It was a relatively warm afternoon, but an unexpected downpour took me by surprise and forced me to take shelter under the archway of a nearby castle, where generations and generations of lieutenants of successive kings had lived for centuries. I was in Honfleur, on the northern coast of France, and a bronze bust with the coat of arms of Quebec, which was on a wall adjacent to the archway, suddenly caught my attention.
It was a representation of Samuel de Champlain, inaugurated in the late 19th century by the Canadian ambassador and the mayors of Quebec City and Honfleur at the time, as a lasting testimonial to the fact that it was from this port that the explorer set sail for St. Lawrence River aboard his ship, the Gift of God, on April 13, 1608. Only a few moments before the cloudburst, I had visited the ancient Church of St. Catherine, which looks like an upside-down wooden hull, where I spotted a Canadian flag proudly flying by a plaque that commemorated the soldiers who gave their lives during World War II. Not altogether surprising, given that Honfleur is in Normandy, and Juno Beach is just an hour away.
I hasten to add that I was not there on holiday, but as a participant at the annual conference of Mission laïque française, an international organization bringing together more than 100 French schools from 38 countries. This year the symposium centred on the ways in which education can contribute to the creation of a world where intercultural relations may bring people closer together. As one of the speakers, I talked about learning as a voyage of exploration in search of the self; as a long-haul adventure on which, little by little, students establish who they are as individuals, what they are like as citizens and how they can pursue the betterment of humankind; as a three-stage journey that starts by connecting children with the most specific (“my” personality), then with the collective (“our” society) and finally with the most general (the human species and the planet). The role of language is crucial in this context. If our mother tongue partly defines who each of us is as a person, a good command of linguistic resources (vocabulary and syntax) helps us to construct sophisticated arguments in our civic interactions, and multilingualism gives us different national perspectives on our globalized planet and a sense of the ultimate human endeavour.
I would like to insist here that the last of the three stages of the educational journey goes beyond acquiring an interest in international affairs, however important this might be. The United Nations’ global overview is a good start, as this organization identifies a number of issues that transcend borders and should thus be tackled through the cooperation of all nations. These issues are grouped under such headings as gender, Africa, refugees, peace and security, ageing, oceans, climate change, children, health, AIDS, decolonization, food, democracy, atomic energy, water, population, sustainable development, international law and human rights. Beyond this, I would argue that there is also a need to explore the common human experience by building intercultural bridges, allowing us to value the complexity of the world in all its wonderful diversity.
Participants at the Mission laïque conference expressed their admiration for what we have achieved at TFS in terms of giving our students a universal perspective through both our academic and citizenship programs. Thanks to the languages we teach, our international weeks, the Hispanic market, Remembrance Day assemblies, ecological projects in the ravine and a recent lecture series on human rights, to name but a few, we are developing intercultural citizens with a sense of duty who are deeply rooted in Canada and, at the same time, have a desire to make a positive contribution to the world as a whole.
For my part, I attended a large number of plenary sessions and workshops, but there was one particular project that impressed me the most. I am referring to a program launched by four francophone schools in France, Morocco, Egypt and Lebanon, whereby their students worked collaboratively to research the links between the different civilizations that have developed over the centuries on the shores of the Mediterranean. What a wonderful way to look for commonalities uniting people, as opposed to differences separating nations! As Alexandria-born film director Youssef Chahine once said, “thoughts have wings and nobody can stop them from flying,” even if they have an entire sea to cross.
The main highlight of the conference for me was the signature of a formal agreement of cooperation between TFS and Lycée Condorcet, one of the oldest and most prestigious public schools in Paris. Founded in 1803 when Napoleon was First Consul, just one year before he became Emperor, Condorcet can boast of a long list of impressive alumni, including four presidents of the French Republic, writers such as Paul Verlaine and Marcel Proust, and other public figures of the stature of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, philosopher Henri Bergson, film-director and scriptwriter Jean Cocteau, artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, singer Serge Gainsbourg and industrialist André Citroën. Among its teachers in the first half of the 20th century, I shall mention Marcel Pagnol and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Today’s Lycée Condorcet is no less illustrious, and its Head, Madame Christiane Borredon, describes it as a temple of knowledge characterized by a spirit of responsibility and freedom, where young men and women learn from each other, as well as from their teachers, in an attempt to gain intellectual depth and autonomy of thought. When I was there, I had a clear sense that everyone aims to become a leading citizen of the Republic so that they can contribute to the common good, which immediately brought to mind our own students at TFS. I am in no doubt that the agreement, which will set in motion a number of projects over the next few years, will be immensely beneficial to both schools.
In a recent article published in The Globe and Mail, Michael Adams, founder and president of Environics Institute for Survey Research, states that Canadians increasingly feel that, in addition to peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts, the country’s most praiseworthy achievements reside in its bilingualism, cultural diversity and historical approach to immigrants and refugees. In this sense, he claims that Canada has gone from being “a colony of deferential subjects to a country of global citizens.” This global vocation of Canadians was also one of the main themes of the institutional address pronounced by Mr. Justin Trudeau before the French National Assembly on April 17, 2018, that is 410 years (almost to the day) after Champlain set out from Honfleur. The Prime Minister referred back to those compatriots who fought at Vimy and Normandy for the preservation of freedom, and called on us all to build together “a more diverse, green, inclusive, open and democratic world. A freer, more egalitarian and fraternal world. A world in our image.” A world in the image of Canada and France, two allied nations seeking to become a force for good, as catalysts for intercultural understanding and positive transformation.
This is the kind of impact, I am convinced, that our students want to have. As future lieutenants of a fragile planet that needs to be nurtured, they have embarked on a voyage of discovery that will take them from the particular and self-centred to the general and altruistic. Whatever career they decide to pursue, I know that they, together with their counterparts at Lycée Condorcet, will consciously strive for the betterment of humanity, as they attempt to fashion the world in our image, our Canadian and French image.
May they all catch the most favourable winds in their sails!