Keeffe and his brother are among a recent wave of young migrants from Ireland, seeking greater opportunities in Canada as the Emerald Isle’s economy declines.

Back in Killarney, a town of roughly 15,000 people, the 30-year-old personal trainer had been working at a gym, with the aim of setting up his own personal-training business. As the economy worsened, however, he found himself merely maintaining his clientele, not expanding it, and his plan to open his own facility seemed less and less feasible.

“There didn’t seem to be any growth, so I said it was a good time to actually come over here,” he says.

Following Derek’s lead, Mr. O’Keeffe obtained a two-year working holiday visa to Canada, and joined his brother, who is also a fitness trainer, at the GoodLife Fitness company. So far, he says, he has been spending most of his days working, but he has made a few good friends.

Beyond his first Christmas in the country, Mr. O’Keeffe has all kinds of Canadian firsts ahead of him, such as ice skating, skiing and braving the sub-zero Toronto weather.

If all goes well over the next two years, he hopes to extend his stay for the long term. “But ask me again after the winter,” he jokes.

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