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Toronto French new wave: A cultural shift for Toronto as ‘invisible francophones’ settle in

Ahead of the start of the school year, Noah Barrass, left, 13, and Chloe Barrass, 10, check out the classrooms at École élémentaire La Mosaïque.

Darren Calabrese

There's a certain peril to being francophone in Toronto. Heidi Pospisil, for example, remembers calling loudly to her daughter in French one day as they walked down the sidewalk.

"'Did you put underwear on today?'" she hollered.

"She's 3 – she sometimes forgets," she explained apologetically.

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Normally, a passersby in Canada's biggest city can be counted on not to understand a word. But, as Ms. Pospisil has discovered near her home in Toronto's east end, strangers sometimes glance her way with stifled laughter.

Those moments may be cringe worthy, but they are often one of the few ways for francophones in Toronto to find each other. Many, after all, speak perfect English, blending in among neighbours and colleagues. Only at home do they switch languages, hoping to steep their children in French.

For their children, the gradual blending-in can be even harder to fight: Despite guarantees in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, French-only schools in Toronto have historically been few and far between. For decades, a real fear for many francophones settling in Hogtown has been that they would fail to pass on their language and culture to their offspring.

A once-in-a-generation opportunity is starting to change that, and it promises a bigger cultural shift in Toronto. As enrolment in English-language schools declines, a crop of school properties is being put up for sale and the region's two French school boards have jumped to buy. What no one predicted is the snowball effect that has followed each new school opening, drawing "invisible francophones" out of a reluctant assimilation and making new connections between them.

Lianne Doucet, a mother of three in Toronto's Leslieville neighbourhood, laughs and lowers her voice to a spooky register. "We always say, 'We're all around you.'"

The cultural isolation of Toronto-area francophones – whether by mother tongue or schooling – can be so extreme that many don't know that Section 23 of the Charter promises French-language K-12 education for their children. The Toronto area's first French-language school board was created in 1988, and there are now two serving the region, one public and one Catholic. Still, nearly 30 years later, the secular board, the Conseil Scolaire Viamonde, must diligently advertise its schools to get the word out, superintendent Sylvie Longo said.

It has had a lot of ads to put out lately: 12 new schools in the past eight years, with four more under construction. The board's Catholic counterpart, the Conseil Scolaire de District Catholique Centre-Sud, has opened 10 in the same time span. The two boards' enrolment rose respectively by 33 and 16 per cent from 2008 to 2014.

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That's in sharp contrast with the shrinking English system. The Toronto District School Board's enrolment dropped by nearly 5 per cent in the same period.

And still, French schools consistently fill up faster than predicted. École Élémentaire La Mosaïque opened in Toronto's Danforth area in 2008 and has already had to rezone, unable to fit in all the eligible children. École Ronald-Marion in Pickering opened in 2013 and now needs portable classrooms to meet demand, while a French Catholic school in Stouffville is at full capacity and hasn't even opened yet.

"When we build schools, they come," Ms. Longo said.

Toronto may be one of the world's most diverse cities, but within Canada, it's also a bastion of English – and Quebec, a more obvious destination for francophone immigrants, is just a few hours away. Who are the tens of thousands of Toronto-area residents itching for all-French education?

Learning the answer to that question has been one of the joys of being a founding parent at La Mosaïque school, said Karine Barrass, who moved to Canada from France 14 years ago. Her son and daughter have both attended the Danforth school.

"You have the ones that are really embracing to be both English and French. You have the others that are way more like French-French," she said.

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Children at La Mosaïque represent 77 nationalities. Ms. Barrass's friends, and her children's friends, come from West Africa and Vietnam, from Europe, Northern Ontario and Quebec. What they have in common, other than language, is hard to define, but it's strong enough that parents will rearrange their lives to find it, she said.

"Culturally, it is very different," she said. "English and French are very different."

Even armed with census and immigration data, the school boards have puzzled over who exactly is likely to take advantage of their services.

Every year roughly 1,000 French-speaking immigrants settle in Toronto, with the occasional spike – after the 2011 earthquake in Haiti, for example. Many more speak some English and French in addition to their own dialects, such as many newcomers from Congo, said Réjean Sirois, director of the Toronto-area French Catholic board.

It wasn't clear just how many of these polyglots – using the same logic as scores of Canadian-born parents – would want their children to get an edge through fluent bilingualism, he said.

"They come here and they have to learn both languages, but they recognize that if they go in a French school, they will learn French because outside … everything is in English and they will learn it [anyway]," he said.

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Nearly 50,000 Quebec residents (both francophone and anglophone) moved to Ontario between 2006 and 2011, according to census data. On top of that are the native-born Franco-Ontarians, whose numbers are difficult to pinpoint precisely.

After moving to Toronto, francophones often expect to live in English, especially if they marry an English speaker, Mr. Sirois said. They may not realize how much things can change when they ask for education in French. In the town of Collingwood, Ont., northwest of Barrie, a group of parents presented trustees of the regional French Catholic board with lists of local francophone families.

"Parents came to the school board and said, 'Hey, there's a lot of francophones there,'" Mr. Sirois said. "When you look at the statistics, at Statscan, you didn't find that there were a lot of French people there."

The board acquiesced to their wishes, expecting the town's small elementary school to open with 30 children. Fifty showed up.

Toronto probably has the most dedicated lobbyists for more schools, but their efforts faced a dead end for years, with the boards saying there was no land to buy. In 2011, the city was short 10 francophone schools, with 8,221 students eligible to learn in French but not doing so, according to a study by Ontario's Office of the French Language Services Commissioner.

A lack of high schools in particular created a painful lose-lose situation for families such as Ms. Barrass's, whose children had settled into French elementary schools.

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At high school age, her children can go to the Collège Français – a converted office space just east of downtown Toronto with no outdoor yard – or commute an hour or more to the next-closest option. Private French schools are costly, with the Lycée Français Toronto, for instance, charging about $16,000 for annual tuition. The final option: Switching to English, which for students often means losing much of their French by the time they reach adulthood.

"An anglophone friend said, 'That's a difficult decision to make,'" recalled Ms. Barrass. There's no real choice, she responded. "It's déchirant – it's wrenching."

At birthday parties, barbecues, school food fairs and St. Jean Baptiste days, her children have grown up in Toronto's unique and burgeoning francophone social scene. Her anglophone husband often jokes that she's a little too exuberant for English parties, she said.

"A francophone person is straightforward," she said. "Everything is amplified."

French-speaking families from La Mosaïque share an "epicurean" sense and a "community way of living" that's different from the mainstream culture, she said.

"We want that secondary school because we know if we don't have that secondary school most of our kids are going to be assimilated and lost."

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In eastern Toronto, where she lives, the high school problem remains acute. Her oldest is now attending Collège Français, while some other francophone kids in the area, such as one of Ms. Doucet's daughters, have switched to English schools.

In other neighbourhoods, though, the province's recent pressure on the TDSB and Toronto Catholic District School Board to sell off surplus property has helped. At least 13 school properties have changed hands in the past few years, including one at Dundas Street and Lansdowne Avenue, where Viamonde and French Catholic high schools now share a building, creating more secondary options.

The province has come under fire for not doing enough to create French schools and it is aware of the huge demand, but it can't force boards to sell property, Ministry of Education officials said in a statement.

"Available space, at any given point in time, fluctuates as school boards have discretion to decide what and when space is surplus to their needs," they said.

The ministry will review the laws around surplus-school processes this fall, it said.

Ms. Doucet, who sometimes felt her own French was deteriorating after moving to Toronto from Northern Ontario 23 years ago, has encouraged her three daughters to stay in French schools as long as possible, despite the sacrifices.

She remembers her happiness in watching each take the stage in a fast-paced improv troupe, only occasionally struggling in French.

"I want my kids to know that it's not just a minority language," she said. "I want my kids to feel connected to something."

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