QCGN honours community builders

112818_QCGN builders.jpg
Photo: Justin Desforges/Upside Photography

Quebec Community Groups Network Community Award winners John Rae, Olga Melikoff, Murielle Parkes and Hayley Campbell pose with CBC journalist and event MC Sean Henry at the awards ceremony on Nov. 1.

Hundreds of thousands of bilingual students across Canada have three stay-at-home mothers from Montreal’s South Shore to thank for their education.

Murielle Parkes, Olga Melikoff and their late colleague Valerie Neale developed the first public school French Immersion program in Canada, in a kindergarten class in Saint-Lambert near Montreal in 1965. More than 50 years later, over 400,000 students across the country spend their school days in French Immersion.

The “mothers of French Immersion” were among four English-speaking community activists honoured by the Quebec Community Groups Network on Nov. 1 at the Saint James’s Club in downtown Montreal as part of the 10th annual QCGN Community Awards.

Parkes, Melikoff and Montreal businessman and philanthropist John Rae received the Sheila and Victor Goldbloom Community Service Award, and Hayley Campbell, 23, a youth activist in Shawville in the Pontiac region, received the Young Quebecers Leading the Way award.

For Parkes and Melikoff, the event was an opportunity to reflect on an experience that ended up transforming education in Canada. “When we first started working on this, it was the Quiet Revolution and times were changing; we knew we had to have the kids speak French,” recalled Parkes, an Ontario native who said she “can conjugate verbs great” but never fully learned to speak French. “We knew we had a good idea [with French Immersion] and we never gave up, and we were surrounded with like-minded people. A lot of people told us ‘you can’t,’ but we said we could. We had someone write letters to the editor, others had other areas of expertise … and we descended on the school board meetings!”

Decades later, graduates of that first program still come up to Parkes and Melikoff at events. “We know some of those graduates and many have gone on to jobs that require French,” Parkes said. The Riverside School Board, where Parkes, Melikoff and Neale first presented their “language bath” idea decades ago, has now incorporated French Immersion in all its schools.

At a time when the province is struggling to keep young English speakers in Quebec, Campbell needs no persuasion. The Shawville native is a longtime community booster who has been active in Girl Guides, 4-H and the Pontiac County Women’s Institute. At present she works with Youth 4 Youth, a recently established nonprofit that advocates for English-speaking young adults across the province.

“I’ve had the chance to meet people from Sherbrooke, the Magdalen Islands and the Lower North Shore, to learn more about the similarities and the differences between different English-speaking communities,” she said. “In Shawville we’re very fortunate, because there are a lot of English-speaking and bilingual jobs.”

Campbell moved to Sherbrooke to study at Bishop’s University but plans to come back home when her studies are over. “I’m coming back because I feel a strong connection to my community,” she said. “If you get involved in your community, you can come back and practise your calling or open a business … great stuff can happen. I hope this award will inspire kids to get involved in their own communities.”