Canadian Youth for French - The Beginning
When I went back home for my last Christmas break in university, I began to think about what I was going to do after graduation.
My main source of motivation throughout my undergrad at Laval was derived from my desire to become a chartered accountant (CA)… Not necessarily to become a full-time accountant for life, but more to have all of the knowledge that comes with being a CA, so that I could have a superior level of understanding on how business works.
In becoming a CA, you pretty much have to give up any sort of personal life for at least three years (and probably many more) as you study to write the Canada-wide exit test, and as you get your feet wet through practical experience.
I knew that I was going to head back out West for these three years, at least, to become a CA as the way they go about training CA’s out there was much better suited to my learning style, and because I missed the west, so I kinda wanted to take a bit of time off of school before sacrificing even more of my life for my professional career.
I was going to be graduating in June of 2009, and I figured that I should take a little break before heading back to the grind in January of 2010. That meant I had about 6 months to travel, explore, and spend time with friends and family…
But what was I going to do? I needed some money to do anything, but a regular job was pretty much out of the question as I was only going to be around for about 6 months.
One night, as I was sitting in front of the computer in my parents’ basement, I had the idea of sharing my story with high school kids… People seemed to find my path to bilingualism pretty interesting, and I thought to myself that I could maybe share it and inspire a couple of kids to do something similar…
But, where was the money going to come from???
At this point, I began looking into who finances activities in high schools, and who could finance something that had to do with French…
It took me a couple of hours, but I eventually stumbled on the Department of Canadian Heritage within the Government of Canada…
Browsing through their website, and various articles in the media, I came to learn that the Canadian Government was spending more than $121 million dollars on the promotion of linguistic duality every year 😮
There were two reasons I found this interesting:
1) That’s a ton of money!!!
2) In all of my years wanting to learn French, and then learning French, I didn’t see one penny of the $121 million in annual spending… Where was it going, and who was benefitting from it?
It was at this point that I realized there was a huge disconnect between what was being done for official languages in Canada, and what the Canadian public thought was being done…
When I returned to Université Laval after the break, I asked to meet with the Direction of the business faculty in order to see if they could sponsor a little project so that I could do some market research for them back in Ontario.
They eventually agreed to provide me with $5,000 so that I could prepare and give presentations in four high schools back in my home town.
So in May, a recruiter from the faculty and I rented a vehicle and went on a little road trip to see what was going on in a typical, English-Canadian high school…
What I learnt from my first project:
It didn’t take long for me to confirm what I expected… The students had no idea what was being done for official languages in Canada, nor did they understand why!
But there were some other things that I learnt as well, and the three main lessons came from my interactions with students in what is perceived by many to be the worst school in my hometown.
When talking to the principal and teachers at this school, a few of them brought up one of their students who was going places… Valedictorian, top marks in her class, student council, soccer star, etc… She also had a keen interest for learning French, and because of that, she chose to go to university in Québec… This was awesome news!! The problem: she chose Bishop’s University; an English-language university about two hours East of Montréal, in Sherbrooke.
I have nothing against this school, and in fact, I think it’s a pretty great university, but when I finally met her, I asked her what her main motivation was for choosing Québec/Bishop’s and she said that she wanted to learn French.
It was at this point that I kinda sunk down a bit… In choosing to go to an English-language university, it was going to be extremely difficult for her to pick up French…
When I shared my story with her, and told her that the best way to learn French was to actually dive head first into studies in French, she became a little bummed out too…
She proceeded to tell me that had she know that studying at Université Laval, or Université de Montréal, etc. was an option, she definitely would have chose one of them, but she didn’t know, and she was already committed to Bishop’s!
This scenario is all too familiar, no matter where I am in the country. After the majority of presentations that I give to high school immersion students, there’s always a few people that come up to me, super excited to share the fact that they’ve committed themselves to McGill university, so that they can be in Montréal, and continue to improve on their French base.
Unfortunately, the odds of becoming bilingual, or maintaining a bilingual capacity, while going to university at McGill, in Montréal, aren’t all that great!
First of all, in school, most of the programs are given in English only, which means that one's social circles will tend to be in English outside of the classroom as well. Neither of these facts is going to help.
Second, as Montréal is considered one of the most multicultural cities in the world, the vast majority of its population speaks English, so no one is forced to speak French… And when we’re not forced to do something, we’ve gotta be extremely motivated to do it… Considering all of the other stresses that come with studying in university, and being from outside of the province, becoming bilingual, or maintaining a bilingual capacity often gets pushed down on the priority list, it’s only normal.
It’s not impossible, it’s just highly unlikely.
It’s pretty well known that girls tend to be the ones who are most likely to become bilingual, and/or be interested in taking French in school.
But after one of my presentations, as everyone was leaving the classroom, I saw a young guy hanging around… Once everyone had left, he came up to me and said “I’d really like to learn French, but I hate school, and I don’t want to learn French in a classroom… Is there any way I could learn French outside of school?”
First of all, I had to give credit to the guy… Not a lot of young, high school guys would admit an interest in French, and after understanding that he really wasn’t a very good student at all, I asked him what his interests were outside of school.
He told me that he’s a huge hockey fan, that his favourite player is Steve Stamkos, and that he loves skiing.
I said “Skiing? Do you know that some of Canada’s national ski teams are based in Québec, and that they’ve got a lot mountains to ski on there? Like real mountains, not the converted garbage dumps that we have around London?”
He said no, not really, so we had a bit of a discussion about the possibility of him going to Québec over the christmas break, and taking part in a ski school to get introduced to French outside of the classroom…
This was an introduction to another lesson that I’d come to learn over the next few years… Almost all youth that I speak to think that the only way to learn French is through school…
There are plenty of ways to learn a language, and they don’t all require language classes in a classroom!! Throwing oneself into a true, French immersion environment, as scary as it might be, can lead to many unexpected, and positive results… And learning a language through something you’re passionate about in is always much more interesting and efficient that having to listen to a teacher in a classroom.
One of the other things that is pretty well know about studying in French in high school is that it’s usually for the “smart kids”... French is often seen as “elitist” and although these assertions have been proven time and time again to be false, they still exist!
When the principal was telling me which classes I’d be speaking to, she apologized a few times because the only class that she could fit me into during period two was a grade 9, applied French class… As this was the first year of high school, French was mandatory for all those who weren’t exempt, and the fact that it was in the weakest academic stream meant that I’d be speaking to some of the “worst students” in the school. And seeing as it was the “worst school” in the city, I was going to be in for something special.
This didn’t bother me at all however, seeing as my high school days, combined by my years in depression, allow me to relate fairly well with this demographic.
But, to give you an idea of just how interesting it was, during the middle of my presentation, one of the guys from the back of the class stood up, walked to the front, and started talking to the girl who was sitting right in front of me… This in itself was a little shocking, but the fact that he literally stood right in front of me, with his back to me, while talking to this girl caught me off guard.
He literally blocked my view of 80% of the classroom, and his talking made it impossible for me to speak… The teacher, who happened to be a substituting that day, was speechless… We looked at each other in disbelief, and then she collected herself enough to get him to sit back down.
After that there were the regular classroom shenanigans, but when I went around to collect a questionnaire that I’d handed out at the end of my presentation, I noticed that one of the girls who gave me her sheet had a huge safety pin pierced into her hand… Not just through a bit of skin, from the palm through to the back of her hand, deep in the webbing between her thumb and her index finger… And she was super proud to say that she did it while listening to my presentation… Wow!!
As I continued picking up the questionnaires around the classroom, I came to a girl that was sitting all alone in the back corner… She was wearing grubby black sweatpants, with a baggy hoodie… Her greasy hair had been dyed red few months ago, so her dark roots were pretty prominent… And her face was full of the dreaded acne that plagued my early high school days…
In this city, in this school, in this classroom, this is the type of person that nobody would look twice at… She’s one that would have already been cast off by teachers, employers and even most of her peers.
Yet, when I took a look at her questionnaire, which she filled out in a big orange marker, she asked some serious and relevant questions… Can I learn French, even if I’m not good in school?... Where can I learn French outside of school?, etc.
I’ve really gotta find that questionnaire, and I know I kept it, but it’s somewhere in my grandpa’s basement, amongst a ton of other documents.
This being said, it’s pretty easy to identify those who take a questionnaire seriously, and who are sincerely interested in the topic at hand… And this girl was the most interested of everyone that I spoke to during that adventure!
French isn’t discriminatory… It doesn’t know how well someone is at school, or if they’re well connected outside of school, or if they’re an athlete, an artist, or a couch potato.
In this girl, I saw myself… This is the story that motivates me the most to do what I do!
In this girl, I saw someone who could have been struggling with depression, who could have been having problems in school, who wasn’t taken seriously by many, but who knew, deep down inside of her, that could do better than what society had planned out for her.
She just needed to find someone who believed in her, and to find an environment that would bring out the best in her!!
And I’m convinced that if proper support structures were in place, and if she was aware of the options that were available to her, she would have been able to find herself in French!!!
Back to Université Laval:
With these anecdotes in hand, but mostly with the results of the questionnaire, I went back to the University, shared my findings, and we created a plan to take things to the next level.
At this time, thinking that the only problem was a lack of communication between the government and the Canadian public, I came up the the idea of creating a not-for-profit organization which would have teams of presenters who would go around to high schools to inform students of what the government was doing for French in Canada, and introducing them to some of the benefits of bilingualism.
The great part about this plan was, in speaking to senior high school students, postsecondary opportunities in French (language schools, colleges, universities, employers, etc.) would pay to sponsor the tours, thereby rendering the organization independent from public funds.
The problem with this plan was, without a proven business concept, it was all but impossible to get sponsors on board… I needed to go through the department of Canadian Heritage to get the seed money that would allow me to prove the concept, and eventually become autonomous.
Luckily for me, I had a friend who had a contact at Canadian Heritage, and when we sent my plan to her, she put us in contact with someone who was in charge of project funding through the department.
Pitching to the Department of Canadian Heritage:
I’ll never forget that first meeting I had with two members of the Department in Ottawa!
They had no idea who I was, and I had no idea about anything that involved the government…
I went into the meeting with my personal story about learning French at Laval, some statistics from my market research in the high schools, and my plan to roll out presentations across the country, and they listened intently to everything I said.
They were pretty curious, and understood pretty much everything, but at a certain point, they said “This is great and all, but why would we finance your initiative when we already finance another organization that’s doing something similar?”
It was a pretty fair question, I asked if they were referring to a specific organization, and when they replied yes, I said “Yeah, I think my grandpa told me about them… They were in London a couple of weeks ago, and this guy was there?” They responded in the affirmative, so I continued… “Yeah, my grandpa also said that the whole conference was in French… So, there’s no way I would have been able to get anything out of it, and the same can be said for about 90% of high school students across Canada… It’s kinda like preaching to the choir, isn’t it…”
As soon as I said this, and I’ll never forget it, they turned to each other, nodded silently in agreement, with big smiles on their faces, and we then proceeded to figure out a way to work together!
This was the moment that Canadian Youth for French was borne, and I would spend the next 5.5 years leading this national not-for-profit organization to great heights.