A million voices speaking French

Veronique Herry St. Onge should have gone to Madagascar when she signed up for the 2010 Francophonie Summit. But a coup d'etat in the island nation forced organizers to relocate to Montreux, Switzerland, a ritzy lakeside town in the Swiss Alps.

Veronique Herry St. Onge should have gone to Madagascar when she signed up for the 2010 Francophonie Summit.

But a coup d’etat in the island nation forced organizers to relocate to Montreux, Switzerland, a ritzy lakeside town in the Swiss Alps.

And even then, St. Onge, 23, thought she’d be attending the big summit meetings where dozens of leaders sit around a giant table discussing world issues.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t get much access to the summit,” said St. Onge, a self-confessed political junkie.

But St. Onge, a feisty Franco-Yukoner who talks fast when she gets exited, wasn’t going to leave without the full experience.

“If the mountain doesn’t come to Mohammed, then Mohammed will go to the mountain,” she said.

On the summit’s last day, October 24, she started her own personal diplomatic mission.

“I talked to anyone that I could to get in, got the support of the Canadian delegation and got in there,” she said.

Just being in the room is sometimes the only gratification a politico needs, and St. Onge revelled in her proximity to power, which included shaking the hand of Nicholas Sarkozy, the French president.

“He’s so short,” she said.

She took a long stroll around the giant oval table.

“And then there’s Stephen Harper and Jean Charest chatting,” she said.

Charest, the Quebec premier, was present because of Canada’s three-pronged presence at the Francophonie summits, which take place every two years.

Quebec, the country’s only French province, and New Brunswick, the only bilingual province, get their own seat at the table.

The rest of Canada’s francophones – there are 750,000 people who consider French their mother tongue outside those two provinces – are presented by Canada’s own national delegation.

The three-seat approach is mimicked at the youth delegation level, with three young people from Canada present.

St. Onge, whose parents moved to the Yukon in the 1980s, represented the francophones outside Quebec and New Brunswick.

They teamed up with more than 20 youth from around the world and did a few film projects.

“It was interesting to have all those different realities and accents and expressions and ways of life united,” she said.

La Francophonie summits, and the 56-member Organization Internationale de le Francophonie more generally, have been criticized for lacking much substance beyond sharing a language.

But like the Commonwealth, the association is founded on basic liberal democratic ideals like the promotion of justice and human rights.

The summit is an avenue where countries with a shared heritage can promote those goals.

Multilateral co-operation on reconstructing Haiti after its massive earthquake is one recent example.

The organization also suspended Mauritania in 2008 after a military coup d’etat took hold of power in that country.

But the relevance of French as a language – and more generally as a history and a way of life – is also part of the organization’s mandate.

Many of the youth discussions revolved around what fields the French language has the best chance of growing in the future, said St. Onge.

“Can science have a French voice? Can movies have a French voice? Can media have a French voice?” she said, repeating some of the channels where French may do best to focus.

But getting a unified action plan on the long-term growth of French is hard, considering the fundamental differences in the francophone experience around the world.

Even among the Canadians, no two French cultures have fought for their voice the same way.

St. Onge, who has grown in a very anglophone community like the Yukon, has had to defend her language against very blunt attacks.

“I remember a guy at the University of Victoria who advocated for the abolishment of French as a national language,” she said.

On the other end of the spectrum, Quebeckers have been the loudest, and arguably the most successful, self-advocates for their francophone culture.

But Quebecois popular opinion on the francophone debate is dominated by an insular cultural protectionism, a kind of two-faced view that is at once victimized and proud.

“They sometimes they feel like they’re alone and shut themselves out from those outside,” said St. Onge.

Other francophone communities – Acadians, Franco-Ontarian and, of course, Franco-Yukoners – have all fought to learn in French, live in French and work in French.

But Quebeckers can often behave like they invented the fight against assimilation.

“It’s not because of Quebec that we fought for schools or our rights,” said St. Onge.

None of these differences get hashed out on the national stage because most national politicians have accepted the status quo, allowing Quebec’s intense defensiveness to put a strangle hold on debate (Quebec seats are essential for a majority in a the House of Commons in Ottawa).

So a forum like la Francophonie summit allows for competing viewpoints to meet in good faith.

It’s also gives a chance for people like St. Onge to compare her experiences with those of francophones in other countries.

“In Africa, the French language is coming up against all the indigenous languages,” said St. Onge.

Cote d’Ivoire has more than 70 languages and, as a former French colony, French acts like a sort of language bridge.

But it’s not all rosy, since “French is seen as for the elites because it means you went to school,” she said.

Then there’s francophones who chose to speak French, who have a very firm idea of why francophone solidarity matters, she said.

“Despite our differences, we all have a language in common,” she said.

St. Onge didn’t get much access to the higher-stakes world of international French diplomacy because the youth group’s focus was in journalism.

They produced a few movie projects, including one in the Alps where a group of African youth saw snow for the first time, said St. Onge.

But on the last day, she was able to snag a media pass into the last news conference.

Abdou Diouf, la Francophonie association’s executive secretary, Doris Leuthard, the Swiss president and Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign affairs minister, made up the panel.

St. Onge raised her hand, and, surprisingly, the organizers picked her.

Diouf, who is originally from Senegal, answered her question about what youths’ involvement in la Francophonie should be with a stock answer that was, despite being elegant, full of platitudes, said St. Onge.

She says young people are delegated to the sidelines in the international francophone community, and that should change considering the way the organization sometimes struggles for a raison d’etre.

“There is no future for francophones without youth and education,” she said.

Contact James Munson at