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Natalie sans 'H': Young, French and ‘chose to come here’

The title to this column is quoting a 19-year-old, French newcomer who recently spoke in la Voix Acadienne of selecting P.E.I. for an internship on a farm, part of his college program.

I am sarcastically trying to make it sound like an extraordinary case of a young person choosing to move to – as opposed to away from – P.E.I. It is no secret that this province has been troubled by an ongoing youth exodus, something I have written about before.

Although young Islanders are leaving in droves, the population here continues to rise, but this is thanks to increasing numbers of immigrants, like the young French man quoted above. And even with increased immigrants, a 2006 study reported that, “between one third and two thirds of immigrants to the region move away within two years” (13). Efforts to retain young people continue to pop up in the news.

Last week, the president of the Francophone youth group JAFLIPE was quoted in the news: “If you don’t practice the language, you’ll lose it.” This will probably be effective in encouraging some young people to participate in the group’s activities, strengthen their Francophone identity and hopefully stay here, which is the president’s goal.

Late last year, the Charlottetown Youth Retention Advisory Board released a report that underscored reasons why young Islanders are leaving (lack of culture and jobs), as well as some suggestions for improving life here for young people (consistent taxi fares, better representation in government, etc.).

However, I think the simplest way to retain youth is to listen and respond to them. I only worked in sales briefly, but what I learned was that if you want to sell something – in this case, life on P.E.I. – in order to get what you want – in this case – youth retention, you have to either give the target group what it wants, or convince them that they need what you are selling. So, if culture and jobs are what young people want, that’s what we should create for them, plain and simple.

In my opinion, here’s what ought to happen in addition to the above-mentioned efforts: we know that we need the immigrants to stay here in order to diversify and enrich culture, contribute skills to the workforce and create jobs, etc., so on the one hand, we should be strategizing to make this place as “homey” as possible, on their terms.

For the French immigrants, we should continue to offer as many good French services and activities as possible, but shift – or share – the rationale of helping our local francophone community thrive with what may be a higher priority, that of retaining francophone immigrants. I suggest this because if we retain more francophones from away, the retention of local French-speaking Acadians will follow. The reasons our youth are leaving – not enough culture, not enough career opportunities - will be corrected by the influx of immigrants who bring the culture and jobs with them.

Natalie Pendergast, Ph.D., of Oyster Bed Bridge, works as a communications manager in Prince Edward Island. She shares her unique perspective as an anglophone working in the francophone community with Journal Pioneer readers, and reflects on current affairs pertaining to la francophonie in her bi-weekly column.

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