With the interruption of many art events, Apt613 thought it could be a good moment to reflect on our local cultural scene from a francophone point of view.
You may have heard of Ottawa’s francophone arts community. And no, they do not simply consist of Québec ex-pats. Actually, the majority of French-language artists working in Ottawa self-identify as Franco-Ontarians and have both a shared and distinctive cultural background from our neighbouring province.
It would be impossible to cover every aspect of Franco-Ontarian culture in a single article, especially when considering the complexity, breadth, and constant expansion of this incredibly dynamic milieu. Our main goal here is to identify some of the unique flavours specific to Franco-Ontarian arts in Ottawa.
When did it all start?
Most historians agree that a distinct Franco-Ontarian identity emerged in the early ’70s as a response to Québec nationalism. During this time, French-Canadians in Québec became “Québécois” and those in Ontario became “Franco-Ontarians.” Sudbury is considered the birthplace of the movement. Significantly, most of its leaders were artists.
Franco-Ontarian artistic initiatives today take place in Ontario’s cities as well as in rural areas. The nature of the culture is very fragmented, which is why student festivals like Quand ça nous chante or Festival de Théâtre Action en milieu scolaire (FTAMS) take place in different towns each year. These festivals allow young francophones from around Ontario to gather and strengthen their sense of common identity.
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Franco-Ontarian culture is often associated with music, theatre, and literature. As Franco-Ontarians are a linguistic minority, work is often anchored in and inspired by this reality. As such, it is often political. This is not surprising since this community of approximately 600,000 must constantly push back against attempts at assimilation. For example, recent challenges include cuts from Doug Ford to French-language postsecondary education and, more specifically, the crisis at Laurentian University.
Many measures seek to protect this young and ever-fragile culture. For example, most Franco-Ontarian elementary and high schools do not allow their students to listen to English-language music, although the degree of strictness varies from one place to another. Also, most schools have hired a full-time cultural animator who must promote French-language artistic activities.
What’s up in Ottawa?
Ontario has the largest number of francophone publishing houses outside of Québec, and most of them are in Ottawa: L’Interligne, Édition David, and La Presse de l’Université d’Ottawa are the major ones. Prise de parole is still based in Sudbury, but publishes authors from here. On the literary front, Ottawa has a very dynamic scene.
Each year, Le Salon du livre de l’Outaouais (Outaouais Book Fair) brings authors from both sides of the river, and beyond, together. With its numerous events, round tables, awards, the Salon is a significant literary event for Ottawa-Gatineau authors. This year, it will take place Feb. 24–27.
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Ottawa is also home to the greatest number of French-language professional theatre companies, including Théâtre de la Vieille 17, la Catapulte, Vox Théâtre, Le Théatre du Trillium, Créations in Vivo, and Rouge Écarlate. Their objectives vary; some lean towards local creation, while others welcome performing arts from around the world. The national capital is also home to the only French theatre conservatory outside Québec, an intensive and professional acting program.
We cannot talk about Ottawa’s French-language theatre without mentioning the largest performing festival in Ontario, Zones théâtrales (you can still see some of their latest event posters on Ottawa’s streets!). Every two years, the National Arts Centre organizes this major event, which presents the work of francophone artists based outside of Québec. If everything goes well, this festival will be back in the fall of 2023.
It would be criminal to forget Ottawa’s rich improv community. This is an opportunity to be creative and have fun in French. Every month, the l’Acronyme troupe hosts matches at the Institut Canadien-français in the ByWard Market.
Finally, music lovers will not be disappointed! Not only are there a plethora of musicians and singers based in Ottawa, but the city also hosts the annual Festival franco-ontarien, the largest French-language festival in Ottawa. Over the years, it has become one of the most important francophone events in the country.
Language barriers can be a challenge when trying to understanding and even enjoy a creative piece. But if you like to travel and learn about new cultures and languages, why not start by experiencing them in your own city?
The author would like to thank historian Joël Beddows for his support with this article.