For the Belcourt family of Penetanguishene, Ont., it is a daily struggle against the odds. As Franco-Ontarians, they are fighting to preserve their language in a community where they are outnumbered five-to-one by English-speaking neighbors. The battle begins each morning in their modest brick side-split home, where Lise Marchand-Belcourt, 31, and Pierre Belcourt, 32, speak only French to their four young children. At bedtime, the couple reads them French stories. In the family room are videos dubbed in French. The television and radio are tuned to French stations. So far, the strategy has worked: all of the children have learned to speak French. But with their eldest child, Marc-André, now ÍV2, his parents say that it is only a matter of time before the children begin speaking English too. Despite some attempts by governments to offer services in French, Lise says: “We do feel threatened. We do not even know if our kids are going to end up speaking French.”
The Belcourts insist that they want their children to become bilingual eventually. But they say they fear that if the youngsters learn English too soon, they will quickly become assimilated and lose their French heritage. That fear is familiar to Ontario’s 500,000 francophones, and to many of the approximately 400,000 other French-Canadians trying to live in French outside Quebec. Many of them say that their task is made harder by governments and communities that do not offer services in French.
Law: For its part, Ontario’s Liberal government is scheduled to fully implement Bill 8, the French Language Services Act, on Nov. 18. That law, according to its preamble, is supposed to “guarantee the use of the French language” in most provincial government services in 22 designated areas of the province with the largest concentrations of French-speaking residents. But only days before the law was scheduled to be in place, many provincial highway signs and much government literature remained in English only, and government offices were short of French-speaking staff.
While both the Belcourts told Maclean 'sthat they are happy the province has passed Bill 8, they remain skeptical about how effectively it will ensure services in French. For one thing, they say that the only recourse available when a government department fails to provide French services is to take it to court. And if the service is given by an anglophone speaking French, added Lise, “then you will end up speaking in English.” Lise Belcourt said that,
even after Bill 8 is in force, Franco-Ontarians will not be as well-served as Quebec’s English minority. Quebec has several English universities and colleges, but there are no exclusively French universities in Ontario.
Respect: The Belcourts, whose families have lived around the picturesque tourist town of Penetanguishene (population 5,500) on Georgian Bay for more than a century, say that neither the province nor Ottawa has shown much respect for Franco-Ontarians in the past. Lise recalled that her repeated attempts to use
French at her local post office were often met by demands that she speak English, until last year, when Canada Post hired a bilingual postmaster. Said Belcourt: “This is a federal government office.” Then, two years ago, when Marc-André spent three days in a local hospital with an infection and fever, his parents say that he was terrified by being in a situation where no one spoke his language. Declared Lise Belcourt: “It was so frustrating.”
Struggle: Surrounded by English and faced with a daily struggle to find French services, many French-speaking Ontarians have abandoned attempts to communicate in their first language. Notes Lise: “Most people have stopped trying to get service in French. They opt for English because it is easier and it is quicker.” Despite the fact that he and his wife can speak English, Pierre Belcourt insists that
receiving services in French is his family’s right. He adds, however, that “it is not because we want to cause problems; it is because we want to preserve what we have or, at least, not lose any more.” His wife says that some English-speaking neighbors may not understand the reasons that the couple is so determined to speak French. But, she said, “How would you feel if your children or your grandchildren could not even speak English?” She added: “It is not only a question of language. It is a question of feeling and culture.”
Still, the Belcourts say that, despite signs that opposition to bilingualism is growing elsewhere in the country, most of Penetanguishene’s anglophones are more tolerant than they were 10 years ago. Then, francophones in the community were threatened and attacked for demanding a French high school. Following months of heated protests, they won their battle, Lise says, and most of the Englishspeaking people in the area now understand that “all we want to do is live in French.” Declared her husband: “I do not think we are asking that much in a country that is supposed to be bilingual.” But with that national principle under increasing attack, the Belcourts and other francophones outside the borders of Quebec clearly face a battle against the odds.
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