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All smiles and radiant faces, hundreds of energetic teenagers from 70 Ontario high schools descended on Cornwall last May for the 11th Jeux Franco-Ontariens - the biggest party of the year for Ontario's francophone youth.
Each spring for 11 years, young people age 14 to 18 have met to display their talents in sports and athletics, visual arts, song and dance, improvisation and street performance, and in a quiz on the history and culture of francophone Ontario. The event is organized by the Fédération de la jeunesse franco-ontarienne with the support of some 40 partners. The activities took place in Cornwall's l'école secondaire La Citadelle and l'école élémentaire Jean XXIII.
As in previous years, competitions, workshops, performances and exhibitions provided the springboard for young talent. And above all the event offered an opportunity for youth to get together, chat, make new friends and have fun in French.
Rekindling the francophone flame
"It's great to see young people from all over Ontario," says Joseph Morin, a Grade 12 student and a volunteer from La Citadelle. "At first glance they are all different, but they're also just like me. As part of francophone minority communi-ties we face the same obstacles and difficulties."
Les Jeux are unique in Canada. The participating schools and regions do not compete against each other. Instead, teams are made up of the best from all corners of francophone Ontario. Both individual and team performances are celebrated. The event, created by youth and for youth, is founded on performance, co-operation and pride in the French language and Franco-Ontarian culture.
"We offer students the chance to spend a weekend in French," says the event's provincial director, Émile Maheu, who has participated in the games since their inception. "It was important when I was in high school and it's even more important now. They see that it's possible.
"It's worrisome to hear more and more young francophones speaking English in school hallways and to know that some teachers sometimes resort to English to explain certain concepts."
In such a context it's not surprising that many regard les Jeux as central to the survival of French language in Ontario.
"I'm here because I'm proud to be francophone," said Christine Boudreau, a Grade 10 student from Orleans, as she cheered the volleyball teams. "I'm proud to show that Québécois aren't the only French speakers in Canada."
For Marina Musasiri, from l'école Jeunes sans frontières in Mississauga, these games are a true revelation. "I didn't know there were so many young francophones in Ontario. It encourages me to express myself in French."
While learning to juggle balls in a circus-arts workshop, a Hamilton student at the games for a third time explained, "We are so spread out all over Ontario that we don't see each other much. So it's amazing to get back together at the games each year. Because we are few, it's important for us to preserve our heritage."
At the games, youth make new friends and reconnect with old ones. "The mixed teams mean we automatically meet people from other schools. Someone from Windsor or Hearst could be teamed with someone from Alexandria, Toronto or Timmins. It's part of the magic formula of les Jeux," says Maheu.
Jean-Paul Ricard from Barrie's l'école Nouvelle-Alliance adds, "It's impressive to see young people participate in a festival whose purpose is to promote the French language. It makes us all proud and we are eager to show it."
The enthusiasm and pride seem to breed optimism. "We have a rich history and I'm certain that our future will be just as bright," commented Ghislain Huneault of Collège Notre-Dame in Sudbury.
Whether at an improvisation session, a soccer workshop or recitals for piano, song and dance, these passionate young people bring their disciplines to life. Surrounded and supported by their peers during the four activity-filled days, they seem to lose their inhibitions and test their limits. And in the process they learn a little more about themselves.
These four intensive and passionate days are organized for the young but they also touch the young at heart. Richard Bissonnette, a former school principal with 33 years of teaching experience in the Cornwall area, was obviously moved that former students named him the honorary president of les Jeux this year.
"I think les Jeux will stimulate certain dormant francophones. Our young people often feel isolated in their communities and don't always want to assert themselves in French. Les Jeux rekindle their desire to live in French because they see that it's possible. It's magnificent to see them get involved. There is a camaraderie, a warmth - a joie de vivre that takes hold," says Bissonnette. "When they are together they can do anything. Everything seems less complicated."
The goal of les Jeux is to raise awareness of Franco-Ontarian heritage among young francophones. It is a means of countering assimilation and promoting the development of our future leaders. As Maheu points out, "Les Jeux have become a rallying point among Franco-Ontarian youth. They're a breeding ground for francophone leaders. We invite participants who stand out on the various teams to return as captains the following year, and those who shine as captains are encouraged to be part of the leadership team the next year. Over 500 people have discovered new talents in themselves this way. Past participants are working today for the prime minister, in public relations firms and on a world tour with Cirque du Soleil," he adds.
For Martin Laniel, co-ordinator of street performances (juggling, unicycle and trapeze), les Jeux allow young people to explore undiscovered talents in themselves. Many are encouraged to come out of their shells. He loves to see the pleasure that young people get out of these activities. "I train them for 48 hours and on the final day of the games they perform in front of 800 spectators. They usually come to me as complete beginners but their enthusiasm is unbelievable. They really have fun, and soon they can put on a really impressive show."
Organizers praised the contribution of the local community to the success of les Jeux. "The local committee was excellent. The region's cultural centre invited the well-known Franco-Ontarian band Deux Saisons, which played to more than 300 people the night before the games opened. Many members of the community helped organize the show," says Maheu.
But the games also give a lot to the sponsoring community. Not since les semaines françaises - held in the 1960s when a then-more-numerous francophone population got together to party - has anything of this scale been available to youth in the region.
"It's important that local youth experience what they may otherwise only get from their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents - that they remember the joy that erupts when we get together, like at Christmas. They want to relive those moments and it's up to us to give them the opportunity to do so," says Bissonnette.
According to Bissonnette, the benefits for the Cornwall community are significant and long term. "It's not easy to live in French in Ontario. That's why the city felt that it should make a commitment to support this festival. It helped us a lot and let us use its arena. During subsequent local activities, the city plans to highlight the presence of francophones in this area," he added.
Maheu points out that les Jeux's survival will continue to be a challenge. This year over $300,000 was raised from registrations, sponsorships and grants. "We need a funding framework and partners that are committed to the project in the long term. The big challenge is financing the games - not developing the activities or recruiting and training the best team or having the prettiest signs and sets."
Les Jeux Franco-Ontariens have become such a big event that we couldn't imagine a French-speaking Ontario without them. For 11 years, the whistles and cheers of les Jeux and the thousands of friendships forged among young francophones have injected energy into Ontario's francophone communities and helped to shape the identity of myriad youth.
In 2005, les Jeux Franco-Ontariens will be held in Trenton. For information visit fesfo.ca.