Hidden from view beneath her Bonhomme Carnaval costume, Anita Corriveau wore a broad smile as she looked out at the crowd of 600, as they patiently waited for the identity of the 55th Bonhomme to be revealed.
Seventeen former Bonhommes joined Corriveau at centre ice at North Bay’s Memorial Gardens Sunday. Two helped remove the head of the costume, revealing the former high school teacher, to the delight of the crowd.
"This was great, all the other Bonhommes coming and saying, ‘I didn't know it was you.’ So, I'm glad when they said I didn't know, way to go, I gotcha."
A teacher at Ecole Secondaire Algonquin for 21 years, Corriveau has always been an active member of the Francophone community, including volunteering with Les Compagnons des francs loisirs.
"It's always thanks for the work done throughout the years, so I was 'Oh, me? Okay, yeah, I'll do that.’ Oh, that's a lot of work " she laughed.
The hardest part for Corriveau was getting in and out of the costume, and getting into a van, one without seats so she could roll in and roll out.
"That was a challenge, but seeing the little ones, Bonhomme Carnaval is more popular than Santa Claus. To them it is just unbelievable," said Corriveau.
"We went to the Sisters of the Assumption. They were so glad. They didn't think the Bonhomme would even think of them. One of them said, 'I think it's a woman’. It was quite an experience."
Traditionally the identity of the Bonhomme is kept secret throughout the French winter Carnaval, until the big reveal. Corriveau's son and a long-distance friend were the only two she told. Keeping her secret was no easy feat.
"One friend texted me and said 'you're Bonhomme Carnaval' and I said 'nooooooo'" she laughed.
She made it a point to be seen places, like the grocery store, so people would notice her out in the community, and not make the connection.
One of the former Bonhommes helping with the reveal was Roger Pitre. Now in his 83rd year, Pitre is the oldest living Bonhomme. The Carnaval dates back to 1963. Pitre says Bonhomme wasn't introduced until the following year. He was selected to be Bonhomme in 1969.
"Because I was in charge," laughed Pitre. "I was the first one to make the Bonhomme, the first head and everything. The head was like a big snowman, and then, of course, the suit was a clown pattern. That was the first set, mind you, now it is all changed."
The format of Le Carnaval has also changed over the years. This year for the first time, outdoor activities were held in North Bay’s downtown.
“In '69 it started off as three or four days. At the very beginning, we had a lot of activities outdoors. We had broomball and hockey tournaments between the schools. It was mostly outdoors. Of course, with the weather we have here, we had to modify the plans," said Pitre.
"It's unbelievable. I was watching the Super Bowl, it was 52 years, we're 55. So, we're actually three years older than the Super Bowl," Pitre jokingly pointed out.
"We never thought it would go to this extent. I'm very pleased to see so many of the young ones are now involved in the organization, along with the participation. It's really something to see. Obviously, it's going to go for a long time yet."
Lou Gagne sits on the Carnaval committee and is a former Bonhomme.
A few nights ago, 23 former Bonhommes were reunited, sharing memories and laughs.
"It was something we started talking about a couple of years ago, so it finally came to fruition. It was so nice to see our longest living Bonhomme, Roger Pitre. He was also a founding member of Les Compagnons. It was wonderful to see so many come together."
Gagne says everyone identifies Bonhomme with Le Carnaval.
"That's our identifying mark. We have no mascot, so when we do something in the community, we bring Bonhomme, even if it is in the summertime. That's what we're known for and he's known right across the community too, so that's the beauty of it. We're now third and fourth generation attending. I'm a kid of the Carnaval. When it started I was just three years old, so I've known nothing but the French Carnaval."
School-aged children sang and danced at Sunday’s event, entertained by the band Hey, Wow.
The Carnaval officially wraps up Wednesday.