Ontario Francophones the Audible Minority
The Trent community gathers for a colloquium celebrating French culture in Ontario
More than 70 were in attendance at the “matinée Franco-ontarienne” on December 5, 2011 - a half-day colloquium organized by Trent University’s Department of Modern Languages and Literature to investigate and celebrate the role of French culture in Ontario. The colloquium was opened by Dr. Sylvie Bérard, associate professor and chair, who used census data to emphasize the relative isolation of Francophones in many Ontario towns, including Peterborough. “We often speak of the visible minority in a given culture, but Francophones in Ontario really are the ‘audible minority’,” observed Professor Berard.
Taking up that point, François Boileau, commissioner of French services in Ontario, pointed out that although there are over 600,000 Franco-Ontarians in the province according to last census, many don’t take advantage of their right, by law, to service in French. According to Mr. Boileau many francophones find that it is often easier to simply “se débrouillé” or muddle their way through in English than to make the effort to obtain service in French. Francophones in the audience agreed, observing that even when signage indicated bilingual service, often it was unavailable. In spite of these barriers, Mr. Boileau challenged the audience to demand their rights, saying that being Francophone in an English society is a “choix quotidienne” – a daily choice that is essential to maintaining their identity and their rights.
Dr. François Paré, professor at the University of Waterloo in the department of French Studies and Governor General’s Award-winning author, opened his talk on the historical role of French culture in Ontario with words from the preamble to Ontario’s French Language Services Act, adopted in 1986: “Attendu que la langue française a joué en Ontario un rôle historique et honorable… l'Assemblée législative reconnaît l'apport du patrimoine culturel de la population francophone et désire le sauvegarder pour les générations à venir.” According to Professor Paré in spite of these words, the reality is that many Ontarians believe that the history of the region “began with the Loyalists.” Beginning with early 17th century writing, Prof. Paré traced the vital cultural role that Francophones have played in the history of the province, noting how this past year marked 400 years of Franco-Ontarian literature.
One of Ontario’s most noted contemporary Francophone contributors to this body of literature, playwright Michel Ouellette, was on hand to speak about the themes that have dominated his work over the years. Referring to several of his plays that have followed the lives of the Bédard family, first introduced in his Governor General’s Award-winning play French Town in 1994, Mr. Ouellette highlighted the connection between language and identity. In Mr. Ouellette’s Guerre au Ventre, the link between language and life becomes overt as the oldest brother uses words – “la parole” – to keep himself alive after receiving a bullet wound to the stomach. While language has not been Mr. Ouellette’s only theme, it has been his most compelling. In perhaps one of the most succinct expressions of the day’s themes, Mr. Ouellette explained his motivation for the device used in Guerre au Ventre: “On reste en vie,” asserted Mr. Ouellette, “parce qu’on parle.”