It’s not often that francophones have something to call their own in British Columbia.
But this weekend, on the thirtieth anniversary of the Festival du Bois, francophonie from across the province descended on Coquitlam’s Mackin Park amidst wafts of melting raclette cheese, the bubble of pommes frites and the blended rhythms of Acadia, Innu and West Africa.
All the cultural touchstones you’d expect are here: hand-knit toques (in the form of frog heads, to be sure), piping hot tourtière, and living statues practicing the art of not falling over.
Inside the improv tent, a roar goes up as team green takes to the stage. Francophone students, grade eight through 12, have come from across the province, from Port Coquitlam to Prince George, Victoria to Kelowna.
“For a lot of students, French is academic,” says 16-year-old Yannok Schieve. “Here, it’s more fun.”
The students are an eclectic mix unto themselves. Take Indira Hien, who recently came from the Ivory Coast to live with her uncle in Prince George, or her teammates, a couple of students representing the Maillardville community who attend a French school in Port Coquitlam.
Most of the 20 students arrived in the Lower Mainland on Thursday to work on their improv skills before the big competition. Today it's winner takes all, and after seven straight hours of acting, the students are showing no signs of letting up.
“No break. We just had a poutine and we go back to it.” says Maureen Ogeard, project manager of Conseil Jeunesse Francophone, the student cultural association that organized the competition now in its ninth year.
As I wander across the park, Roger Loubert waves me into the faux post office, a throwback to the turn of the twentieth century when Quebecois rolled into the Lower Mainland to establish what would be the most important French community in the province.
That was 110 years ago, says Loubert, pointing to old black-and-white prints of George Proulx, one of the original Quebecois settlers and second mayor of Coquitlam.
Three years ago, three sisters showed up at this very tent, says Loubert.
“Three Proulx,” he says. “Part of a community with deep roots.”
When they saw the old black-and-whites, Loubert says something clicked in their heads. They had lost the family’s language, but the connection was still there.
But while Loubert is hopeful of making those bonds at a personal level, he’s more cautious about what it means for the community writ large.
“[Coquitlam] has never known how to grasp this thing – integrate Mallairdville,” he says.
As the sun starts to dip behind the silhouette of Burnaby’s rising towers, people make their way to the main tent, where artisans ply their wares and Alpha Yaya Diallo prepares to take to the stage.
The BC-based, three-time Juno winner blends the Malenke, Sousou and Foulani sounds of West Africa, and everyone in line at the Yellow Dog beer kiosk starts to sway.
The Port Moody brewery has three beers on tap — though today, this reporter can only speak to the saison, a grassy, earthy brew originally from the French-speaking part of Belgium.
“The farmers would toss whatever leftover crops they had into the batch of beer,” says Yellow Dog’s Nick Perry, adding, it’s one of those beers that’s hard to define, “quite an amorphous style — it just depends what you put in it.”
Everyone’s dancing now, but from behind the stage Galia Goodwin has one eye on the clock. Goodwin is managing the show, the stage, and everyone who comes and goes.
A Coquitlam resident, her mother came from France. Goodwin has no connection to Maillardville in any direct way, something she says doesn’t matter.
This festival, “it’s just trying to hold on to your roots,” she says.
“They call it the Francophonie — it’s all here.”