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French immersion: building an identity

Niki Ashton, Member of Parliament
Canadian Association of Immersion Teachers

2011-07-04

I went to French immersion in a community far from any French-speaking centre. I grew up in an immigrant family—where French wasn't spoken—in Thompson, a city in northern Manitoba. I started learning French in kindergarten at École Riverside School and completed high school at R.D. Parker Collegiate. My parents came from Europe—my mother from Greece, my father from England. My brother and I spoke Greek as a first language. This was the environment in which a generation of youth, myself included, were able to learn French and become Francophone. This was the environment in which our identities were forged. French immersion gave us much more than a language: it taught us about our community, our country and our world, and it helped us understand who we are and where we stand in the world.

Immersion helped us understand and embrace our identity as Manitobans. Growing up 800 kilometres away from Winnipeg, far from any other large communities, can make you feel isolated sometimes. Up north, we learned about our own founding peoples: the First Nations people, the Métis, the early settlers and the immigrants. However, the history of southern Manitoba sometimes seemed too far removed from us. Leaning French gave us a better grasp of the history of Manitoba as a whole. For example, we learned a more complete story of Louis Riel, the founder of Manitoba. I also remember my experience at the Festival du Voyageur, through which I gained a better understanding of our province's Francophone roots. And because we knew French, we had much more fun!

Going to French immersion gave me a broader view of what it means to be Canadian. Our teachers came from all over Canada, including Quebec, Acadia, Nova Scotia and Manitoba. Through our experiences with them, we learned about Canada's diversity. We also learned that Francophone regions differ greatly from each other, even though they all have French in common. We learned that accents and vocabulary differed as much as cultures did. What struck me about this great diversity was that we all have our own special place in the Canadian Francophonie.

Learning French also gave me the opportunity to get to know Canada first-hand. While visiting the province of Quebec with my family, I learned about the French settlers and the founding of Quebec and Canada. I remember the visit I organized to the Just for Laughs Museum, which gave me the chance to enjoy Montréal's vibrant culture. Visiting Quebec was important, not only because I could practise French, but also because it helped Quebeckers realize that there are young Francophones in northern Manitoba!

Going to French immersion helped my brother, my schoolmates and me build our identity in the international community. Since I had grown up in a multicultural family, I already knew about my roots and the larger world. But learning French opened new doors. I remember when we exchanged letters with African students in Grade 5. By communicating in French, we learned about their lives. We also became aware of how similar—and greatly different—our lives were.

Because I could speak French, I was able to take advantage of the many opportunities that shaped me as a person. Not only was I able to travel to Francophone regions and countries with more confidence, but I was also able to enjoy interesting professional experiences. As a teenager, I dreamed of working abroad. My dream came true when I was given the opportunity to work at the Canadian embassy in Hanoi, Vietnam. There, I was asked to participate in the preparations for the Francophone Games. A few years later, I worked as an intern at the Canadian embassy in Greece and at the office of the United Nations Development Program in Slovakia. Being multilingual helped me gain work experience abroad and move forward in my career.

Finally, going to French immersion helped me build the foundation and identity that led me to my present career. In 2008, I was elected as the Member of Parliament for the riding of Churchill in northern Manitoba. Since I was the youngest woman to sit in the Parliament of Canada, I had to be well prepared! Because I speak French, I get the chance every day to talk about my riding and national issues in both official languages and this helps me get my message across to both Anglophone and Francophone Canadians. Being multilingual, I can be part of the change process for practices in use on Parliament Hill and across the country.

When I ask questions or give speeches in the House of Commons, I can express myself in both official languages. I will never forget how surprised the Francophone members of Parliament were when they heard me speak French for the first time. That day, I was very proud of all I had accomplished since beginning French immersion!