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Small town in Quebec is worn out from playing host to countless Canadians trying to learn French

Marie-France Santerre has been hosting students in her home for the past 23 years but this year might be the retiree’s last.

When Santerre’s daughter moved out in 2000, the resident of Trois-Pistoles, Que., opened her home to students attending Western University’s French Immersion School in the town located 250 kilometres from Quebec City on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River.

“She said ‘Mom, this will be fun for you. It’ll be a good way to spend your time and make a little money,'” said Santerre.

Over the decades, Santerre says she learned a lot about the students, their hometowns and cultures as people across Canada spent time in the quaint town of 3,000 in order to learn French.

This summer marked her first time hosting students in her home not part of the immersion program. She stopped hosting students directly with the university last year, citing steep housing and food costs associated with the program. 

But it might be her final year of hosting altogether. She says she’s getting older and is thinking about moving away. 

Santerre is reflective of the dwindling number of locals hosting students for the university. Since the pandemic, the school has lost over half of its billets, says program director Kathy Asari.

“In 2019, which is our last pre-pandemic year, there were 98 … It went down to 20-something last year,” said Asari. “We are in the low 40s at the moment. We are working on it [and] bringing it back, but it’s a struggle.”

A printed photo showing a group of people standing arm-in-arm in a neighbourhood.
Marie-France Santerre, centre, pictured in printed photo from 2000 with some of the students she welcomed into her home. (Submitted by Marie-France Santerre)

Pandemic, high cost of living are main factors

Part of the problem stemmed from the pandemic, says Asari, when locals opted to retire from hosting a few years ahead of schedule.

Coupled with demographic changes and inflation, she says it can be difficult to attract locals. The amount Ottawa kicks in for each student — just over $3,000 — is used by the university to compensate families and to cover all other expenses for the program.

“If the amounts are not sufficient we can’t sufficiently compensate the families,” said Asari.

“That creates an issue because this is a very long-term engagement we’re asking them for.”

Asari says talks have been ongoing for several years to increase the value of the bursaries, but it looks as though the total amount for the program is not going to change. As they plan for next year’s program, Asari says they are trying to make things work.

“We are continuing to campaign to try to bring in the host families. We did actually increase the host family compensations at our expense which is putting a lot of strain on the resources for us,” said Asari.

“But it ultimately comes down to where we are sitting at in terms of the number of students that we can actually have.”

In an emailed response to CBC, Farrah-Lilia Kerkadi, press secretary to the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Official Languages, Randy Boissonnault, said Canada’s two official languages are top of mind. 

“The government of Canada recognizes that access to French immersion education is essential to continuing to build a bilingual country,” read the statement. 

They said they fund $3,350 per participant aged 16 and over, or $2,400 per participant between the ages 13 to 15, to cover tuition, learning materials, meals, and accommodation.

A group of people hike in the mountains in Quebec
Western University immersion program has been running in Trois-Pistoles, Que. since 1932 but since the pandemic, the program lost over half of its host families. (Submitted by Carolyn Moore)

Host families are ‘engine’ supporting program

Carolyn Moore stayed in Trois-Pistoles this summer as part of this program to learn French ahead of her move to Montreal in the fall. She says host families are like the “engine” supporting the program. Their absence is palpable.

“There was only about a third of the number of students at Trois-Pistoles that there had been in previous years,” said Moore, who was told this information from locals in town during her trip.

“I think that’s really unfortunate because this has been an incredible opportunity for me to not only improve my French but also to experience Quebec culture and get out and see more parts of Canada and really appreciate Canada in its entirety, not just the microcosm that is Ontario.”

Originally from Whitby, Ont., she stayed with Santerre for part of her time in Trois-Pistoles and suspects whatever compensation families receive doesn’t address some of the bigger issues at play.

“That doesn’t account for just the emotional toll and the physical toll that hosting four or six students can really take on people … [and] with the aging population this has created difficulties as well,” said Moore.

“I think inflation has been a big thing as well the host families, they would mention every now and then.”

A group of students gather around picnic tables to watch a presenter in an urban agricultural environment.
Students attending the Spring 2023 session of the Explore French immersion program in Trois-Pistoles, Que. Since the pandemic, the school has lost over half of its billets. (Trois-Pistoles Explore Program)

Santerre says she was paid $12-15 per day for the room and between $10 -$15 to feed a student each day, but it isn’t enough.

“The cost of living is definitely getting more expensive and groceries are costing more and more,” said Santerre.

“I find the women [who host] work very hard and they deserve a bigger salary and a bit higher compensation.”

Although Santerre has fond memories of welcoming dozens of students, it’s been hard work.

“On big days, I was almost always in the kitchen and at the grocery store,” explained Santerre.

‘I was thinking in French with the same clarity as I was in English’

Tim Tuuramo, from Ontario, attended the program in 2009 to learn French for his job with the Canada Border Services Agency and says living with locals made all the difference.

“[In] Montreal you could probably force yourself to be intensive but the problem is I find a lot of people will pick up the English accent and then speak English,” said Tuuramo.

“[In Trois-Pistoles] You were told that if you spoke English once, you’re warned, second time shipped home … It forced you to live in a community that’s 99 per cent French and basically live in French and by the end of the week I was thinking in French with the same clarity as I was in English.”

LISTEN | Host families needed in Trois-Pistoles to keep 90-year-old French immersion program alive:

Quebec AM9:49Host families needed in Trois-Pistoles to keep 90-year-old French immersion program alive

Canada’s oldest French immersion program could wind down unless a solution is found to help find more host families Guest host Kim Garritty speaks with a student who spent her summer in Trois Pistoles

Robert Everett-Green, a former journalist with the Globe and Mail who attended the immersion program in 2015 before he moved to Montreal, says the experience was akin to summer camp.

“When we went on outings, we got a big yellow school bus and there was a headcount. So all this was reminiscent of what school life had been for me when I was in elementary school,” said Everett-Green.

“My French just became sort of more lively, [it] wasn’t lying dormant as it had been before.”

Everett-Green says he would hate to see a program that was established 90 years ago— in the early years of the Great Depression — vanish.

“It must have been quite difficult to set up back then,” said Everett-Green.

“And it makes me sad to think that there’s been a century of this activity and that it might be in danger now.”

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