French to English to Tagalog: Newcomers breathe new life and language into Sask. town

The town's population is less than 700 people, while the number of staff at the local Bourgault Industries plant is over 800. Many are 'historical families' — descendants of the founders and other settlers. But many others are Filipino families who came to St. Brieux to work.

St. Brieux was founded by French settlers, but in 2009, people from all over the world came to work

Two grain elevators have been demolished in St. Brieux. The newest elevators pictured are the only that remain, and they aren't used by local farmers anymore. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

A half-dozen men sit at Plain Jane's in St. Brieux, Sask., getting their fill of coffee and conversation. It costs two bucks a cup with unlimited refills, priced so almost anyone can sneak over to the till and pay for a friend's order.

St. Brieux kids and their friends from far away can go see a movie for less than $10. A small popcorn and a drink costs only four dollars and the movies are pretty new. They come to St. Brieux a month or so after they've premiered in the city.

If this all sounds familiar, you might have grown up in a rural Saskatchewan town. 

St. Brieux, 130 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon, was founded by French settlers in 1904, named for the place they were from: St. Brieuc. Somehow the spelling changed, just as the languages spoken in the town would continue to morph.

Denis Coquet (right) and Albert Mahussier have coffee at Plain Jane's most mornings with a group of friends, mostly retired. Plain Jane's is one of three restaurants in town and closes on weekends. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

The earliest residents might never have guessed that their settlement would become a town dependant on a single family-run business. Or that, 20 years into the new millennium, only 50 residents — of the town's 670 dwellers — would cite French as their mother tongue.

They could probably have wrapped their heads around the idea that English would become the primary language in town, but they'd be confused that the second-most spoken language in St. Brieux became Tagalog, its speakers from an impossibly far-away place called the Philippines.

No St. Brieux without Bourgault

Leon Rheaume towers over St. Brieux both literally and figuratively. He's the mayor of the town and easily over six-and-a-half feet tall. He's also a modest man. He said he's the mayor, "because it was my turn."

Rheaume is by no means the most powerful figure in town. That responsibility lies in the hands of the Bourgaults — more of an omniscient, philanthropic presence than any one person. It was Frank Bourgault, Rheaume said, who started the whole thing.

The Bourgault Industries plant in St. Brieux employs approximately 800 employees, who work to create farming implements and equipment. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

In 1973, ​Bourgault Industries was founded as a company that dealt strictly in cultivators.

"He had built a cultivator because there was no cultivator made that would stand up in the rocks in the area where he farmed," Rheaume said.

They recruited locals. Some people will tell you when they were registered as employees as soon as you utter "Bourgault." Some of the first employees are still around.

The company expanded over the years to Australia, Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. A sales and support office opened up in Kiev.

Bourgault employs most of St. Brieux's adults. People make the 80-kilometre round trip from Melfort, Sask., every day to join them. The workforce at Bourgault Industries is approximately 800.

The town rises and falls with the market. During a recent downturn, Bourgault Industries had to lay off about 10 per cent of its St. Brieux staff. The company declined to comment on this story, citing those layoffs as the reason.

Newcomers roll in

Vincent Santiago's father moved to St. Brieux from the Philippines in early 2009 to work at Bourgault Industries. His family followed later that year.

A lot of Filipino families made the same trip that year. The plant was ramping up production and recruiting all over the world. Employees came from Australia, Eastern Europe, Ireland. They brought their families.

There are 485 Canadian citizens in St. Brieux. The others have come from far away, but they've all found a place in the small town.

Vincent Santiago moved to St. Brieux from the Philippines in 2009. Three months later, he was bilingual in Tagalog and English. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

"You know, even in Grade 2 my teacher thought it was a great idea for us to teach [other students] some Tagalog words for everyone to know," Santiago said.

He learned English in three months. His parents took far longer to become comfortable in the new language. They encourage Santiago and his brother to speak their mother tongue at home and with Filipino friends.

"When we came here, there weren't much Filipinos then," he said. "But then they started coming fast."

Santiago has plenty of friends to practise Tagalog with. 

The more things change...

Santiago is co-president of St. Brieux school, the town's K-12 crown jewel. There are only 267 students in the school. That's down 25 from last year. It was recently renovated with funds from the provincial government and the school board. The state-of-the-art shop and home economics instruction rooms are completely outfitted with equipment, thanks to Bourgault.

Santiago's co-president, Samantha Leray, is equally as ambitious and high-achieving, but she's different. She's a "St. Brieux kid," as her principal puts it. She's never known another life.

"Maybe 10 years ago it was a lot more French-oriented and a lot more Ukrainian," Leray said of her town, "the last little string of descendants from the original settlers."

St. Brieux school co-presidents Vincent Santiago (left) and Samantha Leray bring different life experiences to the job. Santiago and his parents moved to St. Brieux from the Philippines, while Leray's family goes back generations in the town. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

She had the same Grade 2 memories as Santiago, learning Tagalog rather than teaching it.

"I kind of wish that we had a little bit more incorporation and learning about their cultures and their languages in our school since we're so diverse," she said.

Curriculums might not have changed as dramatically as St. Brieux's demographics, but the influx of new students has had a deeply-felt effect.

The school offers English as a second language (ESL) and French classes on top of the regular English instruction. Some students focus only on ESL and hope to become bilingual. Other students from immigrant families take French, adding a third language to their repertoire.

...the more they stay the same

There are few Filipino-owned businesses in town since most of the newcomers work at Bourgault.

The 2016 census counted five Chinese individuals in St. Brieux. They run the Chinese restaurant in town.

"It's not as busy as Plain Jane's," said mayor Rheaume. "But on the weekends a lot of people get takeout."

The St. Brieux church has operated for many years as a Roman Catholic church. Regular mass is still performed, but the church makes space for other denominations to use the space for gatherings like weddings and other celebrations. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

The Roman Catholic Church still stands, in a time where churches across the country are being renovated as homes and condos.

"There are other denominations that have services sometimes in the hall. Funerals and weddings in that church are by other denominations as well," said mayor Rheaume.

 The community hall used to be the place for celebration, but it has fallen victim to another sign of the times. The mayor said weddings are few and far between in St. Brieux, but they've grown bigger and bigger ("Over 250 guests!"). A lot of people get married in Melfort now.

Families are moving there, too. There are six homes for sale in St. Brieux, where there used to be steady demand. 

It's starting to feel a little more quiet, like it was before Bourgault.

The faces of St. Brieux are more colourful than they used to be.

But the charm hasn't changed.


Bridget Yard is a journalist and content creator based in the Greater Toronto Area. Originally from Schumacher, a small mining community in northern Ontario, she spent a decade pursuing a career in journalism close to home, then in New Brunswick and Saskatchewan with CBC.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?