Canadian Youth for French - Finding Its Way
Thanks to the research that I outlined in the previous blog post, I knew that presentations promoting the benefits of bilingualism was what was our country needed, but as there wasn’t enough time, or money, to organize a presentation tour in the 2009-2010 fiscal year, we decided that it would be best to validate my ideas by organizing two youth conferences and performing some more targeted market research, in March of 2010.
One youth conference would be in Québec City, and bring together about 50 postsecondary youth from around the country, while the second would be in Moncton, and bring together about 20 high school youth from our Maritime provinces.
The format was identical in both conferences, in that we organized a couple of group activities, and held several roundtable discussions that allowed participants to discuss, amongst various other topics: the benefits of learning the French language, and about the French-Canadian culture, the stereotypes that exist between French and English-Canadians, organizations promoting bilingualism in Canada, and innovative programs to promote French.
Discussions were lively, and many great debates were sparked… The energy at both conferences was palpitating!!!
One of my favourite moments happened during our discussions on stereotypes at the Québec conference.
We split participants up into two main groups, anglophones and francophones, and we gave them time to discuss amongst themselves what they, and their peers, thought about the other group.
When it came time to present their findings to the rest of the participants, it came as no surprise to me that the anglophone groups would bring up baguettes, cigarettes, striped shirts, berets, and frogs… We all got a kick out of that…
But what really surprised me was what came next.
One of the francophone representatives stood up and started by saying that when you walk into a house in English Canada, each living room will have a fireplace, and above the fireplace will be a big picture of the Queen!
I was in shock!!! There was no way they could think this!! But he continued by saying that at least once per day, we all sit down for tea time…
Everyone on the anglophone side of the room burst out laughing, and we had to clarify… They couldn’t be serious!
So we asked, and not one person on the francophone side of the room was laughing like we were… They were a little perplexed as to why we were in hysterics, and they were all in agreement that this was the reality that English-Canadians lived in!
It was at this moment that I truly realized just how ridiculous so many stereotypes are, and that they’re often there solely because they were passed down from generations past!
I’m going to write another blog a little later about some of the stereotypes that I’ve witnessed over the years, but I thought this one’d make for a good teaser 😉
Year 1 Conclusion:
When the time came to summarize our findings, there were three proposals that came to the surface:
1) Canadian Youth for French should organize presentations in English-Canadian high schools to make students more aware of the benefits to speaking French as an additional language.
2) Canadian Youth for French should develop an interactive website on which youth can interact, shares stories, and become introduced to the post secondary opportunities that are available to them in French across the country.
3) Canadian Youth for French should launch an initiative that would bring together high school students from across the country. CYF Games is what was proposed.
With this information in hand, we went back to the Department of Canadian Heritage, and proposed another project: The Canadian Youth for French Pilot Presentation Tour
The Presentation Tour:
CYF was awarded its second grant in 2011, and in May, the team set sails for my old stomping grounds in Southwestern Ontario.
The primary goal was to inspire a greater appreciation for French amongst senior high school students by sharing personal stories on the benefits of learning French as an additional language, but at the end of each presentation, we invited any students who were interested in pursuing a future in French to get in touch with us, and we’d help them find post-secondary opportunities in French through a personalized mentorship service.
I ended up speaking to more than 5000 students, through 18 presentations, and the feedback that we got from the majority of students was great! There was a lot of information that they weren’t aware of, and a lot of them came up to me to say that they wished they’d continued in French… To which I had to respond that it definitely wasn’t too late, of course 😉
As great as the feedback was from senior high school students, we realized that there we had quite the challenge ahead of us, from somewhere that I never could have predicted: French teachers!
If CYF were to roll out national presentation tours, the vast majority of costs were going to have to be subsidized by private sponsors, as they would be too great for taxpayers to cover. Moreover, it was always my intention to create an organization that would be self-sustaining, and independent from public funds, but we needed public seed money to prove the concept.
As I didn’t start to learn French until I was 23, and knowing that most junior high school students weren’t mature enough to start thinking about a future in French, I had no interest in talking to grade 9s and 10s.
This was one of the reasons that I wanted to speak to grade 11s and 12s, but the other reason that I wanted to speak to them was because they were about to leave their families, and become consumers.
In the next 1-2 years, they were going to be choosing which university or college they would go to, and they would be thinking about where they would live, what they would do, and who they would work for. Things that were too distant for junior high school students to be thinking about.
Because of this, post secondary, French-language opportunity providers would be interesting in sponsoring the tours, thereby providing the organization with the private funding necessary to subsidize the costs that would be too great for the public to finance.
I wasn’t just speaking to senior high school students because that’s what I wanted to do, I was doing it because it was the only way to make the project viable.
Unfortunately, most educators couldn’t wrap their heads around this concept, and many of them wouldn’t allow us into their schools unless we spoke solely to junior high school students. In their minds, it was too late for senior high school students.
Their view makes sense, and I can empathize with them as their main goal is to bilingualize as many students as possible before the end of high school. In fact, this is one of the main baselines as to how our country measures its success in official languages… How many students were in a grade 11 or 12 French immersion program? How many students took core French classes through to grade 12?
Nobody looks at what happens to those students when they leave high school… Nobody cares if they continue to study in French, or even maintain the capacity that they gained throughout high school… And for those who realize the value of speaking French after high school? Well, most educators would say it’s too late… You should have continued with French in high school!
A disproportionate amount of resources goes into supporting elementary and secondary French language educational programs, and not nearly enough goes into post secondary educational programs.
This was one of the most frustrating times of my life!! I saw our efforts as being complementary, as they pushed students up through the system, while I pulled them out through the top once they leave high school, but most of them saw me wasting time and money… They refused to see where I was coming from, and it was extremely difficult for me to make any headway!
I’ve erased the majority of those negative experiences from my mind, but by the end of that project, I made a vow to never enter into the school system again… If you could see me writing this right now, you’d probably be able to see steam coming out of my ears, it made that much of a mark on me 😉
Recognizing that it was impossible to create a self-sustaining organization based the presentation model, I needed to find another business model on which I could build the organization on.
The surprising part about this second project that was funded through the Department of Canadian Heritage was that there was a strong demand for the mentorship service that we encouraged students to inquire about at the end of our presentations.
We weren’t set up to be able to respond to all of the demand, but once we recognized that it was there, we realized that we could create a business model that promoted post secondary, French-language opportunity providers to youth around the country.
Year 2 Conclusion:
Instead of person-to-person mentorship, we would bring all of the opportunity providers throughout the country into an interactive, web-based platform that Canadians could use as their one-stop-shop for everything French in Canada, thereby adding even more substance to the second recommendation that came out of the youth conferences.
It was at this point that the idea for the Discover Zone was conceived, and the organization would spend the better part of the next three years in trying to get this model off the ground.