From Drummondville to Tuktoyaktuk… in French, please!

Jimmy Chabot with his camera, posing in front of the “Le vieux Saint-Boniface, quartier français de Winnipeg” poster

From Drummondville, Quebec, to Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, with no money or cellphone and… in French only? Why not! At least, that’s what Jimmy Chabot – or JimChab, as he is known in the vlogging world – would say. He began his cross-Canada hitchhiking journey on July 1 and returned, 7,000 kilometres later, documentary in hand, proclaiming “Mission accomplished!” The following is an interview with this ambassador for the Canadian Francophonie, who stops at nothing.

How did you come up with the idea to hitchhike across Canada, with no money or cellphone, and in French only?

I’m originally from Drummondville, Quebec, and I always wanted to break into the communications field, particularly as a radio host. Ontario gave me my first opportunity to do that. When I made the decision to hitchhike across Canada, I had already been on the radio for a number of years in official language minority communities, including Kapuskasing, which is in northern Ontario, and Winnipeg, Manitoba. I was actively involved in the Francophone cause, and I showcased French-speaking artisans on my YouTube channel – JimChab vlogs. I told myself that, one day, when I get more subscribers, I would thank them by travelling across the country, but in French only, to show that Francophones are out there. That’s the idea behind my documentary.

I challenged myself to do it without any money because the big production companies that could have supported me in this project told me that it would cost too much to complete. I waded through refusals for a year. I said to myself, “Okay, but who’s going to give a platform to Francophones outside Quebec?” That was when the project began to take shape.

How hard was it?

I won’t lie, some parts were tough: you need to find places to sleep, food, etc. But, the language is so unifying that people really helped me out. Since we share the same language, it’s a bit like coming from the same part of the country, kind of like being brothers and sisters. We’ve got this sense of belonging and we’re fighting for the same cause. It was a lot easier than people might imagine.

Jimmy Chabot with his camera, posing in front of the “Centre of/du Canada” poster

Did you have to turn down many rides with drivers who didn’t speak French?

Throughout my entire journey, I only had to turn down two trips. There are many more French-speaking Canadians than people think. There are Francophones, but there are also people who have participated in immersion programs, who have learned the language, or who at the very least have an interest in and know the basics of French. I don’t think it was luck; Canadians speak more French than you’d think.

I met Anglophones who wanted to learn French and who tried their hardest to speak it the best they could, just for me. I think I made it fun for them to be speaking French.

Jimmy Chabot with friends in Edmonton

Did you have any favourite places along the way?

My favourite village was Moonbeam, a township in northeastern Ontario. I arrived at a campground that was, I’d say, about 85% Francophone. People welcomed me straight away. They go there to speak French, and you can feel that they’re happy to be doing that. When I arrived, some seven-year-olds were karaoke-singing “Une colombe” by Céline Dion. That was a pretty special moment.

What affects you the most about these communities’ perseverance in fighting for their language?

It’s such an important cause; Francophones outside Quebec are never given a platform. Their fight affects me deeply. It’s why I stepped down from my position as a radio host to live this adventure and be an ambassador for the Francophonie.

For example, I find the Franco-Manitoban struggle very moving. Many of my friends were there during the language crisis of 1983-1984. They bound themselves to schools so that keys couldn’t be put in locks. They taught French in garages to keep their language alive. The Société franco-manitobaine’s offices were set on fire, the president was threatened, there was an incredible fight. Happily, this crisis is now a thing of the past, but they do a lot today to preserve their language. They organize activities in French every evening. I think that’s fantastic.

And there’s a really interesting mix of cultures because many French-speaking Africans settle there. During the World Cup of Soccer, they show us their passion for le foot.” During the hockey playoffs, we share our love of hockey with them. The blend of cultures and the continuous battle of the Franco-Manitoban community of Saint-Boniface are very meaningful to me.

Your documentary has been well received, hasn’t it?

Yes, I’ve gotten many requests for interviews, including from majority media outlets such as the Toronto Star in Ontario and the Salut Bonjour television program in Quebec. When I was still living in Quebec, I rarely heard anything about the realities of Francophones outside the province. I think it’s wonderful that people are talking about what they go through in national forums like those.

Watch Jimmy Chabot’s documentary (in French Only) : Le Canada sur le pouce

Published on Thursday, November 22, 2018

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