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October 12, 2000 Ontario's francophones face identity crisis




by Caroline Plante

"What does it mean to be a French-speaking Canadian?" asked Monica Heller, a guest lecturer from the University of Toronto, who addressed some 25 graduate students at Concordia on September 20. “The fact of the matter is, English is still crushingly dominant.”

Heller is not a militant péquiste or a die-hard separatist, she’s a scholar at U of T’s Centre de recherche en études franco-ontariennes. For 18 years, she has been studying the identity crisis within the Franco-Ontarian population. Her talk here, called “Alternative Ideologies of la Francité: the Margins Talk Back,” was part of a series of interdisciplinary lectures and symposia organized by the Humanities graduate program.

“In Ontario, there are tension and confrontation that come with ethno-linguistic nationalism,” Heller said. “There is pressure to construct a monolingual space within the community because the outside world is dominated by English.”

The fact that Franco-Ontarians often speak more than one language makes it especially difficult for them to form an identity, said Heller.

“One of the ways the marginalized deal with being marginalized is by creating solidarity. But the problem is that if you master the dominant language, you risk losing the support of your peers,” she said.

The author of Linguistic Minorities and Modernity said there is pressure within the Franco-Ontarian community to speak the same kind of French. Heller referred to this pressure within the youth community as “class warfare.”

At school, kids who speak Parisian or international French, québécois, Creole or Cajun French often feel they are being unfairly judged by their teachers, who follow a standard set of guidelines to grade them.

“There is a strong pressure toward purism,” Heller said. “There’s an elite notion that proper French should be Parisian French and that languages should not be mixed. No code-switching [is tolerated]. The Harris government puts tremendous pressure on teachers to do everything the same way.”

Heller calls Franco-Ontarians “the new francophones,” since they are no longer a homogeneous group of francophones descended from New France, as they once were. Now francophones come from all over the world.
“Times are changing. Which French is the best? Which French should be taught in schools? Is my French superior to your French? We have to deal with something much more diverse.”

Lucie Lequin, chair of the Études françaises department at Concordia, drew a parallel between Franco-Ontarians and French-speaking students at Concordia.

“These students are trying to maximize their education,” Lequin said. “It’s very enriching for them to be exposed to other cultures.”

But Heller said students who are downgraded because their French is different get discouraged, and often end up turning to English because it’s ‘less complicated.” Some even drop out of school, she said.

The next talk in this series will be held in March. “Since humanities is interdisciplinary by nature, and because the audience is so mixed, we try to invite a variety of guests,” said organizer Catherine Leclerc.

“Our next guest speaker is Suzanne Jill Levine from the University of California in Santa Barbara. The title of her lecture will be “From Translation to Biography: On the Margins of Manuel Puig.”