Francophone students across Canada now have a trove of French-Canadian literature at their fingertips thanks to the launch of the eBook platform, FrancoBiblio.
The platform was created by the Regroupement des editeurs franco-canadiens (REFC), a group of 17 French-Canadian publishers outside of Quebec dedicated to the promotion of French-language literature in Ontario, Acadia, and Western Canada.
Hugo Thivierge, a development agent for the REFC, says FrancoBiblio was designed to improve access to French-Canadian literature in provinces where French is not the dominant language. “Outside of Quebec, access to French books is an issue,” says Thivierge, speaking French, pointing to the quantity of French-language publishers and book vendors in Quebec in comparison to the rest of Canada.
FrancoBiblio originated from a previous effort by the REFC in 2016 to make French-Canadian literature more readily available to Franco-Ontarian students. In this earlier incarnation, eBooks were packaged in two digital “bouquets” of fifty titles each for primary and secondary-level readers. The program was well-received, and thanks to a grant from the Canada Council of the Arts’ Digital Strategy Fund, the REFC was able to partner with digital content distributor De Marque and improve their streaming service with an expanded catalogue and a focus on mobility.
FrancoBiblio currently boasts 303 titles in its digital library, all but three of which are in French. Among these books are the works of renowned Franco-Canadian authors like Acadian poet and playwright Herménégilde Chiasson, and Franco-Ontarian author Aurélie Resch. The books are sorted into a wide variety of bouquets that separate the works by age group, genre, and topics such as books by female authors, books about indigenous culture, and books written by students. Users also have the option to organize their own, custom bouquets.
The annual subscription service is accessible on a variety of devices, such as smartphones, tablets and computers. Though the platform transmits the eBooks via streaming, FrancoBiblio also offers the option to download books to be read without the need for an internet connection. The service also features an audiobook format for most of the titles, and free downloadable lesson plans and learning materials to accompany certain texts.
Building identity through literature
Thivierge says that the use of French-Canadian literature in the classroom not only aids in the development of spoken and written French, but also encourages the “construction of identity” among French-Canadian students.
“If these students are reading translations, or books only from Quebec, or that come from France,” says Thivierge, “it’s much more difficult to see cultural references.”
Through exposure to stories set in recognizable settings with familiar characters written by francophone authors, students will be more engaged with the readings.
One key component of French-Canadian cultural identity is the French language itself. Even under the already niche umbrella of “Canadian French,” there are many variances in dialect between French-Canadian communities. Apart from Quebecois French, itself a broad generalization, there are the Acadian dialects of Atlantic Canada, those of Franco-Ontarians, as well as unique Franco-Manitoban and other Western-Canadian varieties of spoken and written French.
Each dialect of Canadian French claims certain vocabulary, turns of phrase and anglicisms that showcase the diverse make-up and history of each community.
For French-Canadian students outside of Quebec, being forced to subsist predominantly on “foreign” French texts from Quebec or France is not only alienating because such texts are harder to relate to, but it also can lead to linguistic insecurity. This is a common occurrence among French speakers in a minority setting, whose way of speaking does not correspond with “standard” French or these more prominent dialects. This dependence on outside literature gives speakers the impression that their variety of French is less valid than that of other, more dominant groups.
Some of the books in FrancoBiblio’s catalogue employ these minority French dialects in the form of poetry, narration or dialogue, which will resonate with students who see their way of speaking represented and legitimized in art.
“It’s not the French that one would teach to students,” says Thivierge, “but it’s a French that can be used from a literary point of view and thus becomes an artistic tool that can counter linguistic insecurity and support the construction of identity.”
Such empowerment through local and easily accessible French literature will ideally inspire future generations of French-Canadian writers and thinkers and strengthen francophone culture across Canada.