Parents struggle to find French-language summer recreation spots for kids

As registration gets underway for summer recreation programs in Ottawa, French-language opportunities are more limited than normal because of the COVID-19 pandemic — and that has some parents concerned about their kids' linguistic future.

Lack of access a recurring problem, advocate says

Some French-speaking parents say it's been a struggle to find spots in French-language recreation programs run by the City of Ottawa. (Lydia Neufeld/Radio-Canada)

Ottawa parents Véronic Bezaire and Stephen Cann want their children to master French before learning English, but it's not proving easy.

That desire means their kids, aged four and six, need chances to swim and play while speaking French, along with using the language at home and school.

But for the past three years, the family has struggled to find spots in swimming and other city-run recreational activities.

"We don't have as much choice in French as people in English have," said Cann. 

"The guide of activities in French is much more limited," added Bezaire, a Franco-Ontarian originally from Prescott-Russell, Ont. "It's shorter, [with] fewer pages, fewer activities, longer distances to travel [and] fewer time slots."

As a result, they've had to drive up to 30 minutes each way to Orléans or Gatineau, Que., to find French-language activities for their children. 

They've also had to make special requests for a bilingual instructor and constantly adjust their schedules.

Véronic Bezaire and Stephen Cann want their children to be able to speak French during recreational activities, not just at home or school. (Radio-Canada)

A persistent imbalance

As registration gets underway for summer recreation programs in Ottawa, French-language recreation opportunities are more limited than normal because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The city will only offer outdoor swimming programs beginning the week of June 14. Indoor swimming can't resume until step three of the province's reopening plan, which is projected to begin in late July.

The only French program is at Bearbrook Pool in the Blackburn Hamlet neighborhood in Ottawa's east end, while English programs will be offered at seven pools in locations spread across the city.

The imbalance extends to summer camps, with 73 summer camps being offered in English and nine in French.

Bezaire and Cann wonder whether this is attributable to a low enrolment rate or a lack of bilingual employees.

At a meeting of French-speaking city councillors last January, general manager for recreation Dan Chenier said recruiting bilingual staff was a challenge.

In a statement, Chenier said the city needs a certain percentage of its summer hires to have an "advanced level of French," and that so far, they were exceeding that target.

"The City of Ottawa recognizes that the two official languages ​​have the same rights, statutes and privileges," Chenier said.

"The City is determined to provide services to residents in the official language of their choice and ensure that an appropriate number of bilingual employees work in each unit, particularly within recreation programs and services."

Ajà Besler, executive director of the Association of Francophone Communities of Ottawa, says the lack of access to French recreational services is the subject of many complaints to the City of Ottawa. (Radio-Canada Archives)

Lack of access a common complaint, advocate says

A lack of access to French recreational programs comes up often in complaints to the city's French-language services directorate, said Ajà Besler, executive director of the Association of Francophone Communities of Ottawa.

"For the Francophone culture to continue to thrive, Francophiles need moments where they can live their 'francophonie,'" said Besler.

"Not just at work or doing homework or school things, but moments that are fun."

Besler said having to drive long distances is a barrier that could influence some families to choose English activities, and that could contribute to the loss of both language and culture.

Stittsville Coun. Glen Gower says the City should consider partnering with local schools and community organizations to recruit French-speaking recreational staff. (Kate Porter/CBC)

The problem is exacerbated by a major demographic shift in recent years that's led French speakers to increasingly move to historically English-speaking neighbourhoods like Barrhaven, Stittsville and Kanata.

Stittsville Coun. Glen Gower said he sees this change every day in his conversations with constituents. At the January meeting, he raised the issue of recruiting for recreational services, especially for communities in the west.

"I know the city does have some steps in place to hire more Francophone instructors and coaches and teachers and so on," said Gower. "It's a shift we're going to continue to require as more and more Francophone families move into our communities."