There are eight million Francophones in the province of Quebec, where French has been the official language since 1974. “But when you go to other Canadian provinces or the United States, Francophone communities are isolated and clearly the minority,” says Sylvain Lavoie. Born in a little border town between New Brunswick and Maine, he became president of the Centre de la francophonie des Amériques on October 26. “There was an urgent need to bring the communities closer together.”
This is what led to the creation of the Center in 2008, a decision unanimously approved by the Quebec national assembly. The organization’s initiatives include a forum for young Francophonie ambassadors attended by some fifty French speakers from 18 to 35 every two years, and a summer conference in Lafayette, Louisiana, that has been pushed back to 2021 due to the pandemic. A free digital library also houses 15,000 books by Francophone authors from the Americas. Quebecer author David Bouchet’s novel Soleil about a Senegalese family who moves to Montreal is one of the most-borrowed books this week.
“The aim of this virtual space and these events is to ensure Francophone communities across the continent are less isolated,” says Quebec native Michel Robitaille, who presides the Center’s board of directors. This effort also involves French professors and teachers, who are provided with training workshops and learning resources for their classes. Young people also have a role to play. “If we fail to encourage young people to learn French and use it in their daily lives, spoken French may well disappear from the Americas.”
The Center recently organized a competition (open until October 31) entitled “Ma Minute Francophone,” asking teachers and students to talk about their experience of the French language in a short video. Sixteen grants of 500 Canadian dollars will be awarded to the best entries. The initiative was part of the launch of the Réseau international des maisons de francophonie, a network of organizations that promote the French language, including the Centre de la francophonie des Amériques, the Maison de la francophonie in Lyon, the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL), the NOUS Foundation in New Orleans, and the TV5MONDE television network.
“It is important to build bridges between all participants, in the Americas and across the world, and to work together to create initiatives that help develop la francophonie,” says Sylvain Lavoie. “We travel a lot, says Michel Robitaille. “We take part in conferences hosted by the American Association of Teachers of French (AATF), and lead the Francophone and Francophile Cities of America Network, which includes more than 150 cities.”
The Center’s other initiatives include a virtual seminar in February 2021 for encouraging Francophone entrepreneurs to promote their businesses in French, themed tourist routes such as the one following Quebecers who came to work in New England factories, and workshops for boosting the visibility of French on Wikipedia organized by the National Library of Quebec. “We are exploring all sorts of avenues,” says Michel Robitaille. “French has to project an image of modernity; it is a language of history and culture, but also a driver of economic growth.”