Francophone arts, culture and education expand to new audiences

The francophone community in British Columbia is growing, with roughly 70,000 people whose first language is French, almost 30,000 of whom live in Vancouver, according to the Fédération des francophones de la Colombie-Britannique.

The British Columbian team during the Jeux de la Francophonie Canadienne in 2014 in Gatineau | Photo Courtesy of CJFCB

The British Columbian team during the Jeux de la Francophonie Canadienne in 2014 in Gatineau | Photo Courtesy of CJFCB

With the Journée Internationale de la Francophonie (International Francophonie Day) coming up on the 20th, March is an important month to celebrate and promote the francophone community. Many events will take place all around the world, as well as in the Greater Vancouver area. This is an occasion to show off the major actors of the francophone community and their missions throughout the year.

A blend of tradition and modernity

In Metro Vancouver, francophones have a network that provides a meeting place for all forms of expressions of the francophone culture.

Fitting the cultural mandate is the Festival du bois de Maillardville, which celebrates French-Canadian traditions. Festival du Bois is produced by the Société francophone de Maillardville and is the largest francophone event west of the Rockies. The festival brings together over 15,000 people from all over the Lower Mainland and features artists such as La Bottine Souriante, Lennie Gallant, De Temps Antan and Vishten.

“We are really satisfied. Every year we notice that the anglophone community shows interest in our culture, food and music. Approximatively 55–60 per cent of our audience is anglophone, and this year again we consider that our mission is accomplished – all the poutine is gone!” says Johanne Dumas, executive & artistic director of the Société francophone de Maillardville.

Many francophone cultural organizations look to engage other cultural groups.

Théâtre la Seizième, a unique French-language professional theatre group founded in 1974, creates French-language productions accessible to non-French speakers with English subtitles.

“We want to expand the access to our performances like À toi, pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou by Michel Tremblay, a famous Quebecois playwright, rarely performed in Vancouver. Also it is important to improve our audience’s experience by discovering a different repertoire,” says Esther Duquette, communications and administration director/associate artistic and managing director ofThéâtre la Seizième.

André Lamontagne, a literature professor at UBC, and director of Centre de la Francophonie de UBC and treasurer of La Société historique francophone de la Colombie-Britannique, confirms that students from all origins show interest in French studies.

“There is one language but different cultures within the francophone community. The francophone community is an open one,” says Lamontagne.

More supply than demand

Regis Painchaud, executive director of Visions Ouest Productions, has been promoting francophone cinema in British Columbia since 1993. Among others, there is the Rendez-vous du cinéma Québecois, which takes place in February and March and showcases a wide variety of French-language films.

In addition, Visions Ouest Productions, in collaboration with The Dream Circus/Les Transporteurs de Rêves, offer circus camps and workshops in French for children. They started five years ago with the participation of Benoit Ranger, one of the co-founders of Le Cirque du Soleil. This kind of circus without animals is part of a long tradition in Quebec inspired by Eastern European countries, and involves both theatre and physical arts.

“They started in Québec as street entertainers, jugglers, fire-eaters; 20 years later, the circus profession does not count [less than] 10,000 people,” explains Painchaud.

“Each circus profession has its own history, for example, the stilt-walkers tradition comes from the plasterers who needed to reach [great] heights,” explains Painchaud.

Despite the large range of cultural events, the audience is not always present in Vancouver.

“There is an amazing francophone cultural offering in Greater Vancouver; unfortunately the supply exceeds the demand,” says Painchaud.

One explanation might be the fact that francophone newcomers, such as working travellers, are not necessarily interested in joining a francophone community since they mostly come to the West Coast to totally immerse themselves in anglophone Canadian culture. Painchaud says another explanation may be the price of the shows or exhibits.

Francophone associations are struggling to maintain a dynamic network and they need to reach out to other communities by developing a Francophile community, explains Painchaud.

Francophonie expansion through education

In addition to cultural offerings, the francophone community is also growing through education.

Damien Hubert, executive director of L’Alliance Française de Vancouver, notices the growing interest from Asian communities in French culture, especially from Chinese communities. Per session, he says, there are approximately 500 children of Chinese origin who learn French. Newcomers who learn French are mostly driven by the will to get a better education and for their children to speak the two official languages of Canada, besides their mother-tongue.

“Bilingualism lives through immigration,” says Hubert.

L’Alliance Française also hosts events like the Movie Club, showcasing francophone movies with English subtitles, operas featuring anglophone singers singing French songs and even French theatre with English surtitles. The French culture is also honoured with an Apéros-chics event every last Friday of each month.

Rémi Marien, general manager of the Conseil de la Jeunesse Francophone de la Colombie-Britannique, believes that immersion schools can further develop local francophone communities.

“We want to go beyond the francophone community by developing a French-speaking community. So a child, even if he lives in an anglophone community, will have the chance to learn French at school,” he says.