Un bon Été: Quebec Summer Camps & French Immersion

French-language programs don't have to end with the school year


The July sun casts diamonds on the cool green water of Lake Ouareau, deep in the Laurentian Mountains of Quebec. Dockside, the girls of Camp Ouareau are frisking about as only kids who have been cooped up by three days of rain can do.

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"Hey, where you going?" one tanned and smiling teenager calls to a passing friend.

"Leçon de natation. Toi?" the other answers. "Swimming lesson. You?"

That easy back and forth of French and English is a hallmark of Camp Ouareau, a bilingual summer camp that has been catering to girls from age 8 to 15 for more than 82 years.

Campers from all over Canada and as far away as Europe gather each summer to hone their language skills and form friendships that will last a lifetime. It is one of several camps in Quebec that help kids perfect their "imparfait," even as they canoe and learn crafts.

"Our first goal is to promote fun in a safe environment. Language acquisition comes next," says camp director Jacqui Raill, whose family owns and operates Camp Ouareau.

The six-hectare site is dotted with cabins and canvas tents on wooden platforms. Inside the rustic dining hall, English- and French-speaking campers mingle at tables set for 12. The lodge, a cool and dark hall with a stone fireplace, is the central meeting place and venue for regular theatrical events.

The camp hires bilingual counsellors and alternates between two days of French and two days of English during each two-week session. Girls are encouraged to do their best in the language of the day.

"You can't force them," Raill says. "If there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's that kids will try if they feel comfortable and relaxed. They may start off shy, but as soon as they meet a new friend, they make that extra effort to speak the other language because they want to be able to communicate."

Aimée Legault, 15, is typical of the Ouareau campers who come from Ontario. This is the Toronto teen's fifth summer at camp. Both her parents have French-Canadian roots, though neither speaks French. Legault attended an immersion primary school, but goes to a non-immersion high school.

"In Toronto, I don't really have a chance to speak French in my day-to-day life," she says.

Now, when she writes home from camp, she writes in French. That thrills her mother, Barb Gingras.

"It's one thing to learn French in school and another to use it on a daily basis," Gingras says. "The camp has given Aimée confidence and that's really what they need — the confidence to speak, even if they make mistakes."

Talia Cheifetz, 14, makes sure to stow a French-English dictionary in her duffel bag when she heads to Camp Ouareau each summer. The Toronto native is an immersion student who uses the camp to sharpen her skills. This year she had a breakthrough, volunteering for a French-language part in the camp's production of The Sound of Music. That was "kinda cool," she says.

"It can be frustrating trying to get your point across on French-language days, but I'm glad we try. I'm able to understand a lot better than I used to. Because of camp, when I (hear) people speaking French, I feel like joining in," Cheifetz says.

Patrick Casey has had two summers at Camp Air-Eau-Bois, a total immersion wilderness camp in the Gatineau region of western Quebec. Ask the 16-year-old Ottawa resident how he likes it, and his voice takes on a faraway quality.

"It was the best time I ever had. Even now, that's all my friends and I talk about at school," Casey says.

An outdoorsman in the making, Casey thrived in the rugged camp setting. Located on the shores of the Poisson Blanc Reservoir, near Denholm, Quebec, about 60 kilometres north of Ottawa, Air-Eau-Bois provides French-language living in a spectacular natural environment.

"We recommend that our campers have a good foundation in French," says camp director Alexandre LeBlanc. "Our instructors are bilingual, but the program is conducted in French."

Over the course of sessions that last from three to 26 days, Air-Eau-Bois campers are exposed to the beauty of nature and given a grounding in conservation.

"Our motto is ‘Leave no footprint,' " LeBlanc says.

Campers take part in canoe-camping trips and learn to navigate the woods using a compass.

For Casey, the highlight of his 2002 camp experience was the 24 hours he spent alone in the woods, equipped only with a sleeping bag, matches, whistle, knife, compass and a bit of food. During this solo trip — a rite of passage for senior campers — he built a shelter by the edge of the water and went for a swim before turning in for the night.

"We don't often get a chance to be alone and really quiet in life," he says."It was an amazing experience."

His group built a sauna on one of their canoe-camping trips and sat up late to view the northern lights. Sitting around the campfire, he learned Québécois folk songs.

"He's a boy who is simply wild about the outdoors, so that is the number one selling point for us," his mother Isabelle Casey says. "The fact that he is living in French and getting a better appreciation of that part of his identity is an added benefit." For some parents, language learning is a primary requirement. They want their kids to have fun, but also want to see demonstrable progress once summer comes to an end.

At French Summer Camp des Laurentides, campers age 8 to 15 are guaranteed at least 12 hours of French-language instruction each week.

Catherine Vaillant, 25, was program director during the summer of 2002. On a typical day, her 10 students, hailing from Quebec, Ontario and as far away as Texas and Hong Kong, spent 45 minutes in the classroom learning grammar or vocabulary before heading out the door to work on individual projects.

"It is summer vacation, after all. You can only hold their attention for so long," Vaillant said. She likes to lead campers on hikes, calling out the names of trees and birds along the way.

"Sometimes we do a lot of hand gestures to get our point across, but kids are smart, it doesn't take them long to work things out," she says.

The camp exists as part of a larger camp, La Base de Plein Air des Laurentides, located on the shore of Lac Sauvage, near Mont Tremblant (one of camps.ca's many Quebec summer camps). Language-program students have access to all the same camp activities — swimming, horseback riding and crafts, as well as class time. When they aren't receiving instruction, they are free to mingle with the other kids. No more than 10 students are generally enrolled in the language camp at one time.

"You learn more French here than you do at school," says 15-year-old Lorena Elliot of Markham, Ontario. "I think it's because you're having more fun."

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