We are thrilled to have our first guest blogger, Stephen Davis. He is a student in the Master of Arts in Second Language Education program at McGill University. He has taught in a French immersion program in Saskatoon, SK, and volunteers with non-profit organizations in Canada and internationally. His research interests include multilingual education, French immersion, and language education for newcomers to Canada.
My name is Stephen Davis and I’m a French Immersion Grade 3 teacher from Saskatoon, SK. This is how I introduced myself throughout the past two years, but it is now only partially true. This summer I packed my life into two backpacks and made the leap to Montréal, Québec, to begin my studies in the Master of Arts in Second Language Education program at McGill University. The move to Montréal has been wonderful, but perhaps the most rewarding part of the summer took place in mid-August, when I had the opportunity to visit Acadian New Brunswick. The Acadian peninsula of New Brunswick is situated in the northeast corner of the province and is home to roughly 25,400 people for whom fishing and agriculture are central industries, and for whom French serves as the primary language at home, work, and play. This trip came about when my teaching co-workers – friends I owe to Saskatchewan’s relative shortage of French teachers and New Brunswick’s relative surplus – invited me to visit their hometowns in this region. Suffice it to say that they had no trouble reeling me in, skilled fishermen and fisherwomen that they were.
Soon after arriving in the province, I discovered a new term that would prove useful for introducing myself: “tête carrée”. The term “tête carrée,” as I understand it, generally refers to an Anglophone who makes no attempt to speak, understand, or respect the French language or different ways of thinking. It is not in this sense that I adopt the term for myself; rather, I include this term in the title to assume a position of humility, both as an emerging sociolinguist and as a first-time visitor to the province. I also recognize that there is a chance that in misusing the term “tête carrée”, I become a “tête carrée” in its true sense; this is a risk I am willing to take.
After swimming and digging for mussels at my friend’s family’s cabin on the Atlantic coastline, we visited a traditional Acadian village, a tourist attraction that depicted life in the area hundreds of years ago. Surprisingly, there were elements of this visit that were reminiscent of traditional life in the prairies, such as spinning wheels, livestock, and folk music. The next few days were spent visiting the towns of Caraquet, Paquetville, and Tracadie, where I learned phrases like “parker le char” (to park the car) and “virer une brosse” (to drink heavily). The major highlight of my trip was the annual “Fête acadienne” on August 15th in Caraquet, NB. This party begins with the Tintamarre, where people dressed in blue, white, and red gather in the streets in the early evening to make as much noise as they can. In this way, the Acadians make themselves heard, celebrating their return to the land from which they were exiled by British Canadians, beginning in 1755. It was truly remarkable to observe the coming together of the Acadian people and the pride, culture, resilience, and identity they share.
This trip has led me to reflect on the discourse of bilingualism in Canada and the various ways in which this takes form in different provinces and territories. New Brunswick is the only province in the nation that is officially bilingual, which comes with its own unique challenges and tensions. Indeed, Acadians seem to be in a particularly difficult position insofar as they are criticized both by Anglophones in New Brunswick, as well as by Francophones outside of the province. Some Anglophones in New Brunswick argue that the province’s stance on official bilingualism has become too costly for taxpayers and would prefer to offer certain services in English only. This is undoubtedly a contentious political issue, and an opinion that I heard expressed beyond the peninsula. Additionally, some Acadians feel that the Québecois disparage their language and culture due to a perceived anglicization (see this article in Le Devoir) Acadians, it would seem, must defend not only their right to speak French, but also the legitimacy of their language itself.
I have also considered the role that I play in this discourse of bilingualism as a French Immersion educator in Saskatchewan and how that setting differs immensely from New Brunswick. In Saskatchewan, a province dominated by English, I can promote French education without fear of erasing the English language. This is to say that, regardless of how competent a Saskatchewan student might become in French, it would be highly unlikely that he or she would cease to use the English language or reject English-speaking society as a whole. Conversely, advocating for English education in the Acadian peninsula of New Brunswick could represent a threat to the culture, identity, and language. It is all well and good to tout the benefits of a bilingual education for all learners; ultimately, though, we must be mindful of how power is manifested in different regions throughout the country.
I spent my last evening in the peninsula reflecting on the past few days with my friends around the campfire. My friends asked me how this trip had shaped my understanding of Acadian New Brunswick and how I might define Acadian people. Initially, I spoke of Acadians in terms of French ancestry, but a friend argued that this was problematic because she traces her lineage to other European countries. Then I tried to frame my definition based on geographical region and language, but this was no good either, as Acadians can be found throughout Canada and the United States and have regional differences in their French. To be Acadian today, it seems, goes deeper than origin, language, and location in and of themselves. Perhaps to be Acadian is to identify with the struggle for cultural and language rights and recognition and to live the pride and tenacity of the underdog. Like any worthwhile adventure tends to do, my trip to Acadian New Brunswick left me with more questions than answers. One thing is certain, though: this “tête carrée” looks forward to exploring these ideas further in the future. Vive l’Acadie!