How do we preserve French culture?
I am a former French immersion student, and have no French background, no ancestry rooting back into the first Acadian settlers of Nova Scotia, no ties to the French. Meanwhile, I am concerned for the state of French within our province and across our country, given that French is an official language of Canada and it was a path I chose to continue to study. The culture, from as far as I can see, is slipping.
The French are classically portrayed as beret wearing, ascot sporting, baguette eaters with a hint of poutine on the side, but the French have a much richer ancestry. Many of your favourite dishes likely came from French cuisine, a huge component of the arts was inspired by and produced by the French, and, of course, they are responsible for creating the language of love. Canada often advertises itself as a bilingual nation, but short of direct interactions with Quebec or France, I see little to no promotion of French by the government. This could be due to the fear of the Québec and their separatist desires, but if anything, the promotion of French across the country would discourage such a move.
During my work placement last year, it was brought to my attention that there was a high demand for French teachers in Halifax, even as far as the end of September. The doors began to swing wide, accepting people with minimal French backgrounds as educators for those who wish to pursue it. That’s a problem. If people who are not well versed with the language are being hired on to instruct others, we immediately see a major decrease in student ability and comprehension, unless students take the initiative themselves. While I love the idea of maintaining the French program, it should not be kept or promoted if it isn’t going to be strong and well-run.
Moving to the local French, the Acadians cultivated the land and developed strong irrigation systems that have been adapted to use in the modern day. Many of the art pieces (the stars you see on so many homes across the province as an example) and structures we see across Nova Scotia are adaptations, if not direct representation, of the Acadians, and while there are museums and hot spots for Acadian culture, unfortunately there is little to no funding, and upkeep and maintenance is lacking. The understanding behind these symbols is also being lost, the star being a direct representation as the household being Acadian and not just French, but many people see it as purely design. There are some reports out there that suggest the star was the French equivalent to a wind chime in that it was believed to protect homes from evil spirits, but that could be individual beliefs rather than representation of the Acadians at large.
There was recently a panel on how to protect the Celtic heritage at the Bauer, but I think the same conversation needs to be had with French. Yes, it isn’t as discouraged or oppressed in our region such as that of others, but it is not immune to the greater powerhouse that is English. To paraphrase my mother, she used to tell me events only carry the weight that we give them, which to me is symbolic of what we value. Is age of greater value than the expulsion of the Acadians? We certainly seem to prioritize and celebrate birthdays far greater than moments in history. How about the Congrès Mondial Acadien? A large festival that I can’t say I had heard of prior to this article. I believe my mother’s statement can also be applied to all aspects of life. What do we give weight to?
To fix this issue, I think there should be a greater emphasis on addressing the problem in the first place. With the decreasing number of professionals entering the system to promote French, and an increasing number of students enrolling in Immersion, there is an imbalance. If French were something to be promoted through business, or with incentives, that could encourage the use on a day to day level. There is always a lot of talk on what French can get you and where it will take you down the line, but in my experience, French has only increased my employability minimally.
On a personal note, a friend of mine recently underwent testing to see if she qualified as bilingual for the government and while she did not attain the highest level, she did do well; however, she could not hold a conversation with me. Now I’m not saying I have great French, but I know that I can hold a conversation with first language French speakers. My personal experience leads me to believe that our system is corrupt and that we should be addressing the issues.
If somebody doesn’t do well on the test, that doesn’t mean you can’t hire them, but instead (particularly within the government) offer courses. Recognizing that development of Canada was in large due to Acadians should have been something addressed in the Canada 150 celebrations. There is a lot of talk about the indigenous populations and rightly so, but French became an official language for a reason, and it is seldom addressed.
I am here to say I want more. For some in the country, French is still the only language they speak. French within a community has always been accepted, unlike other languages, but if we fail to embrace it, we risk losing it.