Language as a "Pull" Factor for Newcomers to Francophone Minority Communities


This article is the result of an exploration of the Museum’s oral history collection to answer the question: why do some French-speaking people decide to settle in a majority English-speaking area? The reasons can be complex, but language is one major “pull” factor. Video clips from interviews with Ben Maréga, Saïda Ouchaou-Ozarowski, and Quitterie Hervouet help us understand how language influenced their decisions to live in Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Toronto.

by Siniša Obradovic, Former Oral History Researcher

The Oral History Collection and Interviews in French

The Oral History team at the Canadian Museum of Immigration conducts recorded interviews across the country in order to learn about immigration through first-hand accounts. We seek to represent the diversity of the country’s population in our growing collection by conducting interviews in both official languages.[1] Our collection currently preserves and makes accessible approximately 125 interviews in French.

In 2018, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) published an action plan noting that “there is a need for increased efforts to attract, select, integrate, and retain French-speaking immigrants” to Francophone minority Communities (FCMs) in Canada.[2] Almost half of the interviews in French, in the Museum’s oral history collection, are from people in these communities. One of the fundamental questions emerging from an initial exploration of these interviews is: why do some French-speaking people decide to settle in a majority English-speaking area?

The following interview clips, where we focus on the pull factors, begin to address this question. In a short clip from Souleymane Sidibé’s interview, he answers the question by talking about initially going to Calgary, Alberta, with the goals of learning and working in English, and advancing his career. Below, additional clips from Ben Maréga, Saïda Ouchaou-Ozarowski, and Quitterie Hervouet illustrate the decision-making process, in particular the roles that language played in their decisions.

Exploring the Collection and Meeting the People

As of March 2020, the collection contains almost 60 interviews with people living in Quebec, out of the 125 interviews conducted in French. The places of residence of the other half are divided between the main greater metropolitan centers located in the other provinces: Moncton, St. John’s, Winnipeg, Halifax, Calgary, Ottawa, Toronto, and Vancouver. This provides us with a unique opportunity to begin to explore some of the accounts of the people who decided to settle in a community where their official language is a minority one.[3] The selected interviews that were explored were with people who had relatively high control over their migration journey, and who voluntarily chose their destination.[4]

For example, Ben moved to Saint-Boniface, Manitoba, to pursue his university studies; Saïda initially went to Vancouver, British Columbia, where she developed a network, to practice English; and Quitterie, following her dreams of living in North America, chose Toronto, Ontario. Their reasons for immigrating to Canada are of course more complex, and the possibility of living in an English-speaking community does not have the same level of importance in each story, but here they explain those complexities in their own words.

Ben Maréga - Studying in French and Living in English

And then came the question of: “Do I pursue my studies in French, or do I pursue my studies in English?”

Two clips from Ben Maréga give us insight into his choices. In this first clip, available elsewhere on our website, he describes how his parents financed his university studies in Canada. In the full interview, Ben elaborates on why he chose Canada, and more precisely, Winnipeg. In the second clip, below, Ben provides further context. He describes how, after finishing his bachelor’s degree in Senegal (the equivalent of high school in Canada), the question for his family was where Ben should continue his studies. Even though Ben’s parents were confident in the Senegalese education system, Ben and his family decided it would be best for him to go elsewhere, and considered a few countries before settling on Canada. In the clip, he speaks of the attraction of potential opportunities in Canada, but that the linguistic specificity of Saint-Boniface, in Winnipeg, was central to his choice.

Saïda Ouchaou-Ozarowski – Practicing English and Building Relationships

"The first time I came here, I understood that there were employment opportunities in French. Yes, practicing English is nice. Except, in terms of work, my strength... I told myself: “I’m really better in French.”

Saïda Ouchaou-Ozarowski was born in Paris to a family of Berber heritage who had emigrated from Algeria. Despite socioeconomic difficulties that her family experienced in the 1980s in the Parisian suburbs, Saïda considers that she is fortunate to have benefited from the extracurricular activities provided by her municipality, such as taking violin lessons and traveling abroad at the age of eleven. Later, she went to University of Amsterdam as an exchange student so she could practice English. Then, after six years as a municipally elected official, Saïda wanted to take a few months to redirect her path toward the cultural sector, and once again, practice English. This is when she considered Canada. The initial attraction to Canada was linguistic, but her choice to live in Vancouver was also based on a combination of climate, pre-existing networks, and employment opportunities, as she explains in the following clip.

Quitterie Hervouet – Fulfilling a Lifelong Dream

"Since I was 15 years old, I wanted to live in North America. I always had this… I told myself that I would live in an Anglophone country."

Vancouver was also one of Quitterie Hervouet’s possible choices, although she chose ultimately to settle in Toronto. Her research brought her to the conclusion that Toronto seemingly had a better film industry, even though Quitterie concedes that information may have been debatable. Before the interview, she also mentioned preferring Toronto because she always lived in large cities. During her university studies, she first went to San Francisco and Atlanta, in the United States, where she learned English. But it was during a later period in her life, when Quitterie was getting into a routine and felt she needed change, that she decided to follow her long-time dream of living in Canada. She elaborates in the clip below:

A Complex Web of Reasons to Immigrate

The three clips from this initial exploration of the Museum’s oral history collection illustrate how the linguistic pull factor can enter into people’s decisions about where to settle. This factor is often a deciding one, but more broadly, interviews with French-speaking people living in FMCs are showing us how the decision-making process can be influenced by other factors. These include educational or employment opportunities; pre-existing professional, family, or romantic relationships; and personal fulfillment, with various degrees of individual importance. In the case of the people profiled here, this is demonstrated by how the linguistic factor weaves itself in with factors such as relationships, opportunities, or personal fulfillment.

  1. Language is a central and complex part of our identities, shaping the way we perceive and interact with the world. The mother tongue of a number of people who decided to participate in oral history interviews may be other than one of the official languages represented in the Museum’s oral history collection. See : Saint-Jacques et al. “Immigrant Languages in Canada” April 16 2020.
  2. Canada, IRCC. Federal/Provincial/Territorial Action Plan for Increasing Francophone Immigration Outside of Quebec, accessed on 25 March 2020.
  3. Interviews in the Museum’s collection were co-created with participants and the interview guides have not been standardized for comparative purposes.
  4. One of the fundamental questions we ask is: why (im)migrate? In other words, what are the “push” and “pull” factors of immigration? At their most basic, the reasons pushing people to leave their countries of origin tend to be a mix of voluntary and involuntary factors. This influences the possibility of where they can choose to settle.