Successful past participants
Harold Rennie, French-language Services Coordinator, Nova Scotia Department of Education
It is with great pleasure that I am responding to CMEC’s request for testimonials from former Explore participants “who have benefitted from the program in terms of it helping them achieve their professional goals.” I have many happy memories of my two summers in what was then called the Summer Language Bursary Program, as a student in 1973 and an animator in 1974. But I will limit my remarks to its impact on my professional life.
I graduated from high school in Winnipeg in 1973 and — literally — the next day went straight into the program at the University of Manitoba, where I had also applied for admission as a freshman. By the end of the summer, I had drastically improved my French, gained a university credit even before regular classes had begun in September, and — those being the days before universities put on elaborate orientation exercises — gained an appreciation of university life, both from my time on campus and through personal contact with older students. Listening to Québecois, Acadian, and “Brayon” students, who were learning English while we learned French, gave me an appreciation of the “French Fact” in Canada that went beyond media headlines.
My experience as a student, the personal contacts that I gained with instructors and with the then-director, the late Dr. Philip F. Clark, led directly to my first summer job the next year as an animator in the program. In that position, I made some mistakes and learned some lessons, both about myself and about how a successful program is run. But I also had some successes, such as arranging for the first ramp to be installed at the dining hall so that a disabled student could get her meals. These days, that sort of thing is taken for granted. In 1974, it was something that only dawned on us on registration day!
Those two summers, combined with French courses during the winter, gave me immense confidence, as well as a couple of job references from the ever-patient Dr. Clark. In my confidence, I applied for an exchange between Manitoba and Quebec that later found me doing surveying and copying maps for the Ministère des Richesses naturelles and travelling across Quebec, from Gatineau to Cap-Chat. That experience did not make me into a surveyor, though it taught me a lot about what happens when a cottager who wants to build a dock encounters the Crown’s control of the land up to the high-water mark! At one point, I, the Manitoban, found myself in the Eastern Townships translating between a unilingual francophone surveyor and a unilingual anglophone cottage-owner! This was interesting, to say the least. It was partly a matter of linguistic competence, but it was also a matter of confidence.
By 1980, I was the editor of English-language publications at the National Film Board’s Montreal headquarters. It was my editing portfolio that got me hired, but I couldn’t have done the job without being able to communicate with the francophone graphic designers, people who preferred to work in French and whose politics were quite different from mine. In that sense, the summer language program had already sensitized me to the fact that francophone colleagues might see the world very differently from me. And that was a valuable lesson for the workplace!
That job in Montreal led to a media relations job in the NFB’s regional office in Halifax. The post was classified as English-only — no bilingual bonus, I assure you! — but I expanded it to include dealing in French with francophone media. Over the years, there were also times when senior francophone officials in Quebec headquarters found it useful to be able to pick up the phone and talk to a bilingual anglophone with experience in Quebec.
I left the NFB in the late 1990s and used my French very little professionally for a while. One major exception: in 1999, I did a brief contract for a spin-off project in Nova Scotia for the Sommet de la francophonie, under the leadership of Joe Cottreau. One of the people I worked with was someone on loan from the department of education, someone by the name of Mark Bannerman — who is now my current boss! But I’m getting ahead of myself…
The start of the new millennium saw me still in Halifax, in a new job with Statistics Canada — say hello to the bilingual bonus! In my job as a data dissemination officer (DDO) for the next six years, I used both official languages to communicate census and other survey data and to explain statistical concepts to clients by phone, by e-mail, and in person. At one point, the Atlantic region of Statistics Canada was merged with Quebec and we DDOs began reporting to francophone supervisors in Montreal from our post in Halifax. At one point, we DDOs were even answering queries from all of Quebec, as well as from the four Atlantic provinces. I was particularly pleased when a Quebec client complimented me on the fact that he could call Halifax from Quebec and get good service in French.
I left Statistics Canada in 2006. My next couple of postings came out of my statistics experience, not my linguistic abilities. However, while working as an institutional researcher at Mount Saint Vincent University, I also applied to teach French part-time there. The position posting stated that one of the requirements was a commitment to language teaching at the postsecondary level. How could I show that kind of commitment?
First, by participating in the annual French for the Future forum, held at Mount Saint Vincent, where I was part of a panel that spoke in French to encourage high-school students to continue their studies in French. And second, by adding my experience as an animator to my CV. After all, I had occasionally run the university language lab and I had assisted instructors with conversational French sessions. Well, I didn’t get that job, but I kept in mind that I might have to draw on that experience again.
The Nova Scotia government introduced its French-language Services Act in 2004 and the related regulations in 2006. Among other things, those regulations established the need for French-language-services coordinators within provincial departments. When such a position came open at the department of education, I pulled out Mark Bannerman’s business card, which I had kept for nine years, and called him to ask what he could tell me about the position. The first thing I discovered was that he was the hiring manager for it! Then I researched the job, and realized that a small percentage of my time would also be in support of some programs called Explore and Odyssey and Destination Clic. I didn’t include the animator experience when I applied for the job, but I made sure that the interviewers knew I had at least a “feeling” for the Explore program.
Of course, this was only a small part of my work experience that went into promoting myself for the job. But, after 34 years, the fact that I felt it important to mention it in a job interview is significant. And I’ve been the French-language Services Coordinator for the department of education for almost three years now.
In summary, I’ve had a lot of different jobs, and not all of them involved speaking French. So I’m not going to claim that Explore made all the difference to my career. But I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that my confidence in speaking my second language, my willingness to use it in areas outside of my comfort zone, and my understanding of minority sensitivities, were all given a major boost by the program at a formative stage of my career. If that Quebec client that I mentioned is any indication, I’d say the public has also benefitted. And I’d like to think, as I work with my colleagues to expand the use of French in Nova Scotia, that the influence of those two long-ago summers in the early ’70s is still making itself felt in subtle ways.