Quebecers dance their way into the hearts of newcomers

Dancers from across the province gather in Saint-Jean-Port-Joli for "la veillée de la danse trad," a new way of fostering friendships between old-timers and those new to the region.

'La veillée de la danse trad' in Saint-Jean-Port-Joli fosters friendships between old-timers and new arrivals

The sun set on the shores of the St. Lawrence River as dancers swung their partners around la Vigie. (Julia Caron/CBC)

A pair of weather-worn leather shoes taps out the steady rhythm as l'Orkestrad de Kamouraska performs a traditional Québécois reel on stage.

The evening's câller barks out instructions, and dozens of dancers attentively follow — stepping to the right, stepping to the left, spinning their partner 'round and 'round.

At first glance, it may look like any other traditional music celebration.

But this one in Saint-Jean-Port-Joli has an inviting twist.

Sabrina Yelfouf, left, Rachelle Després, Nabil Akkari, Marianna Yelfouf, Élise Massuard and Noureddine Rezk join in the festivities. Noureddine and Nabil arrived late to the dance since they were marking Ramadan but were quick learners. (Julia Caron)

The locals and old-timers promenading on the dance floor are paired up with recent immigrants to Quebec.

People from places like Germany, France and Tunisia nervously take to the dance floor, crooking their elbow into the arms of strangers and new friends.

Young Algerian girls are captivated by the movements, bouncing their knees to the rhythm of the beat as their parents laugh and try to follow along.

It's a cultural exchange, designed to introduce newcomers to the region to the music and dance unique to Quebec, all while breaking down barriers and shyness.

Dancers from across the province gather in Saint-Jean-Port-Joli for 'la veillée de la danse trad,' a new way of bridging the gap between newcomers to the region with locals of all ages, from the toddlers to old-timers. (Julia Caron)

Industries in the municipal regional county of L'Islet have hired workers from across the country and around the world to keep up with Quebec's worker shortage.

"We're talking about welders, carpenters, engineers, machinists, but also agricultural workers and people who work in the restaurant and tourism industry," explains Rachelle Després.

She's one of the people who helped create the welcoming committee, which began organizing and hosting events in the spring of 2018.

"Sometimes those new arrivals can feel isolated, overwhelmed when they move here. We want to change that."

Sabrina Amdaoui, centre, poses with her three daughters, Bina, 2, Tina, 5, and Marianna, who is 10. The family immigrated from Algeria to L'Islet in February 2019. (Julia Caron)

Sabrina Amdaoui moved to the region from Algeria with her husband and three girls this past record-breaking snowy winter.

"The winter was ... interesting," says Amdaoui, with a laugh.

"In Algeria, we have sun all year round!"

Now that the days are getting longer, the family is happy to take part in social outings like la veillée.

"It's nice to come here and meet people, learn something new."

Her two-year-old daughter, nicknamed Bina, is hypnotized by the dancers and eagerly tries new moves.

Two-year-old Sabrina Yelfouf is captivated by dozens of dancers following the beat of traditional Québécois music. (Julia Caron)

Amdaoui and her family are one of about 50 immigrants to the region in the last year.

That influx of newcomers, who often arrive all at once, can have a big impact on the region's towns and villages, most of which have a population of between 3,000 and 3,500.

In addition to offering practical guidance and resources, the welcoming committee has organized events that foster friendships and cultural exchanges.

"A love of good food, good music is something everyone can relate to," Marianne Legendre says.

Marianne Legendre, a big fan of l'Orkestrad de Kamouraska, helped organized the evening's dance. (Julia Caron)

Legendre, a big music lover, was one of the people who helped co-ordinate the musical celebration.

The committee has also hosted potluck dinners, with people bringing traditional dishes from places like Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and the Philippines.

"We can learn from them, and we want to be open with them."

"This is us: this is what we can do for fun here. What do you like?" asks Legendre.

Just steps away from the picturesque St. Lawrence River, la Vigie hosts a traditional dance at dusk. (Julia Caron)

"We have a lot of immigrants in my village of Saint-Roch-des-Aulnaies," says Léon Chouinard.

Chouinard, 78, travelled to Saint-Jean-Port-Joli in part because of nostalgia for his youth, when these kinds of traditional dances would take place twice a week, year-round.

He's overjoyed to see the tradition return to his part of the province, but with an extra welcoming appeal, and he thinks more towns and regions across Quebec should follow Saint-Jean-Port-Joli's example.

Léon Chouinard and Dolores Pelletier live in Saint-Roch-des-Aulnaies and travelled to be part of the welcoming cultural event. (Julia Caron)

"Myself, the older generation, we won't be here forever. We need help. We want to share."

"There is space for new arrivals, and we have to help them in finding ways to integrate into Quebec society, in our villages, in our regions."

"They are our future."

Recent immigrants to the region gather to take part in the dance. Workers from Tunisia, Morroco, Algeria, as well as their families took part in the evening's festivities. (Julia Caron)


Julia Caron is a journalist, radio-maker and art lover based in Quebec City. Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Julia has lived in over a dozen military towns growing up. She has called Quebec City home since 2008, and proudly calls herself a franglophone (yes, it's a thing).


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