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Immersion plus

French-language education bears sweet fruit in Quebec City

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MONTREAL -- This is dedicated to the 18,000 Manitoba students who are rising to the challenge of French immersion.

School can be tough enough without learning in a second language. After spending yet another evening conjugating French verbs, thereby wasting valuable Facebook time, students likely cry: "Is French immersion worth it?"

The answer, as I discovered in a recent trip to Quebec, is "Bien oui!"

Speaking French is the key to experiencing the unique culture of Quebec. If you speak only English, you will be politely welcomed with a handshake. If you speak French, even if it's a fumbling French with a beginners' accent, you will be embraced with passion, and both your cheeks will be repeatedly kissed as a welcome into the fellowship of the French.

I wish I could bring every Manitoba immersion student to Quebec but I don't have enough Air Miles to buy flights for everyone.

Instead, I travelled with one representative student. My son James, 15, lives in Winnipeg with parents who are unilingual English -- unfortunately for James. We enrolled him in French immersion in kindergarten and he's stuck with it through James Nisbet Elementary, École Leila North and now Garden City Collegiate.

James got the chance to try out his hard-won French thanks to Tourism Quebec and Tourism Montreal, two government agencies that hosted us recently for a five-day trip to Quebec City and Montreal.

At first, James was unsure of his language proficiency (when we arrived in Montreal's airport and passed a gaggle of teens chattering in fluent French, James remarked grimly: "I'll never be able to speak French like that in a million years.") but he pulled up his pluck and gamely led us through many encounters in Canada's other official language.

In Montreal, we met Tanya Churchmuch, who was typical of Quebecers cheering for French-immersion students. She worked for Global TV Montreal for 10 years as a reporter and a news anchor. She was raised English-only, but she acquired French in university.

"Learning French has brought so much joy to my life, new friendships, a new way of seeing the world," she told us over lunch. "It's opened me to a whole world of music, great cinema and a certain French style, a French flare. If you're English, you have to work to get French, but it's worth it! "

Her zeal was contagious and helped us tackle a schedule crowded with activities.

In Quebec City, we stayed at the ritzy Hotel Chateau Laurier and soaked in an outdoor hot tub in a snow-filled courtyard. We click-clacked along the cobblestone streets of Old Quebec in a horse-drawn carriage from Caleches du Vieux-Quebec Inc. We dined in the elegant L'Astral, a revolving restaurant with a towering view of the city.

And we donned traditional Quebec waist sashes and snowshoed across the Plains of Abraham with a witty guide who stayed in character as a Quebecois from the early 20th century with a grudge against the British.

We took a Via train from Quebec City to Montreal, dining on-board with a big-window view of the Quebec countryside.

In Montreal, we stayed at Le Square Phillips Hotel, an historical building in the bustling downtown. We visited La Maison du Bagel Boulanger to taste the doughy delicacies hot from a brick oven, learning that Montrealers believe their bagels are the world's best. We saw a multimedia light and sound show inside the vast Notre-Dame Basilica cathedral. We dined at the theme restaurant Cabaret du Roy, where make-believe blackguards introduced us to their clandestine gambling den.

Throughout our adventures, James said he understood the French clearly, unless they spoke too quickly. His speech was perhaps not as good as his listening, but everyone warmly encouraged his brave efforts to converse. For example, when we toured the Quebec legislature and saw Premier Jean Charest's government in session, our tour guide spoke in French, slowly and clearly, and James got it all, even daring a few questions in French.

The most memorable moment, the proud-papa moment I will remember always, came during a lively history presentation in Quebec City by a talented teacher named Lucie Benoit, who called James forward to don a British redcoat and shoulder a musket. Speaking in French, she teased James about his inability to load the gun, which made James chuckle.

That's when I became a big fan of the Manitoba French immersion program. I saw my son laugh in French.

Quebec's favourite Winnipegger

QUEBEC CITY -- Which Winnipegger is most revered throughout Quebec?

Hint: the first correct guess wins a copy of the 1945 novel The Tin Flute.)

The answer, of course, is Gabrielle Roy.

The French author was born in St. Boniface in 1909 and lived here for her first 30 years. She moved to Quebec but continued to write about Manitoba. The novel, The Tin Flute, is regarded as a work that helped spur the Quiet Revolution.

Winnipeg offers quiet honours to our native daughter. Her childhood home at 375 Deschambault St. is open to the public and in 2008 was designated a National Historic Site.

But, in Quebec, Roy is accorded the heroic status usually reserved for hockey players and Céline Dion. They named a mountain after her, and a street, and schools in Saint-Leonard, Boisbriand and Chateauguay.

But that's nothing compared to Quebec City's respect for Roy. Bibliotheque Gabrielle-Roy is a hub of culture containing the city's main library, an art gallery, the city archives and meeting rooms. It also has a shrine-like display honouring Roy, including a picture of her graduating in Winnipeg and a telephone receiver that plays a recorded interview with her.

Head here

QUEBEC CITY -- Excitement about reclaiming an NHL team does not stop at the Manitoba border.

We were visiting Quebec City on March 29 when 14,000 fans sold out their arena within hours to watch a television feed (a television feed!) of a regular-season NHL game between the Montreal Canadiens and Atlanta Thrashers, complete with tailgate parties. They chanted and hollered at the TV screen, hoping they were loud enough to influence NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

They call themselves Nordiques Nation, they boast 70,000 members and, like Winnipeg, they want to welcome back the prodigal NHL.

Last December, 1,100 of them bused to Long Island and claimed the centre of attention at an NHL game. And last October, 50,000 of them donned their blue Nordiques jerseys and rallied outdoors in Quebec City.

Their pitch for a team is not ideal. Unlike Winnipeg, they don't have an NHL-ready rink.

But they recently got funding secured for a new $400-million rink facility to open in 2015. And they seem to be bankrolled by Pierre Karl Peladeau, head of Quebecor Media, the parent company of Videotron.

Quebec City's strategy is to grab the attention of the NHL with public displays of zeal by the people who count, the customers who pay for seats. They're basing their bid on the fervour of their fans.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 25, 2011 D7

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