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Les Compagnons des francs loisirs are gearing up to host a slew of events this weekend (Sept 23–25) in celebration of the Festival Franco-Ontarois. With that in mind, we took a look at the history of this prominent organization in the community, the people who work behind the scenes, and their outlook on continuing to promote francophone culture in North Bay and the surrounding area.
In 1963 local teachers Claude Deschâtelets, Simon Brisbois, Jérôme Tremblay started organizing small sports projects for the francophone community in North Bay and area. They roped in their friend Roger Pitre and soon they saw that there was a potential to host many activities for francophone families.
Those were the humble beginnings for Les Compagnons des francs loisirs.
“They showed that it was possible to create a safe haven to be francophone in a principally anglophone community. This was vital work because of the social context of the era,” says Anne Brûlé, the Programming Agent for Les Compagnons.
Between 1912 and 1944, by Ontario Law 17 the only acceptable language for use in schools was English.
“It wasn’t until 1968, that francophones gained the right to open a high school in which French was the primary language of teaching. It was possible to pursue some courses in French at Ottawa University and in 1960 it became possible to study some courses in French at Laurentian University, but it wasn’t until 1990 that a francophone post-secondary institution was created,” says Brûlé.
“There was a lot of bitterness and misunderstandings between the French population and the English population. Many of the continued conflicts around bilingualism and equitable access to services in both official languages stem from this period when there was a targeted effort to assimilate francophones and eradicate the use of the French language from Ontario.”
Arnaud Claude is the Director of Les Compagnons and he says, “Simon, Claude and Jérôme, as the only male francophone teachers in the area, banded together around the creation of an ice rink to host a broomball tournament. From there, gathering friends and colleagues, they continued to organize more sports and soon add other activities. As a group of 8 people in their early to mid-twenties, they formalized the creation of a not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing activities in French on July 13th, 1963. The thrust of the vision is to express the joy of living and the freedom to do so by speaking French. The name roughly translates to The Friends That Have A Lot Of Fun.”
The Francophone community quickly supported Les Compagnons. In 1964 they were incorporated and managed to raise funds to purchase the remains of a burned-down building on Dudley, which became the centre for gatherings, weddings, baby showers and all kinds of community activities. 1964 was also the year they hosted the first winter Carnaval des Compagnons.
“Roger had a vision of creating a Bonhomme like the one in Québec. The ploy was to pretend that Bonhomme from Québec was coming to visit the children in North Bay. He arrived by steam train in 1964 and had so much fun that Bonhomme became Bonhomme Carnaval des Compagnons and is still here 60 years later,” says Brûlé. “In the nucleus of the organization, there were a lot of pioneering individuals who founded other organizations such as La Maison de la Francophonie in Ottawa and l’Auberge des Pioniers near Mattawa. They developed programs for all ages and innovated new activities.”
Les Compagnons continued to grow and through fundraising efforts and grant applications, the organization had its first full-time employee in 1971. In 1982 the first of 8 daycare locations was opened and that’s how Brûlé was first introduced to the organization.
“I was first involved in the organization as a toddler attending the daycare program started by Les Compagnons, then as a participant in community activities,” she says. “I retain fond memories of those early days. Les Compagnons has been a constant in my life and defines in large part what it means to be a part of the francophone community.”
Claude also has experience with the Les Compagnons daycare system but from an administration side. He leads the team as the manager for all 8 daycare locations which serve North Bay, Astorville, Bonfield and Mattawa.
He obtained his Master of Business and Administration through the French Le Havre’s School of Management, which allows him to focus on “enriching its centres with professional artistic programming while creating a stimulating set of experiences for the attendees of the daycares. The strengthened connection between the cultural programming and the daycares offers a unique experience for families and enhances the core development years of the children.”
Brûlé studied Arts d’expressions at Laurentian University and Business Administration at Nipissing University and she says in the past the organization has also been involved with “the North Bay Food Bank, the Jacques Cartier monument, Place Léger Square, the murals which were painted in the downtown area in 1985, the Sundial by the waterfront, and the Champlain park plaques commemorating the 400th year anniversary of Champlain’s arrival to name a few.”
Today, she says the organization offers 3 major annual celebrations; Carnaval, St-Jean and Franco-Ontarian Day.
“Le Carnaval is a year-round project,” says Brûlé. “In January and February, the grant applications for the next year are being written at the same time as the festival is being hosted. March is wrap-up and reporting and by April the team and the organizing committee are already starting to book locations and artists for the next edition. There are hundreds of hours of volunteer work involved and a large number of people who are passionate about the festival that contribute new ideas.”
Brûlé says there’s a lot of thought that goes into offering activities that will meet the needs of various target audiences such as families, adults, schools, senior groups and the 5 municipalities served by Les Compagnons.
“There’s a lot of thought and effort to bring something new every year and to be more welcoming and inclusive. We also develop community partnerships with Club Richelieu, les Chevaliers de Colomb, Centre de Formation du Nipissing, Collège Boréal, Caisse Alliance, the Children’s Aid Society, local schools, libraries and churches, in addition to municipalities, organizations and businesses that all add to Les Compagnons’ core Carnaval programming.”
The St-Jean festival and the Franco-Ontarian day are on a different scale than Carnaval but also require sustained attention over several months to organize.
“The behind-the-scenes is never as glamorous as what the imagination might paint,” says Brûlé. “It is a lot of detail checking, email follow-ups, meetings, discussions, negotiations and adjustments as the situation evolves. Les Compagnons’ festivals and activities have been built on people contributing their time and talent to host or share activities that they are passionate about. All the sports leagues, youth club, baking groups, weaving groups, nature expos, meals, and theatre productions were all initiated by individuals in the community. Les Compagnons acted as a support to make those things possible.”
Claude adds, “Les Compagnons offers arts and culture programming such as shows and workshops to schools within the Nipissing District as well as senior’s clubs and other community groups. We partner with a number of organizations to contribute to local storywalks, the North Bay Science Festival, Culture Days, Canada Day kids zone, the butterfly release and other festivals in the area. Les Compagnons serves as a resource centre for services in French and a platform for francophones to connect. The organization also plays a role in welcoming newcomers to the community through its partnerships with organizations like Réseau du Nord and the North Bay and District Multicultural Centre.”
Brûlé says the Francophone community has been well represented in building what North Bay is today.
“According to archives, the francophone population of North Bay was 47% in 1947. People who have built businesses like Leclair’s Lunch, L’ami, Hillside Funeral Home, Home Hardware, Between the Bun, RFP Media to name just a few. The importance of an organization based on language and culture serves as a rallying point, a way of creating a sense of identity and community.”
She says it is extremely important to keep francophone businesses and events operating in our communities.
“Anyone who has travelled to a country where they do not know the language has a glimmer of what it means to be a minority group on a daily basis. Navigating a world where you don’t hear your language and you don’t see anything written in your language. Where all the traditions and socially acceptable behaviours are different, and you might have to say ‘Sorry, I didn’t know’ a few times. Being Francophone in an English-speaking majority can sometimes feel alienating and make you feel invisible. It is hard to live in a space that shuts out a key part of yourself. A language is alive when it is heard, shared and seen.
"In a mostly English-speaking community, that means that other languages like French are often invisible unless they are in a government-based environment. Unconsciously, our society is saying that it is only acceptable to be francophone in very specific places and even then, a person often has to ask for service in French. Having community organizations like the North Bay and District Multicultural Centre, like Les Compagnons, like the Davedi Club ensures that people can find a safe space to be; to be Francophone, to be of a certain religion, to be interested in something not shared by the majority.”
Claude adds the community events are important because it ensures that artists continue to have a platform to showcase their talents and immerse themselves in francophone culture.
“Les Compagnons’ mission is to enrich the lives of francophones, but this includes people of sorts of francophone expressions; those who are learning the language, those who appreciate the language, those who speak it as their second, third, fourth language, as well as those who are born in a francophone family. Les Compagnons also has in its mission to be a community partner and this benefits the entire community in its activities. Any organization like Les Compagnons speaks to the intangible needs of all humans, to be more than a functioning working cog in a system, the need to socialize, the need to connect, the need to grow, the need to belong,” he says.
Brûlé says there are many advantages to learning French as a second language as well. She says, “It provides stimulation for neurodevelopment. It enriches a person’s ability to express their thoughts and feelings more effectively and completely. Knowing more than one language provides a depth of perspective and understanding that is not possible with only one dialect. Languages carry within them people’s expressions from centuries, their way of expressing concepts, values, ideas, emotions, and even attitudes and thoughts about daily living. Learning an additional language like French can provide insights into another language. The main message that is sent out in the media and often in schools is that knowing French gives you an advantage in the job market. What is missed by that message is the more nuanced advantages that are personally gained when anyone learns an additional language or explores a culture not their own; a deeper understanding and an enriched way to view the world.”
Claude says they hope to see continued support for their organization and the events they put on, not just from francophones but from the entire community. He says, “The most important action that anyone can take to show support for an organization is to be present and that means many things. It means being open to different ways of potentially doing something; flexibility and understanding. It might mean putting aside preconceived ideas about people not enjoying themselves if the music at a venue happens to be in French for a small amount of time. It means participating even if you don’t know the language; feeling confident enough to stay and share in the atmosphere, focusing on the joy of the moment, and moving beyond what might start out as an uncomfortable feeling. Les Compagnons are proud to support our community as much as they can regardless of the language. Supporting Les Compagnons means being aware and helping to make French, and potentially other languages, more visible.”
Brûlé adds, “We are, all of us, learning to be there for each other as a community. It is hopeful because as a society there is more dialogue around knowing more than one language, around hosting events that are not understood by a majority, and about collaborating to build community together, here in Northern Ontario, regardless of language, religion, gender, or ethnic background.”
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