Editor’s note: Yvon Laberge is a member of the NALD Board of Directors. He was a founding member of the Family Literacy Action Group of Alberta and of Fédération canadienne pour l’alphabétisation en français, now known as Réseau pour le développement de l’alphabétisme et des compétences (RESDAC). This feature is based on an article which was originally written in French by NALD research and communications officer Marie-Claire Pître.
Since 2010, Yvon Laberge has been the director of Éducacentre College, the only Francophone college in British Columbia. Having grown up in St. Vincent, Alberta, and worked in adult literacy for the past 20 years, Yvon has found that the development of francophone communities depends on people’s ability to participate in economic, social and community life. To achieve that, he says, people need good reading and writing skills—in short, they need to master the essential skills.
Yvon discovered as a child that francophone institutions in minority communities were fragile. He was born in St. Vincent, a small community of 50 or so families located about 240 km northeast of Edmonton. He attended Grade 1 at the village school but it closed the following year. He therefore had to continue his studies in the neighbouring village, a situation that led to a major transformation: “I didn’t speak English when I arrived in St. Paul, and courses were taught only in English,” Yvon said. “So, by the time I was 15 or 16, I spoke little French even though we always spoke it at home.”
When asked what brought him back to his mother tongue, he replied, laughing: “Astérix books.”
At around the age of 16, he realized that an important element of his culture was missing. “I decided to reclaim my language,” he said.
Yvon got his start in the field of literacy by working for the Secretary of State (now Canadian Heritage). “The person in charge of literacy did not speak French and kept handing me his files. The timing was good because I was working on my master’s degree in adult education and was planning to include some chapters on literacy.”
As a Franco-Albertan, Yvon is well aware of the challenges that francophones living in minority settings face.
Yvon says people with low literacy levels are “people we don’t see.” Following a study conducted by the Department of Continuing Education of the Faculté Saint-Jean at the University of Alberta, he met with Marie-Claire Brousseau.
“She was the first francophone in Alberta to speak out openly about her literacy needs,” Yvon said. “She was behind the whole French literacy movement in Alberta and later became a national leader. It just so happened that Marie-Claire and I were neighbours. I took the bus every day with her children. We went to the same church and saw one another often. My parents had known her for a long time but no one knew that she couldn’t read or write until she said so.”
Yvon says literacy is essential for francophones living in a minority community. They are called on to use advanced skills in language, technology and other fields because “in minority communities, we are faced with significant challenges.”
“Since 1984, parents have been fighting all the way to the Supreme Court for the right to have francophone schools. Still today, we must fight. On the one hand, we need people who can demand that institutions be established and who believe in the legitimacy of the cause. On the other hand, we need people who can work in these institutions and who have the skills to do so.”
Not all francophone minority communities carry the same weight or have the same institutional support. “On the Acadian peninsula of New Brunswick and in certain regions of Ontario, people can easily obtain services in French. They have institutional support, whereas in British Columbia it takes people a long time to obtain services in French. It is important to make that distinction,” Yvon said.
Recent immigration is another factor that distinguishes British Columbia’s francophone population, which represents 1.4 per cent of the province’s total population. In Alberta, the francophone population is made up of people who have lived there for three generations but in British Columbia there are more immigrants. Moreover, 60 per cent of Éducacentre College’s current student body is made up of immigrants.
Yvon has witnessed this progression: “I used to work as a consultant in British Columbia and, when I returned in 2010, what struck me was that the francophone community’s profile had changed. The community, the college’s needs and the way things are done have all changed because we are no longer dealing with a culture of old-stock French Canadians, if I may say so. We live in a more cosmopolitan culture.”
As director of the only Francophone college in British Columbia, Yvon believes the institution plays a key role in the development of the francophone community. One of the college’s objectives is to offer services that support immigrants and that help them integrate into the province’s francophone community.
The college is also trying to put in place a model for comprehensive and integrated training. It wants to develop both the college component and the non-formal component, which includes continuing education and basic education.
“We are trying to fill the gap in the continuum of French education in British Columbia. Programs from kindergarten to Grade 12 are well established. University programs are being developed and are sanctioned by the provincial government. We are working to gain recognition for the college level.”
Yvon says partnerships with other provinces and territories, especially with colleges in Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Northwest Territories, and international partnerships ensure the growth of Éducacentre College. He says the partnerships also present opportunities for learning.
“Different literacy models created in developing countries could inspire us to change the way we view adult education and deliver various programs.”
In western Canada where needs vary widely and the francophone population is spread across a vast area, distance education will enhance access to education. With their experience in education for adults in minority-language contexts, Yvon Laberge and Éducacentre College are set to tackle the many challenges they face.