Learning to live together

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Diane Proulx is one of those Francophones who have a special relationship with and a deep understanding of the process of immigration to Quebec: her job is to assist the new arrivals along their way to social integration. She has been a French teacher with MIDI (Ministère de l'Immigration, de la Diversité et de l'Inclusion) for almost 35 years now. The program she works for consists in nine months of full-time French classes, and most of her students start going through it as soon as they step into the province. For many of them throughout these years she has represented the first contact with Quebec culture, lifestyle and values.

Diane has graciously agreed to share some thoughts about her work, her students and the situation of French language in Quebec - all this in English, for which I couldn't be more grateful.

Could you, please, describe the Ministry of Immigration program where you're teaching now? What is the difference between it and the French courses offered to immigrants by the French School Board?

I'd say that when I started it was not very different. We had almost the same program. But with the years, I think it's very different. Our program (Intégration et francisation des nouveaux arrivants) is not only a program on language teaching; we, French teachers of the MIDI, are what I call in French "passeurs de culture", and this role is more important than simply teaching French - it's also to give the students all the tools they need to have for life here, and for finding a job.

I started working at UQAM in January 2000, and I teach immigrants that have a degree. Immigrants who don't have a degree have the same kind of course in cégep, or an association. I would say that we have the program of the Ministry, but it's richer, because it's in university level and [our students] want to study to have a degree from here, or they want to be recognized as doctors, engineers, and they have to know very well the context to do their job.

So, they have 20 hours of French a week with me, the teacher, and 10 hours of activities with an animator. Level 1, they would have visits to discover Montreal, university, la Grande Bibliothèque, and they have workshops on the computer, to learn vocabulary. And in Level 2, the main workshop is knowing Quebec, geography, and the history, so that they can understand why the situation between French and English is the way it is in Quebec. Level 3, they have workshops on finding a job, and workshops in improvisation, and they learn to speak without being prepared, to be able to communicate even when the situation is stressful.

You have students from a variety of countries, could you tell me a little bit about that?

What happens is that when you have a problem in the world you will receive people. If there is a war, we can be sure that we will receive applicants from these countries. We have more people from countries that have problems with war, political problems, or economical problems, like for example we have lots of people coming from Colombia.

Usually I don't do this in the classroom, but when I speak with them individually I ask about their situation, because it helps me to understand why they are not studying, why they have problems. There are situations, like, I had a student from Cuba and he was supposed to come here with his wife, but she was a doctor and she wasn`t allowed to leave. And finally, she was allowed to, but it took 2 years for her to leave. But he was here alone and he had to pay all the bills and to reimburse all the money that he took from friends to be able to come here, because Canada asks the immigrants to arrive with a certain amount of money. So it's very hard when you come to a new country without a lot of money - the reason they leave their country is that they are not making enough money.

It's a vicious circle.

Yes. But we have students from the ex-USSR, I mean Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan - I've never heard of these countries before, then I have one [person] in my class and we discover things, it's very interesting. Well, and we have lots of students from China, and sometimes they don't come here to stay. They come here to study in Canadian universities and go back with a diploma that will allow them to have a better life in China. But I would say that was more five or six years ago. Now the students that I have come here mostly because of the pollution. When I ask them why they decided to immigrate, pollution comes up a lot from people from Shanghai, from Beijing...They say the pollution is terrible, lots of health problems, and they think of having a child, and job doesn't necessarily come first. Because I have students with degrees, my students sometimes left behind very good jobs. And they think that they would have the same here. And, surprise, it's not that easy.

From your experience, what advice would you give to people who consider immigrating to Quebec, to make their transition easier?

So, I think the reason people come here is to have a better life, but they have rose-coloured glasses on, and sometimes I'm surprised about their lack of information about the place where they want to come and have a life. If they go to a meeting and they learn about immigration, that's like a kind of publicity, to try to have them move here. But, I mean, they could have some other source of information, before deciding.

I think they have to prepare themselves, and study French, it's a good idea to study a bit before coming.The problem we have is that sometimes people think that in Canada everybody speaks the two languages, and it's not the case. In Montreal, it's very bilingual, but if you go in other part of Quebec, it's French only, and in other provinces it's the opposite, except some places in Ontario or New Brunswick.But most of the time it's English everywhere and here it's French everywhere. But they don't know that.

I think an immigrant, someone who wants to come here, if they could come for a vacation, see how it is - the vacation is not the same thing, for sure, but they would have a better idea. And not come necessarily in the best of time, in summer, come in winter or fall and see the difference of weather, because some people don't come prepared for the weather.

I suppose your program assists them with these aspects too: what to buy, how to prepare...

Yes, that's one thing we do in the course. We don't only teach, I mean when we discuss weather, we discuss what should we wear. I remember with refugees from Cambodgia, Vietnam - sometimes I had a woman coming in the classroom in sandals and I said, you cannot wear that in winter, there's snow. And there are places where you can buy boots, not too expensive. We show them that. And now we have internet in our classrooms, I can give them some information. And, you know, they also have each other. I mean, these are some of the values that we want the immigrants to have: caring and sharing, actual equality, men and women, things like that.

Has it ever happened to you, to have equality issues in your classroom?

When I started teaching, I had a student from Iran, and he didn't want to be in my class because I was a woman - I was a teacher, but a woman. So the supervisor at the time decided to take care of the problem and put him in another class, and I was not happy about that. It was a short time solution, it's not fair. He has to accept, or, if he won't accept that, he won't accept other things either. And this course is part of that too. I think we have to stand for ourselves. You have a free course, you have a professional teacher, no? you accept that, or you have the choice [not to].

What I think is that we have to be open to the people who come here, but the people have to share our values, and walk towards us. I mean, we cannot live each in our little ghetto, I think we have to live together.

And still, you've decided you prefer to teach immigrants, rather than non-immigrants, in spite of the cultural differences...

Because with immigrants it's different. I'm taking a Spanish course, for my pleasure, it's not something that I need. But my students, they need French to have a good job. Most of my students are very very devoted to their learning, motivated. That's why I really prefer it, and also I feel that I do something useful, I do something for them. This is very important for me, I mean I help them understand Quebec, Quebecers. I don't want them to live here and not know anything. I want them to enjoy being in Quebec and love French. I say to them: I know it's not easy to learn a language, but it's so much fun when you can communicate with people, don't you think? And I try to make them love it.

Do your students already speak English, generally?

More and more. If I think back, maybe fifteen years ago, I had people from Spanish-speaking countries speaking only Spanish and French, and now sometimes in the classroom they will ask me things in English because they want to understand. I say, well, try to think in your own language, because it's closer to French. I don't speak English in my classroom anyway, but we have more and more students speaking English, which is normal, all over the world it's the same. But it's a problem, because there are some companies that don't respect Bill 101, and that have job interviews only in English, and they have to speak English in the office...but, I don't know, we're in Quebec! I mean, we had that when I was young, my father was a truck driver and he had to learn some English just to be able to drive a truck in Quebec. I said that to a person recently: I'm not against English, I'm for French. He said I was like KKK, who say "I don't hate black people, I just like white". But I'm not saying that. I'm saying, you don't understand the situation here: if we're not careful, we'll lose French in Quebec. It's not being against English, it's trying to keep our tradition and our culture...and I think sometimes when the immigrants come here, they don't always understand what's going on. They say, oh, we're in Canada. Yes, you are in Canada, but you are in the province of Quebec, and here there is one official language, it's French.

I do have a feeling that a lot of immigrants come because they just want to leave their countries and have a better life, as you said. And because it's easy to immigrate to Quebec, they will come here, but then maybe they won't stay.

They are changing a lot of things now [regarding immigration], and one of the things they are changing is, it won't be as easy. And I'm not all against it, because sometimes it's easy, but when you come here you don't find a job. So we have people coming and taking 9 months of French, being paid for it, and then they move to Vancouver, or to Ontario.

Personally, I think it's good when people come because they have prospects, they have a job here they can stay in, not only a contract that lasts for 2 months. But then we have people that come here and their diplomas are not recognized. And they should know that before.

I know a few people in this situation, they say they had no idea their diplomas wouldn't be recognized.

I have a friend who works in Immigration and she was meeting people in Syria, in Iran, Iraq [for interviews], and I said to her: Please, when you see them, tell them, especially if they are engineers, that they cannot work [here]...She said, not only we tell them, but they sign a paper. But after being in that state of becoming an immigrant for a year and a half or two years, when I meet them, they hear me, but they don't hear. So they sign the paper, but they forget it, they say, oh, I'll be OK...and it's like denial.

I know they've changed the rules. For example, before, everybody who was applying had to receive an answer [of acceptance]. But now they will be looking for a certain kind of workers: we're looking for technicians in so-and-so; you are a teacher, sorry, we cannot take you, maybe you can apply again in one year...That's better, because they would do it faster, it won't take 2-3 years to have an answer; and the others will be rejected, which is sad for them, but it's worse when they come and they don't have a job.

Do your students complain to you about their life here, the difficulties they have?

Yes, of course. Sometimes we are the only Quebecers that they know. Before, when we had the COFI (Centres d'orientation et de formation des immigrants), we had a social worker, but we don't have the same service now.

[Once] I had a student and I knew there was a problem; I spoke to her outside the classroom, and she told me that she was afraid for herself, but she was thinking of doing something, because she began to be afraid for her children too. And finally she wrote to me, she left her husband a year after the course, but I had her in contact with a shelter for women. But I'm a French teacher, I cannot be a social worker. I have to do it in a way, but we have one person in UQAM that will help the students with their job and will receive them in his office to give them information. But he's a man. It was better before, when it was a woman, I think for some problems it's better, but we don't have enough service, and they cut, cut, cut.

How do these recent budget cuts affect your program, and the immigration process in general?

They cut all the regional offices, it means that all the immigrants that do not arrive in Montreal, but in Sherbrooke, Laval...anyplace, they don't have this service there. They have courses, but they won't have an immigration office. And I spoke to a friend who works at Immigration and she said, you know, Diane, the services are given to immigrants by other offices, like for example at Unemployment they take care of French courses. And I said, well, they don't know anything about it, and they don't know the difference between a School Board and what we do. They will give you some French courses to help you find a job, but what they want, they want the people to work. And personally, I want the people to work, but in their field or similar, I don't want them to work in a Macdo. You know, so, I think all these cuts, if we see it in the long run, it could cost us more - we can see it in France, we can see it in other countries...I think we receive people here, so we have to make sure that they can start a life here.

I know you're working on a project at the moment, apart from teaching. Could you explain what it is about?

I am working, with 2 other teachers, on a French as a Second Language book for adults, where all the teaching situations are from Quebec and Canada. You see, the books for French as Second Language usually come from France. When a person from Colombia, Brazil or Russia has the project to immigrate to Quebec, they often take French courses at l'Alliance française and they learn a vocabulary, a reality that is representative of France. With this work, we want students of French as a Second Language - future immigrants, Anglophones from Canada and newly arrived in Quebec - to have books that reflect Quebec reality. A first volume will be released in the fall of 2015, and the second, the one I am working on, will come later.

I just had one more question, coming back to what we touched on earlier. Your students, after 9 months of school in French, they go out in the world. And sometimes they discover that they may not even need to use the French they learned, maybe they can just get along with English everywhere...what can be done about this?

There's nothing we can do. It depends where you live, what kind of job you have, what kind of friends you have. If people stay in a ghetto, anyplace where you don't have to... you can do everything in English, but you're missing out on something. The culture here is incredible, and also the people, if you speak the language you don't have the same contact, think of that.

I think people are trying, but they don't understand how hard they should try when they see very little response at first.

Well, if I were in the government, I would have a lot of incentive for French-Canadians, Quebecers, to speak French. If [the immigrants] are new, if you say bonjour and they don't know, you can speak with them in English. But if not, even if they know only 10 sentences of French, encourage them to use them, and it would be a difference, I think. They don't come here because they hate the French. Sometimes they love French but they are so discouraged because they don't speak well, because it's hard, because people speak English to them because they hear an accent, and it's not fair. And they say, they don't understand me and I don't understand them, we have to speak English. Well, no, you have to start from the beginning, you have to use speaking strategies, ask again, and be patient.

1 Comment

Wow this is an eye opening interview!

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