Performer, musician and songwriter Damien Robitaille is a Franco-Ontarian from Lafontaine, a town outside Toronto. His independently produced album Damien was released in 2003. Following studies at the École nationale de la chanson in Granby, Quebec (which he attended after winning a scholarship in the Ontario Pop music competition), he began gaining notice, receiving accolades at events like the Saint-Ambroise and Granby song festivals, the Montreal Francofolies, Zoom sur la relève and the Francouvertes. He moved to Montreal in 2004, where he released two successful studio albums: L’homme qui me ressemble (2006) and Homme autonome (2009). He has since toured French-speaking communities in Canada and abroad.
Outside Quebec, Canada has 1 million French speakers scattered across 9 provinces and 3 territories. Ontario has the most francophones in the country after Quebec, with a population of over 500,000. New Brunswick is next with 230,000 and a close-knit Acadian community. I’m part of the big Franco-Ontarian family. My father is a francophone and my mother is a Francophile, which is to say, a lover of all things French. When she was younger, she spent a few months in Quebec to perfect her knowledge of the language. So French is part of my roots and family heritage.
I didn’t feel the need to sing in French until I turned 18 and became aware of the precarious situation of my mother tongue. This made me want to do what I could to preserve it. I began writing more in French and, in 2004, moved to Quebec. I wanted to be at the epicentre, the place where French was strongest, since I thought this would help me reach Canada’s francophone populations later on. Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to tour Quebec and Canada with my 2 studio albums, L’homme qui me ressemble (2006) and Homme autonome (2009). I also toured France, Belgium, Switzerland, Argentina and Haiti.
Over time and somewhat despite myself, I became a spokesperson for Franco-Ontarians and French-speaking minorities across Canada. This past summer, I had the honour of chairing the Ambassador Youth Forum for the Centre de la Francophonie des Amériques. I try to promote our beautiful French language at every event in which I participate.
For all that, I haven’t for a second abandoned my English. Ever since I can remember, I’ve gone back and forth between the 2 languages, and it’s the same today. I have family on both sides and I consume as much English culture as I do French. Even in Montreal, I live on Saint-Laurent Boulevard, the traditional dividing line between the city’s French and English speakers! Still, I’m all too aware that we must keep on protecting, promoting and properly speaking French if we are to ensure its long-term survival. Paul Bossé’s 2002 film Kacho Komplo, which stars Marie-Jo Thério, looks at an underground hangout for francophone artists and writers in the 1960s and later, in the 1990s. I wish there were such a place in Ontario where I come from. A bar or some informal setting where French culture wouldn’t feel forced or institutionalized, but where francophones could just be themselves. It’s true that these places are often kind of clandestine. This is a lot like how people from French Canadian minority groups live: in secret.
In her film Pis nous autres dans tout ça? (2007), Andréanne Germain points out how little Quebec’s francophones know about their counterparts in other provinces, in this case Ontario. I think it’s probably like that for all of Canada’s French-speaking communities. We know very little about our neighbours. There are certainly opportunities for education here. How many of you know the French Canadian flags from other provinces?
Family heritage is one of the most important aspects of cultural edification. You learn the most about your roots and culture talking to the older generations. You need to know where you’ve come from in order to know where you’re going. That’s why one of my favourite picks in this entire selection is A Sunday at 105 (2007) by Daniel Léger, a filmmaker whose work I admire greatly. For a whole day, he follows his 105-year-old Acadian great-grandmother as she goes about her daily routine and, in the process, learns much about her life, values and family. I think we should all spend more time with our grandparents. We have so much to learn from them.
As for me, I continue to work in French. I was recently involved in a film that was released on September 22 entitled La Sacrée. Directed by Dominique Desjardins, it’s the first feature-length Franco-Ontarian comedy. The film tells the story of a con man who, after a number of years in Montreal, decides to return to his small Franco-Ontarian hometown, where he is duped, in turn, by a beer with “magic powers.” In it, I play a bric-a-brac trader. I also lent my voice to the upcoming animated film by Lynn Smith entitled Soup of the Day, produced by Marcy Page at the NFB. With Suzie Arioli, I sing the French version of the theme song. (The original English version is performed by Suzie and Zander Ary.)
Apart from that, I’ll keep on writing songs in French, as well as in English and Spanish. I love my mother tongue and so far, it’s served me well. I tend to believe that when you sing in French, people pay more attention to what you say . . . and I still have lots to say.
*As told to Catherine Perreault