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Searching for Franco Toronto: our 50,000 strong Francophone community

In the battle of the senses, what we see often triumphs over what we hear. When we imagine multiculturalism in Toronto, we revel in the visual, envisioning neighbourhoods bursting with eye candy: the backlit pictographs of Little Korea and meaty storefronts of Chinatown; the flaky feta of the Danforth or the green and red signage of Portugal Village. Language is certainly central in every locale, but we don't give it too much consideration. Consequently, we overlook Toronto's tens of thousands of Francophones.

"They're hard to find," says Dominic Desjardins, the head of Zazie Films, a French production company.

But they're out there, a statistical treasure trove over 50,000 strong. They're more educated than most Torontonians, and they earn more too. They're artists and tradespeople, managers and scientists. The language is a high diversity-pulsar packed tight with nationalities, whether European, Canadian, African, Asian or Middle Eastern. And yet, says Desjardins, Francophones can bump into each other and not even realize they have the language in common.

"I don't actually see the Francophone community as a tight pack that basically does a lot of activities together, or that you can go to a certain part of town and you can find the Francophones and that's where they hang out," says Desjardins. "It's mostly throughout the city, and more on an individual basis."

But the community does have pillars, including Desjardins' production company, headquartered in the Distillery District. There are also several annual events.

The CineFranco film festival is one such occasion. Last year, Desjardins made the listings with the debut of Le Divan du Monde, which he bills as the first Francophone film to be produced outside of Quebec in 25 years. This month, Desjardins premieres the film in Quebec, thus giving back to the home culture he left five years ago.

"It's a film that talks about Francophones outside Quebec, and I think it's interesting for Anglophones to realize that there's more than one million Francophones living outside the province of Quebec, from the Maritimes to the Yukon," he says. "And these Francophones, they live in French. They speak French, and they work in French."

Le Labratoire D'Art is also in the Distillery. It's said to be the only visual media arts centre in the province that offers technology lessons in French, and it also strives to knit together the artistic elements of French Toronto's numerous subsets, including an African dance troupe and a queer-positive video premiere. Barbara Gilbert is Le Labratoire's general director, and she extols the Francophone penchant to steep in the arts.

"It's different from the Anglo-Protestant, stiff upper lip," says the Ottawa-born Franco-Ontarian. "We're passionate people. When we're angry, you know it. When we're in love, you know it. I think the cultural manifestation is where our passions come out."

When Gilbert first arrived in the city, her Franco-self was submerged beneath an English language lifestyle. But, after her son was born, her French began to reassert itself when she enrolled him in a Francophone school.

"The school is a centralizing factor for a lot of people," says Gilbert. "We can assimilate perfectly into the English world, but it's only when our children start attending school that we find our community."

Anne-Marie Kouadja left the Ivory Coast for Toronto during the country's 2002 civil war. While she uses both French and English working for Citigroup, she, like Gilbert, has she met a lot of French people by virtue of her son's enrolment in a Francophone school.

"It's good for him to start in French and meet some other people," she says. "And I also have the opportunity to meet other French people."

It's in those encounters that the language's decentralized features begin to appear. Kouadja had to adapt to Quebecois joual, learning new slang and hearing different inflections. Gilbert, meanwhile, doesn't like to be lumped in with the Quebecois, framing instead the nearly 600,000 Franco-Ontarians as distinct from any other French-speaking group. But Desjardins sees interprovincial commonality in French Canada, something that extends from the Acadian Maritimes, on through Quebec, into Toronto, and all the way to Victoria.

"What's traditional in Quebec applies to the rest of Canada, apart from some holidays," he says. "The cultural references are intertwined with the language. If you talk about the African community, of course, there's a bigger divide."

Despite these differences, the language endures -- and it lands all three of them a spot in Genevieve Trilling's contact list. She's the cultural activities coordinator with Alliance-Francaise de Toronto, the GTA's century-old French culture school. The organization delves into instruction, theatre, music, exhibits, lectures and more.

"This seems to be a bit of a hub for French people from France, because you're a little bit lost when you first get here," says Trilling, who was born in France herself. "They come here to find a bit of support and tips on where to go and who to connect with."

Not only do the French from France benefit from Alliance-Francaise, but so do Francophones from other communities. Just like French schools, the art scene centralizes. Before taking the job at Alliance-Francaise, Trilling put on the 2009 Summerworks theatre production I Will Always Be There To Kill You, a French play she translated into English and performed in both languages.

"That's how I got connected to the Francophone community," she says. "I had gone to English schools and had English friends. But I was looking for French actors and directors, and they were hard to find."

In the future, Toronto's Francophones may prove even more elusive. Even though the province's French population has been growing, a little over a thousand Francophones left Toronto between the 2001 and 2006 censuses, taking with them their wisdom, wealth and workmanship. The economic picture in the city is rosier than much of Canada, but Desjardins chalks the mini-exodus up to lost employment.

"A lot of people settle for a few years, and a lot of people go back to Quebec or France," he says. "There's a lot of transition. People come for a few years, and then they go."

"LABO SHOW" opens tonight at Le Labratoire D'Art -- also see their Facebook event page.

Paul Carlucci is a freelance writer working in the GTA.

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