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Vive la belle Nord

Though small in number, the French community of the NWT has made a lot of progress in a short time. Their biggest fight now is with the territorial government to provide more French language services.

Mike W. Bryant
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Feb 04/02) - North America is like an ocean, says Fernand Denault, and that ocean is English.

"It's just such a dominant presence in that ocean, you have to keep swimming," adds Denault, president of the Federation Franco-TeNoise.

NNSL Photo

Visitors to Caribou Carnival are treated to the famous Quebecois treat, cabane a sucre. JC Brien spreads warm maple syrup toffee over snow. The Caribou Carnival is one of many events the Association Franco-Culturelle de Yellowknife. - photo courtesy of L'Aquilon

"You have to keep fighting. It's not enough to just promote. It's not enough to try and be nice to everybody. You have to be aggressive about your needs and place in society."

Treading water is nothing new for the NWT's francophone community, which consists of about 1,500 people. However, they've had many successes over the last 20 years.

The French community has its own school system, daycare, radio station, and newspaper. But most of the facilities are located in Yellowknife. Cultural events, such as Quebec music star Kevin Parent's performance in Yellowknife 10 days ago, drew hundreds.

But the political process -- the official federal and territorial languages acts -- remains a contentious issue.

The Federation Franco-TeNoise has been waging a two-year court battle to gain better language services from the territorial government.

"Once and a while, we receive the news releases in French," says Alain Bessette, editor of L'Aquilon, the NWTs French newspaper.

"From the federal government, it's systematic (providing press releases in French). For the territorial government, it's once or twice a year."

Denault says the court case was only started because the French want to attain what was granted them under the 1984 Official Languages Act.

Article 14 of the act states that any member of the public has the right to communicate and to receive available services from any head or central office of an institution of the legislative assembly or the government of the NWT in both English and French.

"We see people (non-francophones) participating in our events, and activities of the community, and it's great," says Denault. "We know this is not where the problem is, because very seldom complex political problems stem from ordinary people.

"It's from a few people who have a limited vision of where things are to go. We feel the brunt of that, as the aboriginal people of the Northwest Territories feel that too."

The NWT's francophone community's quest for equality has relatively humble roots.

Before 1978 there was no French federation or associations in NWT to turn to, just discussions at the odd kitchen party.

That all changed when the Association de Culturelle Franco-TeNoise formed in Yellowknife. Even then, however, the main emphasis was on providing entertainment and cultural events to the community.

The real thrust for political organization didn't begin until three years later with the formation of the federation.

A mandate was granted to establish cultural associations in communities, such as Hay River, Inuvik and Iqaluit, while the political agenda was filled by the federation.

"With the coming of official language status, and noticing a few things lacking in that way, we decided we would need to play a role that was more political," says Denault.

Newspaper saved,

radio station opens

One of the first major triumphs for the francophone community was the creation of L'Aquilon in 1986. The newspaper received half its funding from Heritage Canada, and the rest from francophone patrons in the business community through advertising and other fundraising activities.

The newspaper's survival, however, was seriously threatened when Heritage Canada decided to pull out in 1991.

"That year, the newspaper almost fell," says Bessette. "We were expecting $50,000 out of a $100,000 budget. There was panic at that time."

Intense lobbying followed and Heritage Canada restored its funding to the newspaper after a couple of months.

It has been a slow, but steady evolution at L'Aquilon. Gone are the days of cut and paste journalism. A bigger budget, more staff, improvements in computer software, and other technological advances allowed for a much more efficient production layout.

"A lot of things were manual," says Bessette. "We were spending two or three times more to do the layout of the newspaper than what we are doing now. Now we start at 11 (a.m.) and finish at 5 (p.m.)"

The francophone community's access to French media was also expanded when Radio Taiga hit the airwaves last fall. Besides music and other entertainment programming, the station provides newscasts in French four times a week.

Another major accomplishment for the NWT francophone community was the creation of a French education authority, the Commission Scolaire Francophone de Division in November 2000.

Over 10 years in the making, the commission got its start with a handful of students in a portable at J.H. Sissons school in 1988/89. Today, there are 107 students attending Ecole Alain St. Cyr in Yellowknife, and another 23 in Hay River.

Commission president, Jean-Francois Pitre, says the numbers continue to climb.

"We will have to expand if we keep the same rate we do now between 15 and 20 percent new kids every year," says Pitre. "We'll have to expand within two or three years."

Funding confusion

Last year Heritage Canada re-structured its funding formula for francophone associations across the country.

Instead of allowing the federation to disperse funds to the various associations across the NWT, Heritage Canada is dealing with each association individually, which leaves a mountain of paperwork for members to sort through when deciding which projects should be funded.

"We don't know how much there is. We don't know who gets what," says Association Franco-Culturelle de Yellowknife president, says Line Gagnon.

"We have a good rapport with Heritage Canada, but this is very complicated, very uncalled for."

Perhaps the trickiest of all situations is the question of independence for Quebec.

Besides sharing the inner turmoil felt by all Canadians, many francophones living outside of Quebec fear there is much to lose if the province were to separate.

"We are French Canadians," says Bessette. "When they have a referendum, they simply don't care about other francophones, so it doesn't stand right with us.

"We were happy when the referendum was beaten, because if that chunk of francophones was out of Canada, that would be very hard for the rest of the francophones."

Islands in a sea of English, the NWTs francophone community perseveres because of history. A shared one enshrined in the very foundation of the Canadian constitution.

A visit to Gagnon's home in Yellowknife typifies, in many ways, how those who grew up in predominantly French communities have adapted to life where many speak English as a first language.

Gagnon originally hails from just outside the Quebec border, in Edmundston, N.B. She raises her two children, Antony and Yza, with her anglo partner, Chris Rodgers, and his two children, Johnny and Sylvia. A mutual understanding, which is both cherished and respected, has been reached in their home.

"Looking at my kids growing up, they're like sponges. They were bilingual by the time they were two," says Gagnon. "But I never speak English to them and they never speak English to me."

"Both (education) districts offer immersion programs. That says a lot about where we are. That says a lot about the people who live here."

Denault says despite periodic clashes with government, it's all really simple.

"We just want to be a part of the community," says Denault.

"We want to live comfortably in our sense of identity. We want our children to be comfortable and clear in their sense of belonging, and live our lives as happily as we should."