Meet the French Community: Dominique Sarny [fr]
Director of the Centre canadien de recherche sur les francophonies en milieu minoritaire (CRFM) of the Institut Français at the University of Regina
You came to Canada in 1982. What was your experience during the first couple of years? (any difficulties, first impressions, etc.). You are originally from the south of France; was the change of climate difficult for you?
I had visited Canada on two other occasions before I decided to move. The first couple of years I lived in Montreal where I worked in a large French bookstore. Montreal seemed to me like a big city that was still manageable and where I still felt safe. Later, I decided to move to Quebec City to pursue my university studies in anthropology and ethnology. It was a rather difficult time because I didn’t have a lot of money. But on an intellectual and personal level, it was very rewarding. At that time, very few French people studied at Quebec universities, and I am sure that this is what helped me integrate in Quebec and Canada. As far as winter is concerned, I adapted to it really well even though I sometimes find it a bit too long.
You moved to Saskatchewan in 1995 and you worked for the University of Regina. Could you tell us more about your responsibilities there?
I left Quebec because I felt my options were becoming a bit limited. My wife had just received a job offer in Western Canada, and I decided to follow her. Frankly, I wasn’t dreaming of Saskatchewan and I would have preferred the Rockies or the Pacific coast, but I was actually pleasantly surprised by what I discovered in this Prairie province: vast spaces and diverse landscape, but most of all, kind and welcoming people. We speak of Saskatchewan as a province where cultural mosaic is most varied in Canada.
Shortly after I arrived, I got a job as a research associate at the University of Regina. I was in charge of the whole ethnographic aspect of a large research project on cultural practices of francophones in Saskatchewan. It is at that moment that I came into contact for the first time with the reality of being francophone in Canada, outside of Quebec, which stayed with me ever since.
In 2003, you became the director of the Institut français. What is the role of this institute?
I was appointed as the interim director at the Institut français of the University of Regina in 2002 and then I became permanent director in 2003 after a nation-wide competition. The Institut français had just been created and my mission was to develop it into a legitimate university establishment. The mandate of the Institute covers university education (teaching, research, services) in French in Saskatchewan. As such, it is a member of the Association des universités de la francophonie canadienne (http://www.aufc.ca/) which consists of 17 francophone or bilingual university establishments in Canada outside of Quebec. I founded the Institut français on a close partnership with the fransaskois community (francophones in Saskatchewan) from which it draws its originality and strength. It pioneered university-community relations well before this became a priority for Canadian universities in the following decade.
Given your experience, it would seem that you are deeply involved with the francophones in Saskatchewan. How would you describe the francophonie in Saskatchewan and what are some of the challenges it is facing?
The lived experience of the francophones in Saskatchewan interests me a great deal because of their strength to resist, their vitality and their refusal to give up. First, there I met some remarkable and open-minded people who were clear-sighted and willing to help. My first encounters with francophones were not easy but rather distant. I understood much later that what I was perceiving as indifference was in fact a fragile sensitivity, a profound desire to connect with the other, and that experience had taught these people to be careful and to keep a distance with that other who was likely to leave Saskatchewan at the first occasion for the neighbouring Alberta or the attractive British Columbia. In the last few years, this has started to change as the economic growth we’re seeing in Saskatchewan rebuilds trust of its residents and brings in numerous new immigrants and young families.
Francophones acquired the right to manage their schools in French only about twelve years ago when it was granted to them by the Supreme Court of Canada. University education in French remains an issue of high importance as it allows them to keep the young people in the province and to ensure the renewal of the francophone population. The status of the French language and the official bilingualism of Saskatchewan (and of Alberta) could be the subject of the next Supreme Court decision with the Caron lawsuit in Alberta.
But beyond the francophonie, I am interested in the experiences of communities and minorities. Communities forge citizenship. To belong to a minority community is also to inscribe your citizenship in the becoming of the other. It is to experience alterity. The question here is not the future of the French language but the future of humans and their ability to change society by “closely watching the landscape of the other.” To be a minority today is to participate in the “beginning of a world,” to quote the great title of one of the recent books by Jean-Claude Guillebaud. This francophonie is what inspires me.
Your responsibilities have taken you on many different travels and you have met a lot of passionate people. Could you tell us a bit more about this?
The Institut français represents a window into the world. I had the opportunity to travel to three continents as part of my work and to meet passionate and inspiring men and women, such as Charles Willie, professor emeritus of Harvard University, an African-American and a son of a slave, who was for a while working with Martin Luther King; and Elias Chacour, priest, Archbishop of Galilee, an Israeli, Christian Arab activist for peace. Also, I was able to meet André Valadier, a peasant, a politician and a visionary from Aveyron, who is responsible for the development and reputation of the Aubrac region now known for its local and authentic production based on local knowledge and traditions. But, I was also able to meet true artisans of change who are respected in their communities, but unknown elsewhere, who left a profound mark on me with their conviction, commitment, generosity and simplicity.
Since September 2010, you have gone back to your first love: research and teaching. What are your main areas of research?
I have put my research and teaching back in the context of a larger intellectual activity which feeds on the real experiences of minority groups by taking the example of the francophones in Western Canada. Today, I prefer to claim less objectivity but to work in the defence of values and ideas which draw from justice, fairness and freedom and to which I profoundly ascribe. For me, research is inspired from concrete realities, and I continue to be fascinated by the will and the ability of groups of people to free themselves from different forms of oppression.
After almost 30 years in Canada, what is your relationship with France? Are you divided between the two identities? Do you think that you will one day return to France?
There was a time when I thought that going back to France was a possibility. Today, that is no longer the case. I came to accept and confirm at the same time the fact that I am both French and Canadian without favouring one over the other. This métissage is what I am today. It took me at least two decades to recognize this. I often visit France as part of my work and family vacations. Sometimes I miss France but not to the point where I want to go back for good.
Thank you Dominique!