Francophone Immigration Week: Ottawa was cold, but in Sudbury she found the warmth she was looking for

Jenny Lamothe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
·6 min read

Priscillia Mbemba smiles in front of an autumn sky, on the boardwalk of the largest lake in her new hometown.

But just beneath that smile, just beneath the hope and joy that comes from starting something new — creating a life for yourself — is the deepest pain a mother can feel.

For in January of 2020, just before she came to Canada from France, Mbemba embraced her husband and kissed her four children goodbye — not knowing when she might see them again. In an interview translated from her native French, Mbemba speaks of that bittersweet moment.

“I knew they could not come with me because I had to first establish myself in Canada, find employment and housing – it was my husband’s and my choice. I cried when I said goodbye to my family because I didn’t know when I would see them again. It was painful – caught between sadness and joy.”

And just after her arrival in Canada, a pandemic flares around the world. A lockdown — an even longer separation from her family — but also the sheer terror that comes from the fear of losing your family, and not being able to do a single thing about it.

“In France, the cases were growing in number, as were the deaths,” said Mbemba. “Each time the telephone rang, I was afraid that it was bad news.”

She has a sister in Martinique, but otherwise, her family is in France. Not only does she still fear for her husband and their children — all between two and nine years old — but her brother, mother and father as well. Her father is a paramedic.

And now, another COVID-19 lockdown is seizing France.

“I wasn’t sleeping,” she said. “I stayed awake praying and imploring God to protect my family. Many of my friends in France have lost loved ones, and I couldn’t be there. I wanted to go back, but my husband asked me to be strong, to continue my fight, to keep the faith.”

And so she stayed, and kept the faith.

But when you mention she is from France — and not just France, but a suburb of Paris — there may be the inclination to wonder why she would leave her family and one of the most beautiful cities on earth for the frozen north.

It might be because under the surface of the City of Love, is the simmering of hate.

“I came to Canada because I wanted something else for my children,” she said. “The insecurity in France was starting to be felt, the aggressions against Blacks were normalised — I didn’t want my children to grow up in this atmosphere.”

And it isn’t just Mbemba and her family that have noticed. Though France was once considered a ‘colour-blind’ country — particularly after World War Two — as of late, it has begun to boil with rage.

In an article for the New York Times, a professor and woman of colour named Maboula Soumahoro, who was worked in both Paris and the United States, is quoted: “When I consider both countries (France and United States), I’m not saying that one country is better than the other. For me, they’re two racist societies that manage racism in their own way.”

Mbemba then notes the defining factors in her choice of new home country. In France, Canada is spoken of as a country of tolerance, and one that is open to Francophones. As she said, “A country of opportunity.”

But while leaving her family would be her greatest struggle, it would not be her only one.

Each year, the Government of Canada hosts a forum called The Destination Canada Mobility Forum, in Paris and in Brussels, to connect Canadian employers and organizations with skilled French-speaking candidates in various fields. She registered in 2018, and was chosen in a draw in 2019.

“It was one of the most beautiful days of my life,” she said.

But then, she arrived in Canada. The job she was offered turned out to be on-call only — not enough to support her family — and she was told if she wanted a full-time position, she would have to re-apply. She tried to find other work, but despite her skills and training, she had no Canadian experience, something she notes hampered her ability to secure a job.

She took whatever work she could find, and tried to learn her new country.

“When I arrived in Canada, more precisely in Ottawa, I felt alone and lost. The language barrier, the completely different culture; it was difficult, but I quickly understood that I needed to integrate and adapt.”

She took whatever job she could while she lived in Ottawa, but then the lockdown began to prevent the work she was doing in schools. Not only did it begin to weigh on her financially, but she also encountered those who treated her differently because of the colour of her skin – though she believes it was out of ignorance, not maliciousness.

But then she got a job in Sudbury; a place she said was completely different from her experiences in Ottawa, and a place that offered her a warm welcome.

“When I arrived in Sudbury it was the opposite,” she said. “I was surprised by the welcome, I quickly knew I was in my place.”

Her place is Sudbury, working as a Cultural Liaison Agent (Agente de liaison culturelle) for the Centre de santé communautaire du Grand Sudbury.

She has friends and colleagues who care about her, and try to help her situation — from finding her support services within Sudbury, to helping run errands, or even just to chat. And though she aches for her family every day, she follows her husband’s words, and keeps the faith.

“We have never been so far apart, for such a long time, but I know in order to obtain big things we need to make big sacrifices. Every day I think of the day when I will hold them in my arms again.”

But until that day, she will aid other newcomers as they arrive in Canada. She will offer them the same love, help and companionship she was offered when she came to Sudbury, and she will dream of the day she sees her children.

She is also grateful for the chance to create a dream for herself.

“I like my work, and for the first time in my life I feel I am professionally blossoming,” she said. “I hope to help the Francophone community, artistic and cultural organisations and new arrivals to the city of Sudbury live and grow together – that’s what makes this country so rich.”

And she also hopes that there is someone in Sudbury who needs an excellent truck driver. If so, she would like to say, “If you are looking for a brave and disciplined truck driver, Mr. Mbemba is this person.”

As well, she hopes that unlike her experiences in Ottawa, Sudbury will be “not afraid of the colour of my skin.”

“Come towards me,” she said, “You will not be disappointed. I would like to learn from you!”

And she follows with a fitting phrase: “As we say in France, ‘l’habit ne fait pas le moine.” (Similar to: the clothes don’t make the person, or don’t judge a book by its cover).

Jenny Lamothe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter,