Language as a Pull Factor for Newcomers to Francophone Minority Communities

by Siniša Obradovic, 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.

Translated from French

And then, lastly, while we weren't really thinking, Canada came on the list because, well, my dad thinks - had a very, very high opinion of Canada. He said, “Here is a country where people are open-minded. I hear a lot of good things.” My mom too, through testimonies from some of her friends whose children were already in Canada, thought: “Okay, I think Canada has a lot more opportunities for you. Then from there, we have - as a family, we started the process, follow the process so that I can come to Canada to study. And there the question: “Do I continue my studies in French or do I continue my studies in English?” We thought that I would be much more comfortable, much more comfortable doing it in French. But I was planning to learn English because I am like - Already being in Senegal we have to know at least two languages. Its mother tongue and the official language being French. So, with that, I knew that language was a richness - it was a vector of culture, and then English: I was still attracted to speaking English. So I wanted to learn English, and this is where Winnipeg came from: where there is a city with a very beautiful francophone community, but at the same time which is predominantly Anglophone, so you can follow your studies in French while, while having access to a life in English or learning English. And that's how we chose Winnipeg, Saint-Boniface I must say because when I came here, it was always: “Okay, you're going to go to Saint-Boniface and not to Winnipeg, and that's how I arrived at the University of Saint-Boniface.”

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.

Translated from French

It’s difficult when you’ve known Vancouver in the summer. So, of course, I'm there in April 2001, when the weather was pretty good. I mean, I experienced all of summer in 2001 before leaving in September. And what I knew about the rest of the country did not make me want to experience a winter in Montreal or Toronto. So… and then I was really looking to speak English. So that’s why I didn’t choose Quebec from the start because I knew that in Quebec, we speak French. So I wouldn’t really have opportunities. And I was not familiar with Ontario, the Prairies, or other regions. All I knew was that I already had contacts in Vancouver. I came to Vancouver because I had a contact in France who knew Vancouver. So, right away, there was a helping hand when I came to Vancouver. And, the west coast is quite unique. For Canada, it's a bit special. It’s a temperate climate. And it seems a bit like we experience the same thing in terms of weather as what we know in the Paris region, with the bonus of having the sea and the mountains.

Interviewer: So when you got here for good, how did it go? What did you do to integrate? What was your plan at the time? How did you set up-

Saïda Ouchaou-Ozarowski: Yes. So my plan was to find- because, the first year I came, I understood that- The first time I came, I understood that there were employment opportunities in French. Yes, practicing English is good and all. Except that, at work, me, my strength- I said to myself: “I'm really better in French. So, I am capable - If I have a job in French, I am able to really value myself and offer the maximum to my employer.”

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:

Translated from French

Since I was 15, I wanted to live in North America. I always had this, I told myself that I would live in an English-speaking country. And in France we talk a lot about Canada, especially Quebec, but we talk a lot about Canada. I also knew someone who in their twenties had left for Canada, but to Gatineau, so in Quebec. And then it started germinating little by little, in my head. Then I studied, I started working, and we arrived in a kind of routine, where in the end, how to say ... In the end, we work, we earn money, so we don't think about the dream we had when we were younger. We are settled in, we are in an apartment, we have friends, we go out, then we go back working the next day. So, in the end, going to Canada into the unknown is not something that is going to be, something important. In any case, in my mind it was not important at the time. - At the time, finally, It seems like it was 15 years ago, but ... So it was still more or less ten years already ... - But I always wanted to study in North America, either Canada or the United States, but it is very expensive, and my parents told me, no, is it better already to start in France and then you will see…

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.