West coast musician keeps French heritage and his family history alive in rural N.L.

It can come as a shock to visitors, from both home and abroad, to discover thriving rural Newfoundland communities where French is the first language for many residents.

"When I greet people at the door here at the community centre, whether they're French or not I don't know for sure, but I'll always answer with with 'Bonjour, comment ca va, ca va bien' and then they realize we are French," said musician Robert Felix, who works with a Francophone association in Black Duck Brook (L'Anse-à-Canards).

"They get really excited about that. It changes the tone of the whole conversation."

Felix said many visitors come from Quebec, France and French areas of the Maritime provinces through the Port au Port Peninsula, also known as the French Shore, on Newfoundland's west coast.

Generations of songs

Felix and his brother, Bernard, are doing their part to keep their own French history alive.

The duo have recorded an album of French songs handed down through their family for generations. The music dates back to the 1800s, when their family came to Newfoundland from France.

Chris O'Neill-Yates/CBC

Felix's sister recorded their mother singing the songs in a cappella before she died at 87 years old. Without those recordings, the lyrics and melodies would have been lost forever. 

"She had about a dozen songs there that she used to do at parties at our house," he said.

"They're pretty interesting, bringing them out and bringing them back to life."

Keeping a culture alive

When he was a child, Felix said, the French language didn't have the same significance and English speakers would often look down on Francophones.

Throughout the 1970s, Francophone groups banded together in fear of losing their language and culture to future generations, he said. Implementing French schools on the west coast of the island was an important step in keeping that heritage alive.

"Now we have the Francophone schools set up in Cape St. George and Mainland, and our kids have grown up in French schools, they've continued on to university and today they're coming back and they're having their families here," he said.

But as with many other rural communities throughout Newfoundland and Labrador, keeping younger residents from relocating to other parts of the country is not an easy task, Felix said. 

"People are going to do as they wish, and [go to] where the opportunities are much better, out west or whatever," he said.

"So there's not a lot we can do other than continue to promote the opportunities out here on the Port au Port Peninsula."

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