Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tour de force of community achieved en français

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A little paper held a very big birthday party last week in Winnipeg.

This newspaper's readers are familiar with La Liberté -- the little French weekly which shares a column en franßais every weekend in these pages. It has a circulation of about 6,000.

It was La Liberté's 100th birthday, and editor and publisher Sophie Gaulin pulled out all the stops, even inviting big-city newspaper editors from across the country to join the celebrations.

They did, and they were wowed.

And as the thank-you notes continue to roll in, from New Brunswick to Vancouver, I can't help thinking what a tour de force this was -- not just for La Libert©, but for Winnipeg and its francophone community.

Sometimes it takes someone from the outside, like Gaulin -- a native of Bordeaux, France -- to make you realize just how much there is to celebrate these days here in Winnipeg.

In honour of the centennial, Gaulin decided to create a new association for editors of centenary newspapers, and convinced me and many other Winnipeggers to help her put it together, and host it here.

The result was a national journalism symposium at St. Boniface University June 25, followed by the founding -- by about 30 newspaper editors, French and English -- of the new Centenary Newspapers of Canada/Journaux Centenaires du Canada.

The local, national and international French media covered the event extensively, but not the anglophone media. This is normal. We don't often cover media events; it's generally scorned as 'navel-gazing' in the trade.

But as Gaulin earnestly explained to the bemused reporter covering the event for Agence France Presse, the choice of venue for the CNC/JCC's birth was highly symbolic. It was held at Chez Sophie sur le pont, on the bridge that links francophone St. Boniface to the rest of Winnipeg, just as the new bilingual editors' association will create new links across the country.

Gaulin joked she has learned to "go big or go home" here, since arriving in the province just six years ago, and she exceeded all expectations.

She's heard all the jokes about Winnipeg, and finds it irritating to have to continually explain to skeptics -- many from here -- why she actually prefers living in Winnipeg to Bordeaux.

Yes, even in winter.

She knew this was the opportunity of a lifetime to showcase Winnipeg and its vibrant francophone community to opinion-makers from across Canada, from the Globe and Mail to La Presse, from Le Devoir to the Vancouver Province.

So she and her tiny but formidable team also arranged to have CEO Stuart Murray tour the editors through the not-yet-opened Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

She persuaded Stephane and Sophie Wild to open up their unique new restaurant over the Red River for the editors to hold their inaugural meeting.

And the coup de grace was a sold-out gala at the newly restored Metropolitan Entertainment Centre, beautifully decked out for dinner and a show, and packed full of proud Franco-Manitobans.

The show featured some of the city's best musicians, from Daniel Roy to Edmond Dufort to Marie-Jos©e Dandeneau and Les Surveillantes. It was emceed by local celebrity Vincent Dureault.

Typical of our two solitudes, none of these names are familiar to anglo Winnipeg.

But the show and the music were so spectacular the big-city editors rose to their feet at the end to give Gaulin, and in essence the community she loves, a standing ovation.

As their thank-yous continue to roll in, I am struck by how surprised they all are.

The editors from Qu©bec are surprised Manitoba has such a large French community; that the people here are so warm and friendly; that their passion for the French language and culture is so strong. They discovered another home.

"You showed us a magical time, from the airport shuttle upon our arrival to the last notes of the gala," wrote Jos©e Boileau, the editor in chief of Le Devoir. "You have inspired me to return to Winnipeg."

The editors from the rest of Canada are all exclaiming, too -- over how Winnipeg was so welcoming, and looked so dynamic and successful. Yes, this is a surprise to them. And yes, they, too, have vowed to return.

So bravo, Sophie Gaulin, for shining a light on the good things we share.

And bravo to the little French paper La Libert©, whose very big birthday party became a gift to us all.

 

Margo Goodhand is a former editor of the Winnipeg Free Press.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 29, 2013 A9

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