Culture  En ces lieux, vous faites quoi?

One family’s experience amongst northern Ontario’s forgotten francophonies

“Quand j’étais un tout petit garçon / Je me sauvais de la maison / Je partais sans le dire à maman / Pour aller jouer dans l’étang…”

Sung-spoken in the soft, deep voice of my dad, these words lulled me to sleep during my childhood. This Christmas, on a frozen lake in the northern Ontario bush, I struggled to recall these once-familiar words.

The children and grandchildren of my Grand-Papa Jean-Louis and Grand-Maman Réjeanne are all gathered around the makeshift double-table at my Matante Julie’s home. Tortière, a traditional French Canadian meat pie, is settling in our bellies. In happy disorder, my dad and his four sisters launch into song with their parents. They are searching for the music of their childhood. They catch threads of old French folk tunes mid-verse, stringing them together like patchwork. With the exception of during the “chansons à répondre” songs, in which I echo my Grand-Papa’s voice, I am rarely able to sing along. I haven’t learned as many of these songs as my cousins, who remained around Sudbury. Like much of my franco-Ontarian identity, familiar words dissolve into a nostalgic fog. At 22 in Quebec, my francophone identity feels weaker now than it did when I was running around the playground of my French elementary school in southern Ontario.

My sister Kate and I are the tenth generation to follow the son of a Parisian couple, Barthélémie Janson and Jeanne du Voisin, to find a home in Canada. My grand-grand-grand-grand-grand-grand-grand-papa (that is seven generations of grandpas), Pierre Janson, arrived in Quebec in the 1680s. A mysterious name change and a few generations of craftsmen later, the family moved west to settle in the bilingual, nickel-mining villages surrounding Sudbury.

There is still a strong francophone presence that extends west of Quebec, populating the northern parts of Ontario and Manitoba. These pockets of “francophonie” outside of Ottawa, nestled amid the blueberries, barns, and wood-burning stoves of the north, are often forgotten, I suspect. They become vivid to me only a few times a year – usually, when some occasion to celebrate gathers our family to my dad’s childhood home: the massive and myriad weddings of my Dad’s fifty-odd cousins; or the holidays that are marked by infinite quarts of wild blueberries Grand-Papa Jean-Louis picks from his backyard bush, as well as the 100th anniversary of La Grange Lapalme, the barn built by my arrière-arrière-Pépère Israel and his second wife Luména Desgroseilliers in 1901. Of their 12 children, it is my father’s Pépère Adéa and Memère Éva who took over the farm where my own Grand-Papa Jean-Louis was raised.

Raised in southwestern Ontario as the daughter of a bilingual father and English mother, I sometimes feel distanced from my roots. The francophone community in Waterloo is not very audible. My bilingual home does not mix languages in the “franglais” style of immersion programs so much as through regular battles between the two tongues. My mom encourages us to preserve our second language, but becomes justifiably frustrated when we speak in French while she’s in the room. My dad objects to his daughters’ lazy reversion to English if the alternative is to flounder in French. This linguistic struggle became more pronounced when I graduated from a unilingual francophone elementary school into an immersion high school. Subsequently, the bilingual fluency of my stroller days was lost to too-complicated ideas that flourished more quickly than did my slowly maturing French vocabulary. My decision to come to Montreal is an obvious attempt to renew this fluency.

In Quebec, however, I am defensive of my franco Ontarian identity. I admit that my grammar would make my Grand-Maman Réjeanne cringe if she wasn’t such a good Catholic, but still, I’ll never shy from a debate with a separatist. Neither the Quebecois cashier at the dépanneur, nor my Parisian neighbour recognize my accent. Both insist on switching to English to relieve me of what they perceive as a feeble attempt at their language. “Temiskaming, Algoma, Sudbury, Cochrane… là aussi ils parlent français!” I want to remind them of Ontario’s vibrant francophone communities. They respond with a correction, “En ces lieux, vous faites quoi [avec votre langue]?”

Nevertheless, I am happy to continue butchering the language with my dirty dialect and garbled grammar. I may be an ordinary white protestant anglophone – but I am also the daughter of a long line of brave and rugged craftsmen, lumberjacks, and Kings’ Daughters who make me fiercely grateful to claim French as a language of my own. Sometimes I romanticize that there was enough magic in the northern bush to grant me ties to all three of our country’s founding fathers.

Our cultural diversity is precious, and I cling to mine with growing curiosity, searching for a sense of self. Above all, no matter who was born to whom or who touched what first, this is what makes me Canadian: the ability to celebrate the folk songs, the meat pies, and the barn parties of every people, in a country that is shared. I am afraid that until recently, I have undervalued my own identity while admiring the exotic ones of Pakistani, Kenyan, Bajan, and Chinese friends. I will never turn down an invitation to dance to Salam-E-Ishq at Khushali, but it is about time I sort out the lyrics that fill the lungs of my northen Ontarian relatives with breath and song.

I have asked my dad for Christmases consecutive to record the lullabies he sang to me as a girl. So far, he refuses. But I am French – I will persist.