The changing face of B.C. francophone identity

Photo courtesy of Spica Arts.

Photo courtesy of Spica Arts.

The Francophone community in British Columbia and Vancouver has a long and diverse history that is constantly changing. With about 70,760 people in B.C. who have French as their mother tongue, and 298,695 individuals who speak French in total according to the 2011 census, the province can celebrate the vibrancy of a community that has expanded in the last few decades beyond the French and Québecois population to include many other Francophone identities.

Far-reaching roots

Nicolas Kenny, assistant professor in the history department at Simon Fraser University, explains that the Francophone presence in B.C. dates back to the late 18th and early 19th century fur trade where many workers were French-Canadian.

In the early 20th century, the community had geographical cohesion in the form of areas like Coquitlam’s Maillardville, a village founded in 1909 by Québecois workers and their families who were recruited to work at the Fraser Mill.

When post-Second World War suburbanization caused a scattering of the Francophone population to other areas of the Lower Mainland, living in proximity could no longer be counted upon as a pillar of cultural identity.

“The community was really spread out. Because people tended to be isolated, linguistic assimilation was very high,” says Kenny.

In response to the threat of assimilation, the Fédération des francophones de la Colombie-Britannique was formed in 1945, with the aim of lobbying for Francophone interests. First, French immersion programs were established in the province in the 1970s, and Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie-Britannique was formed in 1995 as the province’s French school board.

Diversifying the picture

Despite these historical measures to preserve French language and culture, many current Francophone immigrants from minority communities move to B.C. to perfect their English, believing that gives them an edge in the work force.

Gretta Bissa, 29, is originally from Gabon, and moved from Québec to Vancouver in 2009. Even though learning English was her initial focus, Bissa gained many of her employment opportunities through local Francophone organizations such as the Société francophone de Maillardville (SFM). Their annual Festival du Bois, which just celebrated its 25th year, is the largest Francophone festival on the west coast.

Bissa notes that the cultural diversity amongst the festival’s attendees is a testament to the changing profile of the francophonie in Vancouver.

“There is a diversity in the Francophone community now. There are also other immigrants from other cultures who are already speaking French, and who [should be considered] as French-Canadian,” she says.

Djibouti-born Souad Yassin, 27, is the projects coordinator at SFM, and has lived in Vancouver for three years. Yassin has spent most of her life in Canada, and perfected her English in Alberta prior to moving here.

Though her bilingual status made it easy for her to secure employment anywhere, she delights in being able to work in a Francophone setting in Vancouver.

“I was surprised by the beautiful Maillardville community, and the history here, and being able to work in my first language,” says Yassin.

She points out that a number of her SFM colleagues are originally from French-speaking African countries, and though many have lived in Québec prior to moving here, they feel they have built a unique identity here in B.C.

“All the Francophones I know here do not consider themselves Québecois. The new identity everyone has here is Franco-Columbian,” says Yassin.

Updating history

The Société historique francophone de la Colombie-Britannique (SHFCB) is a volunteer-run organization that is dedicated to the promotion and preservation of B.C. Francophone history.

“One of the things we want to do is to reach out to those Francophone communities that are relatively new in the province to ensure that [their history] is preserved,” says Maurice Guibord, SHFCB president.

The organization is currently networking with minority Francophone communities in the hopes that their members will write down their local history. SHFCB then plans to preserve it in its archives and offer it as a research resource in the brand new office they are currently opening at the Maison de la Francophonie.

Yet, despite the efforts of many Francophone organizations, keeping linguistic and cultural identity alive is a challenge for many minority immigrants. Salim Dakhia is an Algerian-born French teacher who lived in France and Québec prior to settling in Vancouver in 1997.

He recalls that his desire to perfect his English made him almost lose his French in the first six years of living in Vancouver.

He credits a career change from computer science to teaching French, as well as the ever-increasing number of Francophone events in this city with rekindling his connection to his formative cultural identity.

“I remember walking on Robson Street and never hearing French at all, and now it’s more and more common,” says Dakhia.

The will to thrive

However, despite its growing numbers, newer Francophone population in Vancouver is often here temporarily, with many people moving away once they have children, according to Guibord. This means that local Francophone associations struggle to maintain a thriving membership.

Christian Francey, executive director of the Société francophone de Victoria, which organizes the upcoming Festival de la Francophonie (March 6–9), notices a similar trend.

Even though the Francophone community in Victoria has become much more diverse with the relatively recent introduction of North African immigrants, it too is in a continual state of flux.

“Because of the military base there is a big turnover, so it is really hard to have [community] stability,” says Francey.

With Francophone communities scattered across the province and the various areas of the lower mainland, festivals and events gain even greater importance in promoting community cohesion.

“There are a lot of events, more than actual physical spaces that are dedicated [to the Francophone community],” says Kenny, who also serves on SHFCB’s board.

For her part, Yassin sees community events as the lifeblood that will help ensure Francophone survival in Vancouver and in B.C.

“We have to keep it going, otherwise it may die down here in the west coast. We make it possible for everyone to see that French is still alive,” she says.

For more information on the Francophone community and its events in the province, please visit the following: