Building Identity

by Rochelle Pomerance

Students in the combined Grade 2-3 class of Nathalie Cléroux, OCT, at École St-Dominique in Timmins developed an illustrated booklet to express their gratitude to a student from École secondaire catholique Thériault (background) who acted as a mentor to them.

Usually, during our city’s winter carnival, a traditional fèves au lard dinner is served. Over the years this event has decreased in popularity, so three of us, students at a French-language high school and members of the carnival’s organizing committee, are trying to revive it. We decided to propose a menu composed of traditional dishes made with broad beans and green beans. These recipes come from francophone countries, the same countries that the members of our community come from. We asked people to prepare a variety of dishes using beans, each according to their tradition. As a result, people taking part in this event had the opportunity to taste a bean tajine from the Maghreb, a Lebanese foul moudammas, a French cassoulet, a bean samsa from Burkina Faso, and of course, the pièce de résistance, the infamous French-Canadian fèves au lard. Following this highly successful gastronomic experience, a chef from the region created a special recipe featuring beans and the best ingredients from the various dishes presented at the carnival supper. He named his creation after our city. The traditional fèves au lard supper will never be the same again. – Julie (16 years old), Yasmine and Joël (17 years old), students at a French-language school

Excerpt from Une approche culturelle de l’enseignement pour l’appropriation de la culture dans les écoles de langue française de l’Ontario, published by the Ministry of Education, 2009

“To be a francophone champion, you must have the same qualities and values as an Olympic athlete. One of these values is perseverance. So you mustn’t give up, you have to keep going.” That’s the message that Carole Girard, OCT, delivered to every class at École St. Dominique, an elementary school in Timmins, at the start of the school year.

To instill pride in her students – pride in their ability to speak French and their francophone culture – Girard likes to use metaphors. “Our school is like a gymnasium for an athlete. It’s where we give you a chance to practise and to exercise your language. It’s a francophone zone, and in this francophone zone, we speak French.”

Girard teaches several subjects, including art, and is a cultural facilitator at the school, which is part of the Conseil scolaire catholique de district des Grandes Rivières (CSCDGR). Many of her students come from homes where English is the primary language and don’t find it easy to switch into French when they’re at school. To encourage them, Girard stresses the importance of a positive approach. “We no longer punish them for speaking English, like we used to. We want this to be long term; we compare it to the game of Jenga,” she says, referring to a game where small wood blocks are used to build a tower. “When the child’s identity is being formed it’s like building the Jenga; instead of scolding or lecturing children, we encourage them to question themselves.”

In the past, says Girard, communities and schools organized activities aimed at promoting a sense of pride in francophone heritage. “Before, we used to say, ‘This is a celebration of the francophone flag; you should be proud!’ But how do you teach someone to feel pride? It has to be experienced! Now, we sit and talk and share the experience. We try to make sense of it for the long term, so that our students really understand the importance of La Francophonie.”

Spontaneous self-expression is essential to the development of a child’s identity, according to Nathalie Marchand, OCT, curriculum consultant with the CSCDGR. Examples of subjects she explores with students include: Where I come from; Why I go to a French school; The happiest time in my life; My roots; What inspires me; What I’m interested in. “You have to seize the opportunity to get students to talk about themselves.”

Marchand’s school board has adopted the Modèle opérationelle de la pédagogie culturelle, a program designed along the lines of the Politique d’aménagement linguistique that the Ministry has sponsored in elementary schools since 2004 (see end note). The process of implementing the program in Ontario’s high schools began in 2009 with focus groups and the development of materials, followed by training workshops that got under way in 2010 and will continue for three more years. Behind this effort is a partnership consisting of the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO); the Association des directions et directions adjointes des écoles franco-ontariennes (ADFO); and TFO, Ontario’s French-language television channel.

At the CSCDGR, Pédagogie culturelle involves specific training for teachers, cultural and pastoral facilitators (as a Catholic board, the CSCDGR has the task of promoting religious as well as linguistic and cultural heritage), school principals, parents and, soon, curriculum consultants. Richard Loiselle, OCT, director of the Politique d’aménagement linguistique for the CSCDGR stresses, “We’re not asking school staff to do more but to do things differently.”

A good example of this is Ça roule du plaisir, a project that originated in Windsor and that the CSCDGR has now implemented. High school students accompany elementary school children on the school bus, encouraging them to sing, tell stories and talk in French. The older students benefit by performing their forty hours of volunteer work and developing leadership skills. The interaction gets the younger children warmed up and ready for their day at school, plus they get to observe older students who are inspiring models.

Survival French for Parents is another project with a double objective: It offers language workshops that help non-francophone parents learn French while having fun and without feeling threatened, so they acquire enough French to understand what their children are learning at school. “I get high school students to lead the sessions with the parents. For parents, it’s a lot less intimidating to do training and development with students than with teaching staff,” explains Marchand. “Last year, one student said, ‘If I can get parents to learn some vocabulary and get interested in what their children are doing at school, it’s the children who benefit in the end.’ It’s worthwhile because the students take charge, asserting themselves as francophones and coming to understand the role they play in society.”

In March 2009 the Centre canadien de leadership en evaluation (CLÉ) published the findings from its assessment of the Pédagogie culturelle project. The results were very positive, stressing the importance of training for high school principals and developing the use of technology. Over 84 per cent of teachers said the principles of pédagogie culturelle were easy to put into practice, while 96 per cent of teachers and students who received training in it said they had implemented it in their classrooms. An overwhelming majority (95 per cent) of those questioned said that all the members of the teaching staff, as well as school principals, should receive training in pédagogie culturelle. Among its conclusions, the CLÉ mentioned that the more than 950 teachers and approximately 50 principals who received training were competent when it came to working in a minority environment, however they had not necessarily received all the follow-up training they required.


Carole Girard, OCT, and Nathalie Cléroux, OCT, work together to set up activities that foster feelings of Franco-Ontarian pride in their students.

“Multi-faceted identity” is a term favoured by Claire Thibideau, OCT. She directs the programs in construction identitaire at the Conseil scolaire de district catholique Centre-Sud, serving a diverse population in a 200-kilometre area around Toronto. Her job is to encourage spiritual development as well as pride in language and culture.

Sixty-seven per cent of the children in southern Ontario are from exogamous homes – meaning that one parent is francophone while the other parent is from a different cultural group and speaks another language (English, in the great majority of cases). For Thibideau the challenge is to be inclusive while acknowledging diversity.

“We prefer to come together over something we have in common: the French language. We create a kind of cohesive blend while making sure that students are aware of Franco-Ontarian history. We’re very inclusive; we encourage students to express themselves on the subject of their origins, their traditions and their feelings of pride, as long as they do it in French.”

This can take the form of elementary school projects exploring four hundred years of Franco-Ontarian history; leadership groups designed to help high school students develop a sense of belonging and an awareness of the “French fact”; and, in collaboration with multicultural organizations in the community, concerts by artists from different backgrounds. “This is to ensure that new-Canadian children are well-integrated in the schools and, conversely, to ensure that our children participate in welcoming them, to allow these students to have a positive experience in relation to the multicultural community,” says Thibideau.

She has high praise for a new document put out by the Ministry of Education: Une approche culturelle de l’enseignement pour l’appropriation de la culture dans les écoles de langue française de l’Ontario (2009). “It’s an excellent document that gives us guidelines to ensure that we incorporate elements of diversity into our schools and classrooms. It refers to a transcultural approach that, for the children, results in a very significant kind of integration.”

Diversity has another meaning for Simon Fecteau, OCT, chef des Services éducatifs du Conseil scolaire public de district du Nord-Est de l’Ontario (CSDNE), which encompasses the vast area from North Bay to Kapuskasing. (It takes seven hours to drive from one end of the district to the other.) Among the communities in the region, there are variations in size, socio-economics, religion, politics and climate. “Making young people aware of the fact that we are all different doesn’t mean that we have nothing in common,” says Fecteau. “What we have in common is that we’ve chosen the French public school system.”

Fecteau is working on a project with singer-songwriter Jean Guy “Chuck” Labelle, encouraging students to express through songwriting what it means to be part of the French public system. “This system is only eleven years old, and the people in it are still searching for their identity. It’s time for us to take a good look at ourselves, at who we are and what we’re doing. We want to encourage our students to reflect on these questions, to develop the feeling of belonging to something.”

Fecteau has an interesting vision of francophone identity and culture in the northeast. “When we talk about things like ragoût de boulettes, we’re talking about something that is no longer a reality for most of our students. New cultures are emerging. It’s important to recognize that this is a new culture made up of two cultures and two languages that have combined to form one. It’s very important to respect that.”

When talking about construction identitaire, it’s not simply a question of language, culture or religion. It’s the approach you take, the climate you create in the classroom, the interactions that make it possible to convey certain values, says Marc Lauzon, Director of Construction identitaire et communications with the Conseil scolaire catholique du Nouvel-Ontario (CSCNO). He gives the example of a high school civics class where the teacher might present a newspaper article concerning an event in the Franco-Ontarian community that may raise political or controversial questions. “In using this kind of text, he’s encouraging students to engage in a different kind of thinking instead of simply reading something generic from a textbook. He’s inviting them to think about the stand that they, as students, are going to take on it.” It’s in that reflection and the discussion that follows that construction identitaire is created, explains Lauzon, adding that, in the past, such conversations simply didn’t take place in the classroom. Now, schools are trying to break with the traditional models where cultural facilitators took care of this aspect and teachers didn’t see it as part of their mandate. “With us, it’s just the opposite. We say that it’s the role of every teacher. The cultural facilitator’s job is to complement the work done in the classroom.”


Author/performer Jean-Guy “Chuck” Labelle (centre) and Joël Ducharme, cultural activities organizer at École secondaire publique Renaissance in Timmins, are working on a project that encourages young people to write songs expressing what it means to them to belong to the public French-language system.

Construction identitaire does more than provide children with an understanding of language and culture, says Carole Deslandes, OCT. “It helps me a lot when it comes to self-awareness and life processes, developing the student’s sense of responsibility and class management and creating a good atmosphere in the classroom. If teachers understood this, everyone would want to do it!” In her combined Grade 3 and 4 class at École St. Thomas in Warren, a school of just 100 students in the CSCNO, she has found the pédagogie culturelle web site, with its seven basic principles and wide variety of exercises and activities, to be an invaluable resource.

Deslandes describes a group of girls in her class who were always getting into arguments. She discussed values, respect, tone of voice, taking responsibility for one’s actions and getting to know oneself. During the first trimester she modelled certain behaviours. During the second she told them to practise what she had demonstrated while she observed. By the third trimester, to solve a conflict these girls would go into the hallway for five minutes and talk, using specific vocabulary: “I didn’t like that. I felt like this. Next time I’d like you to …,” and they were able to resolve the problem on their own. Now, says Deslandes, they almost never argue. “But you have to be willing to invest the time.”

Deslandes stresses the importance of using construction identitaire to give children a solid sense of themselves before going on to develop their cultural and linguistic identity. “Construction identitaire makes them stronger in situations where there’s bullying. Once they get to know themselves well, they’re not so easily intimidated. I start with that and then I move on to another level, one that deals with their francophone identity. Once they’re feeling strong and have really got to know themselves, they’re better at asserting themselves as francophones.”

The challenge is a very different one at the secondary school level. High school students say they attend a French-language school because it will look good on their CV or help them get a job or because it’s what their parents want them to do. Kim Cloutier, OCT, who teaches Grade 11 and 12 students at École Thériault in Timmins, part of the Conseil scolaire catholique de district des Grandes Rivières, outlines the goals she has for her students: “That they learn to like speaking French and living in French, that they become francophone by conviction rather than circumstance, that they recognize the importance of ensuring the survival of La Francophonie.” A real challenge in the north, says Cloutier, where access to French-language media is limited. “We’re surrounded by media – music, movies, magazines – that aren’t in French. It’s difficult for them to like French music because they’re not familiar with it. It’s a real challenge, but it’s why I always talk about leadership. I always tell them, ‘A leader is not for easy times but for times that are tough. To really demonstrate your leadership you have to persevere even when things are difficult. You have to forge ahead and be sure to do your part.”

For Cloutier, cultural activities are an excellent way to connect students with their language and culture. Last year she was involved in staging a scaled-down version of L’Écho d’un peuple, the mega-musical retracing 400 years of francophone presence in America, with 250 high school students acting, singing, dancing, and juggling.

But Cloutier knows that the results and rewards sometimes come much later. Proof of that, she says, is a former student who was far from being a model student. The student returned to visit the school, proudly announcing that because of the education she received in the French-language school system, she is raising her children in French and has given them French names, even naming one of her children after a teacher she had at École secondaire Thériault.


Claire Thibideau, OCT, directs the CSDCCS identity-construction programs. Her challenge is to see that everyone is included, without losing sight of diversity.

Note: For information on the Politique d’aménagement linguistique, see Pédagogie culturelle in the June 2009 issue of Pour parler profession.

Capitaine Franco

Touring École Lorrain in Bonfield

When it comes to promoting francophone identity, Capitaine Franco takes a unique approach. He does it while he rides a unicycle (“Losing your language is like losing a wheel on your bicycle.”), juggles, plays the harmonica and distributes green and white rubber bracelets bearing the slogan, “Vu, entendu!”

Recently retired, Capitaine Franco, aka Denis Pigeon, used to teach at École secondaire catholique Garneau in Orléans and was aware that, in the hallways, students were speaking to each other in English. In 2006 he created the Campagne de l’engagement à la francité, inviting students to buy and wear his Franco-Ontarian bracelet and, along with their parents, to read and sign a contract stating their wish to be addressed in French. “Wearing the bracelet is a commitment; it lets people know that you want to be spoken to in French. Francophones should stop speaking to each other in English!”

At times he uses strong images and word play to describe his battle, as when he draws a parallel with the H1N1 virus: “I’m convinced beyond all doubt that I’ve immunized thousands of young people against the ASSImilation virus.” As Capitaine Franco, dressed in green and white, the colours of the Franco-Ontarian flag, Pigeon intends to spread the word to the more than 400 French-language schools in the province. So far 146 schools are taking part in his campaign, and he’s sold 40,000 bracelets. (Two of the three dollars he receives for each bracelet go toward the school’s cultural programs in support of the French language.) But he aims even higher – to sell 500,000 bracelets to francophones all across the province, an initiative that does not benefit from the financial support of either the Ministry of Education or the Office of Francophone Affairs. Nonetheless, Pigeon points out: “My project complies with the Ministry of Education’s Politique d’aménagement linguistique.


Two students at École catholique St-Dominque proudly show off their work.