From the computer monitor, we see Marie Dussault (pronounced: do-SOH) sitting in a light filled room in her apartment. Shelves lined with books and plants adorn the pale walls behind her. (And no, it was not a Zoom background!) The sun decided to make an appearance that afternoon in the Vancouver West End after a couple of days of overcast weather. “The window is south facing, and I have a view of English Bay,” she says.
Marie’s history with the Francophone CRN began in 2018, when she first found herself working with former Regional Mentor Louise Tremblay and former Coordinator Éléonore Tremblay. Today, Marie is the CRN’s coordinator, and she is partnering with several francophone non-profits to enhance the access to resources and information for seniors whose only language is French. Although she has been in the role for just handful of months, Marie has been involved with women’s groups for over 30 years.
Joanna Li – BC CRN Regional Mentor – Vancouver says: “I am so thankful Marie decided to join the CRN movement and grateful for Éléonore for connecting her to us. I am looking forward to our adventures supporting the Francophone community and learning from her!”
A social worker by profession, Marie’s early career in family protection led to community development. She was trained as a play therapist, working initially with traumatized children. It was soon followed by a variety of contracts that included working in a transition home for battered women.
“Social work allowed me to care for people of all ages and abilities,” she says. “It formed an important part of my career path, and I learned a lot about myself.”
One to push herself, she moved to Vancouver from Ottawa to start her second career in community development, working in the Downtown East Side for 15 years. She then returned to school to earn a Master’s in Public Policy from Simon Fraser University, and thanks to her degree, was able to join the team at the Women’s Health Research Centre. This was also where Marie first met and worked with Éléonore.
“Meeting people through work and volunteer projects is the best,” she states. “I love it.”
Throughout, Marie volunteered, mostly with non-profits offering services and supports to the local francophone community. She answered intake calls in French for one of the first crisis lines for an Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP). “There were lots of community services, but few specifically for francophones,” she explains. “The language barrier and a lack of general awareness impeded access for many people.”
It was difficult for francophones to receive assistance with, for example, welfare cheques or access legal advice. At the time, help lines were answered primarily in English. Concerned with the ongoing impact on people, especially women, who needed support, Marie acted. “A few determined women, myself included, started a French language crisis line for women victims of violence,” she says.
She also worked for non-francophone organizations, with one of her favourites being Volunteer Grandparents. “We matched children and youth without grandparents with couples of grandparenting age who did not have children,” Marie says. “The program connects generations, with each one supporting, encouraging, and sharing (skills and knowledge) with the other.”
She continued to work – as a contractor/staff and a volunteer – in business and non-profit. Her final place of employment before retirement was with the Canadian Mental Health Association managing a national bilingual program. (This would be the second time Éléonore and Marie worked together.)
Born and raised in Gatineau, Quebec, Marie is the second of six children to Catholic parents. “My parents were aiming for 12 kids,” she laughs. “I have four brothers and a sister and I’m the first girl in the line up.”
Her interest in social justice began to surface early. “My first volunteer position as a young teenager was with a Catholic-faith charity that supported underserved communities,” she shares. “We were making Christmas hampers. I remember going to an all-girls school to shine shoes to raise money for the baskets. I charged a quarter.”
In her youth, Marie was involved with different community groups. “Growing up, I saw things that I felt were wrong. As a teen, I wanted to act. I did a few years of different things, including supporting children with disabilities and helping find opportunities where they could be part of the community.”
Marie chose to study at the University of Ottawa and worked part-time. “My first job was at Freeman’s, which was Ottawa’s Woodward’s,” she says. “Because I was francophone, I had to work in the basement. People with accents weren’t allowed to serve anglophones. Jobs were hard to come by for francophones who didn’t speak any English. I was always aware of these barriers and was lucky that I was bilingual. 1970’s Ottawa was a difficult place to be non-English speaking.”
Marie still keeps herself busy in retirement. “I always want to do more: I thrive on it!” she says.
She continues to volunteer. In addition to being the Francophone CRN’s coordinator, she is the president of the board of directors of inform’Elles, a non-profit provincial organization that promotes access to information, outreach, and support services for French-speaking women experiencing violence.
“I love community development work. It feels familiar to me,” she says. “I love connecting people, seeing strengths in all abilities, and helping open up opportunities for all to be a part of something bigger. Community ties are so important for growth and change.”
Reading is one of the ways Marie satisfies her continual need for personal growth. “Prior to the pandemic, I was part of a French book club and book exchange that meet monthly for 20 years,” she says. “I love books and the feel of paper.”
She regularly reads both in English and French, with graphic novels currently capturing her attention. “I just finished Shadow Life by Vancouver author Hiromi Goto,” she says. “It’s about a 73-year-old woman who was placed in a care facility by her daughters. She doesn’t want to be there, so she escapes. This book is written in English.”
For the readers of French (as either a first or a second language), she recommends Changer l’eau des fleurs (Fresh Water for Flowers in English), a best seller, by French novelist Valérie Perrin. “Languages are so much fun and it’s okay to make mistakes. We all know this as second language speakers,” she explains.
Marie also walks. While she is outside walking, she frequently takes photos, which is another one of her passions. “I’m drawn to flowers, buildings, and architecture.” Her Instagram account is a colourful and playful mosaic of macro and landscape images.
She stays active inside with indoor rowing, participating in competitions when she can. “The challenge of competitive indoor rowing is so fun!” she says. “Also, the older you get, the fewer people there are in your age group. I’ve won a few contests because of this! And I don’t have any experience rowing, by the way!”
(Header photo: Marie cycling the Vancouver Seawall in 2020. Photo source: M. Dussault)