Yukon francophones could learn a thing or two from the history of aikido, says the new president of the Association franco-yukonnaise.
The popular martial art, along with judo and other segments of Japanese culture, discovered a global renaissance after the Second World War, said Gael Marchand, who was elected president on November 14.
The Japanese, who had been skittish about opening up to foreigners following the colonization of China and Vietnam by Western powers, faced an existential crisis after being hit by two atomic bombs, occupied by American soldiers and having their constitution abolished.
“There was a lot of fear about assimilation and so people thought about how to preserve Japanese culture,” says Marchand. “They decided that martial arts were going to be the flag bearers of Japanese culture – they said we’re going to export judo, bring it to the Olympics, to Europe and North America.”
The island nation learned the hard way that culture is better preserved through openness than isolation in many cases.
“The Francophonie, to me, is the same thing,” said Marchand. “If we close, we won’t evolve. If we open, it will enrich and strengthen us. It will give us more influences, it will make us question more.”
Marchand, 38, campaigned in the association’s presidential election on the promise to open up the French community to those who don’t necessarily speak French around the dinner table. His goal is to target francophiles, other minorities and even people who don’t speak a word of French.
“I’m for an open Francophonie—very open and very generous,” said Marchand. “The goal is to do activities in French, but have everyone invited.”
The bulk of the Yukon’s 3,550 or so francophones seem to agree with him. At the association’s 26th annual general assembly in November, Marchand won the first election not to be decided by acclamation in 10 years.
“We have to be tough about a few things, like education,” he said. “We need an education system that passes on the language properly. And that can help us be stronger and help us export our culture.”
His vision marks a paradigm shift for the French community. The association once focused exclusively on the basic necessities of francophones—educational services, medical services and help for francophone immigrants.
But now the association is moving to another stage in its history. It has more freedom to open its doors to others.
“We’re established, we have the minimum of basic services in French,” said Marchand.
“But now we can focus on our relationship with society. We have more choice about where we want to go.”
As a cultural organization, the Association franco-yukonnaise must introduce anglophones and other groups to the value of the French way of life, said Marchand.
“For those who only look at economic factors, there’s value in hiring francophones,” he said. “The more languages we know, the more we can be open to other markets and other parts of the world.”
“But it’s not the most important – the real value is about identity.”
Marchand is originally from Strasbourg, France. He moved to Paris to study aikido and became a professional competitor through France’s sport certification system. He worked for a major telecom company in Paris during the internet bubble before becoming intrigued by Canada’s North.
After studying Inuktitut in Paris, he finally emigrated to Montreal and waited for a job in one of the three territories. In 2002, he moved to the Yukon.
Now an established Northerner, Marchand believes Canada’s multicultural identity is one of the country’s most notable advantages.
“It’s a sign of a society’s intelligence and wisdom when it can recognize different identities and people have to develop that recognition,” he said. “It’s not just language, but music and other art forms.”
The association must continue fostering this plank of Canadian identity by encouraging cross-cultural experiences.
“There are francophiles who like to be with francophones or non-aboriginal who want to be near First Nations because it gives them an opening to see a life differently,” said Marchand.
“It’s important to validate this curiosity.”
It’s always difficult to succinctly define a culture. It’s also liable to engender tired stereotypes.
But at the same time, there’s no question francophones do things a little differently.
“(The francophone community) offers a cultural and social richness, but it’s also philosophical because we all have different ways of seeing the world and life,” he said.
Sometimes the little things are easier to put into words.
“It’s the way we meet, we talk, we socialize and get comfortable with others,” said Marchand. “We’re a little more direct, a little less politically correct and there’s a different sense of humour.”
When Marchand moved to the Yukon, he was surprised at how valued francophones are in a minority situation.
“People send their kids to immersion and lots of people appreciate having their children exposed to another culture in Canada’s panorama,” he said.
One arm of the Yukon Francophonie’s outreach effort will be to work with First Nation groups if they’re interested.
As minority groups that are nonetheless part of a traditional Canadian identity, the French and First Nation communities might find some common ground on how to survive in an English-speaking world.
“We have similar problems when it comes to health, like when an elder can’t get services in their language,” he said.
Health services in French are currently the one major weakness in the Yukon, said Marchand.
The hospital doesn’t have enough signs in French, he said.
“From our view, the government is in charge of the health of its citizens, so we still need to push them to take responsibility,” he said.
For its part, the association has set up smaller health projects that focus on maternity and family issues, he said.
Outside of his job as association president, Marchand is a professional aikido teacher in Whitehorse. The martial art provides an athletic and spiritual outlet for him.
“It focuses on developing the body, mind and character,” he said.
Marchand has directly benefitted from the cultural openness that Japan chose to endorse 50 years ago. And now he now hopes that an open Francophonie in the Yukon will affect young people the same way.
“I grew up in a majority situation,” said Marchand. “But for young people here, there is so much English being spoken. They are going to ask themselves why they’re speaking French.
“But if we share our cultural baggage, whether it’s literary, philosophical or artistic baggage, we can show its value to young people.
“And they will want to hold onto their francophone heritage so they can show others what they bring to the table.”
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