“Everywhere I go, I hear French and my ears perk up,” said historian Maurice Guibord, a francophone radio and television personality who has lived in Vancouver for the past 20 years.
A founding member of Heritage Vancouver and the programs coordinator at Burnaby Village Museum, Guibord is responsible for hosting historical walking tours of Fraser Valley neighbourhoods. With his interest and involvement in the francophone community, Guibord has his finger on the pulse of what can only be described as a thriving society.
A steadily growing number of francophones—people whose first language is French—call British Columbia home; and of the roughly 70,000 who live in the province, just under 30,000 live here in Vancouver. But unlike some minority groups, the francophone population does not lay claim to any particular neighbourhood.
“There used to be an area centred around St. Sacrement Church,” Guibord told the Georgia Straight by phone, referring to the French-speaking Roman Catholic church at 3040 Heather Street, just north of West 16th Avenue. “But not anymore. Even Maillardville is much more mixed today.”
Established in 1909 as British Columbia’s first French-speaking parish, Maillardville, originally called Notre Dame de Lourdes, continues to flourish today, hosting its annual Festival du Bois each spring in celebration of Canadian folk, Celtic, and world music, as well as dance, craft, and food, all with a distinctly French flavour.
The francophone presence in B.C. dates considerably further back, however, to the six French-Canadian voyageurs who accompanied Alexander Mackenzie on his historic trek across the Rockies in 1793. Although several hundred more were among the first to colonize the province, the gold rush in the middle of the 1800s and the immigrants that followed relegated the community to that of a minority.
Presently, francophones who migrate here—about two-thirds of them from Quebec—do so either for business opportunities or to learn English, according to Guibord.
It should be noted that while English-speaking francophones integrate into Vancouver with relative ease, the unilingual francophone population is not nearly so fortunate.
Tanniar Leba moved to Vancouver from the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2004 and soon became the executive director of La Boussole, a provincially and federally funded community centre that provides social and economic support to French-speaking individuals in the Greater Vancouver area. Speaking with the Straight at La Boussole, he described the segments of the local French-speaking community that come to the centre for assistance.
“Sixty-five percent of the people we help come from Quebec. The rest are immigrants from outside of Canada, 80 percent of whom arrive from French-speaking African nations like the Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi, Haiti as well,” said Leba, who estimates that the centre receives between 7,000 and 10,000 visits each year. “Of all those that we see who migrate from Quebec, 65 percent are homeless, almost all of them have mental health and/or drug issues, and approximately 80 percent are young men.”
Leba’s figures are echoed by the results of Metro Vancouver’s 2008 homeless count, in which francophones account for eight percent of the homeless in the city—an alarmingly high figure for a group that comprises only 1.6 percent of the province’s total population.
Despite this, the growing popularity of francophone festivals and our hunger for French food and culture is a testament to the community’s success in putting down roots.
Best French connections
If you’re looking to plug into the francophone community, perhaps take a language course or avail yourself of the many services offered by French centres. Here are two of the city’s best:
The Alliance Franí§aise, established in Vancouver in 1904 as a nonprofit association promoting French education and culture, caters to ex-pats from France the world over with a network of cultural centres and schools in 130 countries.
The Vancouver Francophone Cultural Centre, Le Centre, is a grassroots organization that opened its doors in 1974. While it, too, fosters the growth and health of Vancouver’s francophone community by providing courses, programs, and services in French, it seeks to develop an appreciation for the culture by organizing exhibitions and festivals.
Best ways to explore French culture
Along with happenings like the increasingly popular Vancouver French Film Festival, which marked its third anniversary this summer, there are smaller events like C’est Extra Vancouver, a DJ-driven series of evenings celebrating French music at the Backstage Lounge on Granville Island.
Also of interest are the Festival d’Eté Francophone de Vancouver hosted each year in June, as well as the Vancouver Coup de Coeur Francophone, a Le Centre production that for the past 15 years has offered live programs of innovative French-speaking musical artists.
If baked goods are your secret luxury, visit La Baguette on Granville Island (1680 Johnston Street) and try their almond croissant, a French favourite.
Seb’s Market Café, a cozy bistro at 592 East Broadway with a uniquely Québécois feel, offers a limited selection of delicious baked treats. For the full experience, try the brunch, freshly cooked fare from $10 to $15 prepared by owner and chef Franí§ois Godbout. It gets busy, especially on weekends. Fortunately, doors open at 6:30 a.m. weekdays and 7:30 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.