The majority of work that goes into fighting for francophone rights is not “glamour,” according to a retired teacher.
“Ninety-nine per cent of our work is not glamour. It’s groundwork. It’s the work in the trenches, you work with other people, you share ideas,” says Pierre Bélanger. “It’s a solid group effort that gets results.”
Bélanger, 64, was born in Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, Québec, and grew up in Hearst. Once he finished his post-graduate studies in Ottawa and moved to Timmins, he joined ACFO Timmins, now l’Alliance de la francophonie de Timmins, sat on the board of governors at l’Université de Hearst, was a part of the French teachers’ union and Centre Culturel La Ronde and was involved with many committees at École secondaire catholique Thériault.
Bélanger was one of the community members who spent more than 30 years campaigning for a French primary care clinic in Timmins. The community put in “incredible efforts,” he says, as they had to work during elections when governments would change and then would have to start all over again.
“We knew that the need was there … we were fighting for our elders because they’re the ones who built our society and heritage and now I know they’ll be able to get proper services,” he says. “Now it’s a reality and it’s a positive force in Timmins and it’s money well-invested.”
When the centre got the green light, Bélanger recalls it felt as if he saw a baby being born and it was an “incredible moment.”
He was also one of the leaders who worked to have Collège Boréal in the '90s and then to open a new campus in Timmins.
Bélanger not only advocates for francophone rights but fights for Indigenous peoples’ rights as well. He says his passion comes from his experience growing up and living in northern Manitoba for two years and being friends with First Nations children, as well as from his time studying political science and history. He says there should be a solid proper education system in First Nations communities.
“I speak with passion that is related to my living experience, it’s not theoretical,” he says. “Assimilation is a reduction of our possibilities … we tried to assimilate them, we tried to destroy their culture and it created all kinds of side effects we have to live with. And all those kids in those communities — there are scientists, doctors, lawyers, researchers — and we’re wasting talent and we have to put a stop to that.”
Bélanger is a retired Theriault teacher. Initially, he wanted to become a lawyer but changed his mind after discovering teaching. Being an educator for 30 years was challenging but it was a privilege to share knowledge with young people and change their mentalities, he says.
“Our job is to help them discover who they are and what would be best for their personalities and help them discover what they love. It’s a great responsibility and it’s a fantastic job, I’ve never had any problem waking up in the morning,” he says.
For his contributions and achievements, Bélanger was awarded with l’Ordre de la Pléiade, Réseau’s Recognition Award and with a Club Richelieu’s medal.
“The only reason I accepted all these honours is if it can help to convince people to get involved, why not. Other than that, we’re all equal,” he says.
Bélanger learned to get involved in the community thanks to his mother, who herself was pushing for getting the French CBC in Hearst in the late '50s-early '60s.
“She fought to get French TV and to make sure we could get secondary schools in French,” he says. “I learned that you have to be an active citizen if you want things to change. You have to do it methodically, day in and day out.”
From his experiences, he says he learned one person cannot do anything alone and the community needs to work as a group.
“We have to work with respect, there’s always something to learn even if people don’t agree with your point of view. Individual involvement cannot make sense outside of collective involvement. As a citizen, you always have to keep this in mind and you have to keep an open mind," says Bélanger.
What he would like to see is Timmins to be “officially bilingual” and have more services provided in French.
“Timmins could be a recognized centre by francophone countries. With the economy being global, putting yourself on a map, it would be logical. This would be the next step I would see,” he says. “Things are going well but we still have to fight. We’re a minority, it’s tough to maintain your mother tongue and your culture when you’re a minority.”
Bélanger met his wife Diane Larabie in Ottawa and they’ve been married for 33 years. They’re now temporarily living in Ottawa and are hoping to eventually return to Timmins. The couple also has a son Maxime who works as a computer engineer in San Francisco.
He describes his life as “pretty hectic” but as a retiree, Bélanger says he started to enjoy life a bit more now.
Dariya Baiguzhiyeva, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, TimminsToday.com