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Building identity in Quebec: a promising start in Pontiac in 2011

Association canadienne d'éducation de langue française (ACELF)


Since the summer of 2010, the Association canadienne d'éducation de langue française (ACELF) and the Fédération canadienne des directions d'école francophone (FCDEF) have been working with the Hauts-Bois-de-l'Outaouais School Board to set up an identity-building pilot project in Quebec's Pontiac region. The project aims to provide assistance to the administrators and staff of six elementary schools and one secondary school whose student bodies have all the characteristics of a student body in a Francophone minority community. A series of four articles looks at the nature of this unifying project and its benefits for local students.

Strengthening Francophone pride to foster student success

Since 2010, the administrators of the seven schools of the Hauts-Bois-de-l'Outaouais School Board in the Pontiac region have recognized the uniqueness of the student body: a largely Anglophone environment, a high rate of exogamy (one Francophone parent and one Anglophone parent), a poor knowledge of Francophone culture and a feeling of inferiority because of speaking French.

By the end of the 2010-2011 school year, the administrators had come to a realization: they needed to strengthen students' pride in being Francophone in order to foster their academic success. This has become the objective for the coming years—and work has already begun!

Establishing a clear and accurate profile of the student body

School administrators carried out a student survey during the 2010-2011 school year to establish the language and identity profile of the student body. The survey helped them identify challenges and design strategies to implement in September 2011.

"We wanted to lay the groundwork and to have a solid foundation from which to work," explained Denis Rossignol, principal of Sieur-de-Coulonge High School. The survey will also make it possible to measure and document progress from year to year.

Making it a priority to use Francophone cultural references

Thanks to the partnership with the ACELF and the FCDEF, school administrators and educators have already identified several ways to increase student pride in the French language and the Francophone culture.

First, "we realized that students are not learning French, they are learning IN French," said Lorraine Meilleur, principal of the Pontiac elementary school—a seemingly subtle distinction, but one that makes all the difference. Indeed, French courses are not the only place students can be introduced to Francophone culture and develop a taste for the French language: "Administrators and educators now realize the importance of including Francophone references in all subjects; doing so fosters the positive integration of French into students' lives," explained Claire Thibideau, director general of the FCDEF. Teachers simply need to develop the habit of choosing examples from Francophone contexts in their courses."

Encouraging proper spoken French while valuing diversity

Lorraine Meilleur also pointed out that, since September 2011, educators have been working more on spoken French. "It was a light-bulb moment for those of us who are used to focusing more on reading." If students improve their language skills, they will be able to express themselves better in French and thus get much more enjoyment from discovering the language and feel more interest in succeeding.

"But it is very important not to put down students and the way they speak, because this will reinforce feelings of inferiority," said Ms. Thibideau. Isabelle Nadeau, a Grade 5 and 6 teacher, understands that she has to "encourage students to speak a standard French at school so that everyone understands each other, while at the same time making them proud of their accent." In this respect, educators and teachers are role models. "That means I have to pay attention to the way I speak and use the right words," added Isabelle. The support provided by the ACELF and the FCDEF is intended to equip educators for that very task: to serve as role models for students.

Doing things differently

"We know that teachers and other stakeholders already have an enormous amount of work. It's not about doing more, but about doing things differently. That's the goal of the identity-building exercise that we undertook with the School Board," Ms. Thibideau continued. This exercise complements current programs, one of which is the Quebec ministry of education's New Approaches, New Solutions intervention strategy.

These are just a few of the numerous measures and actions designed to foster academic success and identity building for Francophone students in the region. The ACELF and the FCDEF draw upon an expertise in identity building acquired over the last 10 years to help school administrators and educators move forward at their own pace. Many of them want to better adapt to the needs of their students who, despite living in Quebec, are growing up in a region where French is not the language of the majority.

Today, an entire educational community is uniting and working together to offer students in the Pontiac region the tools to succeed and to live their Francophone identity fully.