THUNDER BAY - Francophones living in Northwestern Ontario want everyone to know that they exist, and there’s no better way to be known than dancing and singing in the street.
More than 400 people braved the wet weather to participate in the Franco Festival on Sunday. The day included authentic French-Canadian cuisine and music, arts and crafts, and information on Francophone culture and history in the Northwest.
“Francophones are instrumental in helping to develop Northwestern Ontario,” said Claudette Gleeson, president of the Franco Festival. “We are here to stay and we want to be known.”
The Franco Festival is held every two years in celebration of Franco-Ontarian Day. The festival on Sunday was its fifth year.
Gleeson said that the festival was born out of a conversation she had with a First Nation’s elder who told her that he didn’t know Francophones existed in Northwestern Ontario.
“You all look alike, he said,” Gleeson recalled. “You need to make yourselves known. I took his word seriously and that’s what the Franco Festival is all about.”
Gabrielle Chenard, a grade 12 student at École secondaire catholique de la Vérendrye and volunteer at the Franco Festival, said that Franco culture in Northern Ontario is largely forgotten.
“I think the Franco Festival is so important because it’s really a way to celebrate our culture and prove that we actually do exist,” she said. “Even after all these years, 400 years, Francophones still exist in Northwestern Ontario and Thunder Bay. Even though we are a minority, we are proud to be here, proud to speak French, and I think it’s important that we celebrate that.”
Chenard added that the region has come a long way in recognizing the contributions of Franco-Ontarians in the building of this region.
But the Franco Festival is also a way for Francophones to celebrate their culture and speak their language, which is especially important in a community where English is the dominant language.
“People can forget how important it is,” she said. “We are surrounded by English all the time, or other languages, so it’s easier to speak English, especially in Thunder Bay. We really need to remember that it’s a part of ourselves and it’s always been there and we’ve been fighting for it for a long time. I think it’s important to remember that French exists, we’re proud, and we are big community.”
Chenard said that she would still like to see more recognition for the more than 600,000 Francophones living in Ontario, including a French-language university.
The next Franco Festival is scheduled for 2018, however, Gleeson said if there is enough interest and enough people willing to put in a little hard work, it might be back a year early.
For now, Gleeson is happy to see so many people out enjoying Francophone culture, which really shows that Francophones in the region are becoming more known in the community.
“That is ultimately our goal, for people to know us and that we are all alike and we want to be valued and appreciated,” she said. “People are here, first and foremost, because they want to have a good French-Canadian poutine, they want the French music, and they want to be able to see each other and talk to each other.”