Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

St. Boniface good choice for student from Senegal

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IN January 2007, homeless-rights activist Hannah Taylor flew to New York City as the youngest finalist for the Golden BRICK awards, the Oscars of youth service awards.

By coincidence, the wunderkind from Winnipeg shared the honour with other kids from Africa.

The same month, a Senegalese dad from Africa flew north from his New York business to Winnipeg on a mission for his son. Ben Marega would be the first in the Marega family to leave Senegal for university in Canada, and his father wanted to make sure St. Boniface was the best choice.

Four years later, Marega is happy and successful in St. B., a business administration student and president of the student council at the Université de Saint-Boniface.

When Marega tells the story about his doting dad's trip, he chuckles.

"Yes, it was unusual, but the trip was part of his plan. He wanted my integration to be perfect," the tall 27-year-old student leader said.

"He went to the MTS Centre to see a Moose game, just to tell me how people acted, how they behaved. And he said 'I see a lot of black people at the centre, and I talked to them. "How is it for black people here?" I asked them. They said it was OK. It was no problem.' "

The story is more than just an amusing tale. It's also deeply illustrative of the importance of family ties in traditional African culture and that culture's reliance on the power of first-hand experience.

The Internet had a role to play, too. St. Boniface showed up on the family's web search for a small, but sophisticated francophone community with a university. In Senegal, they held a family conference on the choice before Marega's dad made the trip here.

Striving for success is critical for a growing demographic in the French enclave that is perhaps better known for its historic connections to French Jesuits, Grey Nuns and Métis leader Louis Riel.

"I notice it as a francophone and as a parent," said Brigitte Léger, co-ordinator of the immigration program for ANIM, Manitoba's Bilingual Trade Agency.

She says about 20 per cent of the well-heeled immigrants she helps at ANIM, about 170 people in the last five years, are from former French colonies in Africa.

"There were no Africans here when my 25-year-old and my 23-year-old were in school. But with my 13-year-old, 30 to 35 per cent of his class is from Africa," Léger said.

Turning to Africa

St. Boniface officials say turning to Africa for immigrants was a natural decision for the French-speaking enclave. Africa is known as the continent with more French-speaking people than anywhere else in the world. St. Boniface, with its francophone population flagging, was at risk of losing its French flavour.

"In the last five years, 20 per cent of my immigrants are from Africa," said Brigitte Léger, co-ordinator of the immigration program for ANIM. "And I know for sure a lot more Africans who are coming, and that's because they have family here."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2012 $sourceSection0

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