Teacher Gives Back Through French Instruction


1 Teacher Gives Back Through French Instruction Pic
French instructor Guy Gagnon Brenda Sawatzky

Guy Gagnon is a teacher by trade. For 35 years, he’s been teaching the French language in schools across Manitoba to students and adults alike. After just one brief encounter with him, you’ll recognize three things: he loves his community, he loves people, and he loves making a difference. 

Though at an age where he could retire, it’s the last thing on his mind. Gagnon has given up teaching on a full-time basis, but for the past 15 years he has committed himself to teaching French to adults. His evening classes take place at École Ste. Agathe School on Monday and Tuesday nights from September through May. 

“What is retirement?” asks Gagnon. “Is it sitting in front of the TV all day or playing golf? You need to be physically active, but you also need to continue being challenged. And you need to continue to contribute to your community. This is one of my contributions to my community.”

Gagnon works with Pluri-elles (Manitoba) Inc., a not-for-profit Winnipeg-based organization that began as a women’s advocacy group. They’ve since evolved to include literacy courses for new Canadians, computer skills courses for senior citizens, family counselling, and French language courses for adults in francophone communities across Manitoba. 

Their outreach to Canadian immigrants in the past few years has moved beyond closing the language barrier. A few years ago, the organization decided to forfeit its own staff Christmas party and instead collect food to be delivered as hampers to newcomers’ doorsteps. Pluri-elles also rents a bus periodically and takes newly arrived immigrants on tours through French communities around the province, introducing them to the many urban and rural settings they might choose to call home. The organization aids these new arrivals in finding housing and the right schools for their children.

As a proud supporter of Pluri-elles, Gagnon is giving back in the best way he knows how: by partnering in their endeavour to expand knowledge of Canada’s other recognized language: French. Because of teachers like Gagnon, Pluri-elles can offer these courses at no cost to participants apart from a nominal $15 membership fee. 

“When you can provide an [adult] with a classroom in a structured setting in his own community, it’s a great service,” says Gagnon.

Gagnon offers beginner and intermediate level classes. Typically, his students come to him with no knowledge of the language whatsoever and end up remaining in his class for three years or longer, leaving them with well-rounded oral and written skills. 

“It used to be, back in the day, people used to say, ‘Speak white,’ which meant speaking English,” says Gagnon. “That was the kind of attitude that existed in the province and the country 25 to 30 years ago. Today, more and more immersion schools have students in their programs. These schools are bursting at the seams because there is so much demand for the second language. The mentality has evolved. Having a second language is vitally important in Canada and across the world. Parents realize that acquiring French is vitally important for them and their children.”

Attendees come for a variety of reasons, whether to become more involved in the mixed-language life of their community or workplace, or to simply be fluent in more than one vernacular. Most often, though, they are parents with children enrolled in a French or French Immersion school and want to engage with their children’s teachers and help their kids with homework assignments. 

Gagnon believes in keeping the classes small and intimate. This year, he has 27 adult students enrolled. Splitting them into four groups means each class consists of between four to seven students. 

“The reason for that is obvious,” Gagnon says. “The smaller the group, the better you can communicate and the more it becomes interactive.”

In spite of the low-cost commitment to his classes, Gagnon is really only interested in dedicated learners. 

“It’s a policy of Pluri-elles not to charge the registered adult learners,” Gagnon adds. “And so this is why I tell my students, ‘You’re not paying for this but you’re not a tourist either. So if you decide to register, make sure that you have enough time set aside during the year so that you can take [full advantage of] the classes.”

He says that while 50 percent of his students are from Ste. Agathe, the other half come from surrounding communities. He also has a number of recent immigrants in his classroom. While this season’s classes are full, Gagnon says it’s not too early to register for the fall of 2018, as his classes tend to fill up quickly.

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