Laughter beyond provincial borders Celebrating Canada’s diverse francophonie through comedy

“A very visceral community experience of laughing together…just a communal human experience of sharing the witnessing of stories,” says Franco-Manitoban comedian Micheline Marchildon about her hopes for what the audience will take away from her set.

Bringing hilarity, fun and culture, Marchildon, along with two other French-speaking comedians, Korine Côté and Mona de Grenoble, will liven York Theatre’s stage on March 9 in celebration of francophone culture – one that is inclusive to all francophone experiences, including that of being a minority in anglophone environments.

“What I experienced [growing up] is that we’re on this island of ‘Frenchness,’ and we’re alone, and we watch Quebecers on TV, and they’re far away,” says Marchildon of her Saint Boniface, Winnipeg roots. “There’s this weird little insecurity of wanting the big sister province of Quebec to see us and recognize us…but at the same time being proud of being on the fringe.”

Building connections for the French minority

Organized by The Dialogue Foundation and its collaborators, including Le Centre Culturel Francophone de Vancouver (Le Centre), this upcoming show is part of Les Rendez-vous de la Francophonie (RVF), a month-long, Canada-wide event starting on March 1 that showcases French language and culture. With the theme of “Launch into Discovery,” the 26th edition of this festival fosters new connections and strengthens old ties, just in time for the International Francophonie Day on March 20.

Ajà Besler, executive director of The Dialogue Foundation, says it’s important to build ties to help fight against loneliness for francophones residing in English-dominant cities, especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Micheline Marchildon. | Photo courtesy Le Centre Culturel Francophone de Vancouver.

“There’s so much isolation that we’ve been feeling lately and bringing people together for positive, fun experiences in French just helps break that isolation and build community,” she says.

Having grown up in Southern Ontario as a francophone minority, these feelings of isolation are personally familiar to Besler. For her, humour, as a dialogue-based medium, is crucial to helping the foundation carry out its goal of facilitating conversations within Canada’s various francophone communities, as well as between these communities and the diversities of the broader Canadian society.

“There’s something about humour, about stand-up that makes it one of the easiest art forms to share stories [and] realities,” says Besler. “It’s one of the ways to learn about each other and different experiences…in a way that is accessible, positive, and fun.”

Cultural exchange in and out of Quebec

Besler’s idea of community also extends to those shared between the comedians, some of whom have repeatedly participated in this cross-Canada stand-up tour in partnership with Just for Laughs, now in its 11th year. Marchildon experienced this community first-hand when she met Korine Côté backstage in Manitoba while Côté was on one of the first renditions of this tour. Marchildon’s connection with Côté eventually helped her break into Montréal’s stand-up comedy scene.

“And now I’m going to be touring with her this year, and in a weird way, it’s a full circle,” says Marchildon, while emphasizing how laughter helps people grow and heal together.

When it comes to this year’s line-up, Besler notes the importance of having both Quebecois comedians, French-speaking comics from other provinces, and those who speak to the theme of discovery. According to Besler, participating comedians have found these tours beneficial for their artistic growth, as it presents opportunities to visit communities not often explored.

“We’ve had artists who did shows years ago in rural Manitoba,” says Besler. “It changed their perspective on what Canadian francophonie is, and they now have numbers in their current stand-up act that are influenced by their experiences in these communities.”

Besler further notes that as Quebecois comedians bring their travels home, Quebecers can learn about francophone cultures outside their province. For both Besler and Marchildon, RVF’s line-up of various events, both online and in-person across Canada, encourages curiosity about Canada’s diverse francophonie. For Marchildon, who is also one of this year’s spokespeople for RVF, the challenges of being a part of a francophone minority also brings feelings of pride.

“There’s also a joy [in] the work that needs to be done to maintain a culture and upkeep it,” says Marchildon.

The roots of Vancouver’s French comedy scene

Before RVF, the history of Vancouver’s first French comedy show began in the late 2000s, as Pierre Rivard, the executive and artistic director of Le Centre, recalls his push to extend French language comedy to the west coast. According to Rivard, who became director of Le Centre in 1994, they had already established annual music events in the summer and fall but lacked programming for the winter months – a gap he hoped to fill with French humour.

“There was nothing in terms of having an outlet for French language comedy in Vancouver here on the west coast, or even nothing outside of Quebec at that time,” says Rivard. “So, I went to Montreal in [2008], and I knocked at the door of Just for Laughs.”

Despite skepticism at Vancouver’s market for French-language comedy, Rivard recalls how the first show in 2009 sold out. After organizing the show independently for a few years, it has now evolved into RVF’s national tours. For Rivard, humour remains an important tool for addressing sociological and political concerns within the francophone community.

Mona de Grenoble. | Photo courtesy Le Centre Culturel Francophone de Vancouver.

“True comedy is able to tackle some issues and divisions that exist in society and transgress them and try to create change,” says Rivard, while noting how a lot of Quebecois comedy developed in response to political changes, including those brought upon by the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s.

For Rivard, stand-up comedy’s power indeed lies in this ability to form connections with the audience through relatable content encouraging a deeper thinking of one’s lived experiences. As Quebecois comedy has developed to include a diversity of experiences, from those of immigrants to the queer community, Rivard is looking forward to hosting an openly queer artist, drag queen Mona de Grenoble, for the first time.

“We’re talking about comedy, so we want people to have fun, and at the end of the day, to appreciate the fact that there is a vibrant French language comedy scene in Canada that is not [only] happening in Quebec,” says Rivard.

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