Our interview takes place in the main hall of the University of Sudbury, one of four institutions in the Laurentian Federation. This is where a group of students led the “Nouvel-Ontario” movement of the 1970s. This is also where Joanne and her older brother Gaétan studied. Today, Joanne, the Executive Director of the Association canadienne-française de l’Ontario (ACFO) du grand Sudbury, pursues the organization’s mission, which is to promote the vitality of the Francophone community, encourage member involvement and defend the rights of Franco-Ontarians. These efforts were at the core of her brother’s activities. Gaétan Gervais (1944–2018) was an author, historian, professor at Laurentian University and co-creator of the Franco-Ontarian flag. Joanne and her brother, who has been referred to as a pillar of French Ontario, shared this commitment and passion for the future of French Canada.
Joanne was born in 1964 to a family of five children. Her father worked as a miner for Inco Limited. She remembers the rituals of Sunday Mass, which brought the French-Canadian parishes across the nickel capital to life. While religious practice has faded, it is important to recognize the role religion and the Catholic school boards played in defining the life of northern Ontario’s Francophone community. Strangely, Joanne’s new life in Mississauga put her involvement in the community life of French Ontario on hold. After studying management, she worked for a pharmaceutical company and spent her free time volunteering at animal shelters and the Red Cross. It was homesickness that brought her back to Sudbury. In 1998, she finished her studies in the ethics program at Laurentian University and sat on the Centre Franco-Ontarien de folklore committee. Throughout the years, she held various jobs at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and in regional organizations. These various roles led her to discover a love of management. In fact, her new position within the ACFO puts her right in the heart of the action tackling major challenges such as increasing the Francophone population in Greater Sudbury. She explains that attracting new French speakers through immigration is a way to enrich those communities. Joanne, who had slurs like “Go back home to Quebec” hurled at her in grade school, has contributed to the recognition of the French community as a legitimate part of Sudbury’s population. In 2006, Mayor Rodriguez even hoisted the Franco-Ontarian flag at City Hall. Through her responsibilities, Joanne has managed to encourage the involvement of citizens, volunteers and elected officials in activities that aim to provide better visibility for French in public life, and funding for French organizations. She believes that being bilingual is an advantage for many Franco-Ontarians, but her vision of a bilingual Canada must include Anglophones learning French and the availability of French services in ministries and public organizations. While the American way of life does influence us, particularly the media, she espouses the values of Canada with pride and honour: equality, diversity, access to health and education and the respect of sexual orientation. Her dream is to visit the Arctic and discover the untouched beauty of the area, the Inuit people and their culture.