By: Helene Caron
The tragic events in Paris had many frantically looking for friends and family currently in the cité des lumières and prompted a number of us to post “Je suis Paris” on our Facebook page out of solidarity. However, our links with France may be much closer than we think and I’m not referring to the latest events. I’m going way, way back. In early 17th century, Samuel de Champlain officially met a Huron-Wendaat chief in Toanché (now Penetanguishene).
Did you know that 2015 marked the 400th anniversary of French presence in Ontario, with celebrations happening throughout the province? And that Hamilton is an officially designated bilingual city with many francophone community organizations? If you didn’t, don’t feel bad. I moved here from Montréal in 1996 and I didn’t know either. A brief Google search at the time yielded very little on the French community whereabouts in Hamilton and I went on with my life until, one fateful day in 2002, I walked downtown Hamilton and saw a French-written sign in a window. Seconds later, I was chatting with Claudette Mikelsons, now president of Collège Boréal in Hamilton. “Oh yes, there is quite a large French-speaking contingent in Hamilton and area,” she told me. According to ACFO-Régionale Hamilton’s current website, about 45,000 people speak French in our area. “Quoi? But where are they?” I asked, stunned. Outside my workplace, there wasn’t a speck of French — many would lovingly try, but there was no French connection there.
Believe me, I wanted and needed to connect with French-speakers in Hamilton; I felt like assimilation had wrapped its fingers around my neck. Without kids and not being a church-goer (schools and churches are recognizable institutions within the community), I somehow fell in a Frenchless vacuum until that day in 2002. That chance encounter led me to understand the breadth of the greatest issue facing French Canadians outside Québec: invisibility. Franco-Ontarians are a minorité invisible. We don’t look different and heck, many of us don’t even sound different.
The community is not visible in mainstream English media either, even if French is this country’s second official language. Kudos to CFMU (I started the “French Toast” radio show there in 2010) and The Sil for taking a national leadership role and willingly offering a space where we can talk about all things French. Take note, Spectator and other mainstream media.
Anyway, after my encounter with Claudette, I started volunteering on the Board of Centre Français, which organizes fun and entertaining cultural events in French in Hamilton. By getting involved, I met dynamic French-speaking people who wanted to contribute to our city’s vitality by ensuring French cultures’ (yes, there are many French cultures even in Steel Town) solid and vibrant place in an inclusive manner.
I help organize the logistics for Mac-O Franco Ontario, an event about the rich cultural heritage of French presence in Ontario that will involve just under 200 McMaster students. They will showcase a wide range of French-Ontarian heritage aspects on Dec. 7 in the student centre’s Marketplace area, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Seven francophone community organizations will also be there to talk about the services they offer in addition to interacting with McMaster students.
Finally, one last reminder – our heritage unites us all one way or another. Nous sommes Paris. Nous sommes Franco-Ontariennes et Franco-Ontariens.