OPSEU’s Provincial Francophone Committee (PFC) successfully hosted the union’s second biennial Francophone Conference June 9-11, 2017. The event, “Our Language, Our Pride, Our Solidarity,” took place at the historic Lord Elgin Hotel in Ottawa, the ancestral, traditional and unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishnaabeg people. OPSEU members from all corners of the province were brought together by a desire to create change in their locals, workplaces and communities. Over 65 per cent of participants indicated that this was either their first-ever OPSEU function or their first time attending the union’s Francophone Conference.
This conference is a testament to OPSEU’s commitment to its francophone members. It demonstrates the work of the PFC in pushing the envelope when it comes to French language services.
Throughout the weekend, discussions focused on developing strategies on how to best preserve and promote francophone culture. The availability of French language services outside of “government-designated” areas has proven a challenge for Franco-Ontarians who live in these areas. Even though French is one of the official languages of Canada, it is evident that struggles still exist with integrating the language into communities. Conference participants passionately agreed that francophones have a right to live, work and access services in French, regardless of where they live in Canada.
France Gélinas, MPP for Nickel Belt, provided the event’s keynote address on the Friday evening. She shared stories of her work from promoting la francophonie at the grassroots level as a community activist to her current role as Critic of Francophone Affairs for the Ontario NDP. In the provincial legislature, France has been spearheading the creation of a French language university in southwestern Ontario. She said that “a Francophone University would not only preserve French culture in the province, it would promote and expand it.” There is a growing need amongst Franco-Ontarians to access services, be trained in their first language, and to come out of an institution knowing the vocabulary that is necessary in order to succeed in their chosen field. This is undeniable.
Saturday morning welcomed Rym Ben Berrah and Sashya Zahaby for a panel discussion on the impacts of privatization on French language services. Rym is a member of the Board of Directors of the Assemblée de la francophonie de l’Ontario. As a francophone immigrant from northern Africa, she talked about being unfamiliar with how the system worked, which in turn made accessing jobs and social services, especially in French, that much more difficult. Sashya is an OPSEU member and a Region 4 mobilizer with the union's anti-privatization campaign, We Own It. She has been working with communities to address the direct impacts of privatization. Many of those affected are immigrants who work precarious jobs and yet possess skills and expertise that are not readily recognized by many Canadian employers. Furthermore, racialized francophone immigrants are faced with an even more challenging reality. According to the Office of Francophone Affairs, recent trends show that there are more francophone immigrants born in Africa, the Caribbean and the Middle East (almost 45 per cent) than in Europe (37 per cent). Francophone settlement services for newcomers, language classes, and bridge training are in place, but reductions in funding and/or possible privatization will impact what services are accessed and to what level.
The conference educational workshop focused on honing public-speaking skills in French. Members worked on exercises designed to look at the structure of a speech, writing tips and techniques, and how to keep their audience engaged. At the end of the session, members felt confident about writing and delivering a short speech and were proud to speak in public in French.
In addition to invited guests and the scheduled workshop, participants also took part in an Ottawa Monuments Treasure Hunt. They took in a bit of Canadian history by visiting famous landmarks such as the Centennial Flame, the National War Memorial, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Members were further treated to a "murder mystery" evening spectacle on Saturday. The demise of the rich and famous was the theme of this “whodunnit” dinner event. Finally, Sunday morning welcomed Improtéine, a performance group from the Ottawa region specializing in improvisation, humour, and song. The highly interactive segment addressed topics such as union activism, privatization, and workplace stress. Their presentation was met with much enthusiasm as participants started to wind down from an already robust weekend.
For their final activity, participants broke off into groups to develop an action plan. It was a commitment of what they can do when they return to their locals and communities following the conference. Small table discussions focused on what, as activists, can be done to increase the visibility of francophones. Moreover, they looked at possible struggles and developed strategies which would encourage more involvement from other francophones within OPSEU and their communities.
The PFC would like to thank the many OPSEU advocates and invited guests who demonstrated their commitment to francophone rights by participating at this event. They would also like to extend a warm thank you to members of OPSEU’s Executive Board for their leadership and constant support in getting more francophones involved and engaged with their union. A special thank you to Elder Barbara Dumont-Hill who led an opening smudging ceremony and teaching. She also helped to close the conference with a traveling song. Finally, thank you to OPSEU staff whose commitment, dedication and hard work greatly contributed to a successful event.
This conference was a true celebration of la francophonie and how it is possible for Franco-Ontarians to thrive in their first language, within their union and their province.
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