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Francophone culture an integral part of Bonnyville

“In Bonnyville you always hear a little bit of French here and there.” Those are the words of Real Girard, a longtime staple of the local Francophone community.
One of the ACFA’s most popular events is the annual Northern Sugar Shack.
One of the ACFA’s most popular events is the annual Northern Sugar Shack.

“In Bonnyville you always hear a little bit of French here and there.” Those are the words of Real Girard, a longtime staple of the local Francophone community.

Bonnyville's French history goes back decades and is deeply intertwined in the town's roots, but it didn't really start to be supported and promoted until 1977 when the French Cultural Centre or l'Association canadienne-francaise de l'Alberta (ACFA) was born.

The regional branch of the ACFA was officially founded on July 28, 1977 for the purpose of promoting the French culture in the region and to project a positive image of the Alberta francophone community.

“The association is here to give francophones the tools they need to organize themselves and develop a strong community,” said Girard, who served as president of the ACFA in 1989.

“We encourage the knowledge, use and appreciation of the French language.”

Throughout the late 1970's and into the 1980's the ACFA was responsible for a variety of events in and around the Bonnyville/ Cold Lake region. The organization hosted, theatre, concerts, movies, jazz art, and folk dances, such as the youth folk dancing group Les Vols-au-Vent.

“The main goal was to preserve and promote the French language and culture. We would participate in a lot of activities,” said Girard. “When I was director we worked on a Bonnyville history book for the 75th anniversary of the town.”

The book was one of many projects, in which the ACFA partnered up with other local organizations in order to complete.

They were also an integral part of turning the Lyle Victor Albert Centre into what it is today. Back in the early 1980's when the debate of whether or not to destroy the old building was taking place, the ACFA went to the table with the Town, the Bonnyville Historical Society and local recreational committee to repair and repurpose the building.

Changes came to the regional ACFA in the mid-1980's when the provincial organization ordered all regional centres, including Bonnyville/ Cold Lake, to buy their own cultural centre.

Up to this point the ACFA had just been renting the local French Cultural Centre building, situated on 4904 50 St. in Bonnyville, the same place they are located today.

After some research the ACFA discovered that if they were to purchase the building they would have no longer been able to host bingo night's, which were a major source of revenue for the organization.

It was at this point that Girard's friends Daniel and Francine Tremblay, who were new to the region, came up with an idea to solve the issue.

“They figured lets start our own nonprofit organization that is separate of the French Canadian Association. That is what started the Festival Bonnyvillois,” said Girard.

In 1986 the Festival Bonnyvillois was officially incorporated. To this day the nonprofit organization still exists and owns the French Cultural Centre, which the ACFA rents from.

“Practically, right now, they are both the same,” said Girard, referring to the ACFA and the Festival Bonnyvillois.

Along with adding an extra path for the French Cultural Centre to try and gain funding, the Festival Bonnyvillois joined in the ACFA's mandate to support the local francophone community.

Months after being incorporated the Festival Bonnyvillois held a three-day street festival on 50th St. outside of the French Cultural Centre. The event marked the 10-year anniversary of the Bonnyville French Cultural Centre and 10-year anniversary of French television in Bonnyville

From May 2-4 of 1986 events were held across Bonnyville, with Daniel Tremblay at the centre of them. Events such as log sawing, pillow fighting and tug-of-war highlighted the festival. The ACFA boy scouts served the community breakfast and Les Vols-au-Vent performed at the Lyle Victor Albert Centre.

“When they had that festival a lot of people were really impressed,” said Girard.

Along with the street festival Tremblay continued to organize events for the local francophone community such as bike-a-thon's between Bonnyville and St. Paul and casino nights.

By far the biggest event the ACFA has spearheaded over the course of their time in the community is the ever-growing annual Northern Sugarshack or La Cabane a Sucre du Nord.

The popular traditional French-Canadian event has long since become a staple of the community, attracting large audiences year after year.

In 2014 the popular event celebrated its 35th anniversary with a record attendance of 678 people.

One of the reasons why this event has gained larger and larger crowds over the years is due to the influx of French speaking youth, thanks to the ever-expanding École des Beaux Lacs.

The local francophone school started out small, originally appearing as a preschool and kindergarten program in the Parent Child Centre back in 1994. The school quickly grew thanks to a small group of extremely dedicated parents.

For the first three years the school was managed by École Voyageur in Cold Lake. Then in 1997 it moved into the old Duclos School building, a section that has since been torn down.

“It is something that could have been started much earlier as some other francophone schools (in the region) were stared in the 1980's,” said Marc Dumont, a current board member with Conseil scolaire Centre-Est, and former principal of École des Beaux Lacs. “I guess the community just wasn't ready for it at that time.”

The school started with 12 students, expanded to around 30 and then again to around 80 students, all in a matter of a few years.

Currently École des Beaux Lacs is located on 34 St. right on the eastern limits of Bonnyville. The school has grown to include 211 students.

According to Principal Lise Gratton the goal for the school is to have the French language and culture permeate everything they do.

“Not only do they learn the language, but they are able to learn through the language. So not only are they learning those language skills, but they are learning math in French, and science in French and everything that we do is through the (French) language,” said Gratton.

“Not only do we work hard on the language, but also the music, the traditions, all of that background to the Francophone culture.”

Some say the addition of École des Beaux Lacs has changed the local Francophone community for the better, as it has helped the language and culture become more accepted throughout the region.

“I think (the Francophone community) has changed. Now you have all of these people coming out of the immersion and Francophone schools,” said Girard. “Personally I have noticed when I go to a restaurant, more often than not the (waitress) will be happy to speak French. The community is more open (to the language).”

Dumont agrees, feeling that more and more people coming to the community are a lot more accepting of the Francophone culture, which has helped it grow.

“For a long time I think the mentality was less is more; in the sense we don't need this, we don't want this,” said Dumont. “Now people are wanting more and more for their children and to expose them to the maximum positive influences they can, which can include being bilingual.”

More and mores parents have been opting for the bilingualism and sending their children to École des Beaux Lacs.

As Gratton noted, it helps open up doors for the students and give them opportunities at jobs that not a lot of other people could obtain.

“I think we are lucky here in Bonnyville that people are very open to the francophone culture,” said Gratton. “It is very well accepted and I think we are very much an integral part of the community.”

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