Western’s French Immersion School in Trois-Pistoles, Que., celebrates its 90-year anniversary as in-person classes return this summer after a two-year shift online during the pandemic.
Founded in 1932, Western University’s French Immersion School was the first of its kind in North America. Today, it continues to be a leading French immersion institution, attracting students from across Canada and beyond.
The school offers a range of programs geared towards university students, French teachers, adults and families. Regardless of their age or life stage, all arrive in Trois-Pistoles with a desire to improve their French language skills and a willingness to fully immerse themselves in this francophone community, which has been at the heart of this unique educational experience since the very beginning.
“While a lot of students enrol to earn credits towards their degree, we’ve also had many working professionals, Supreme Court justices, and even Ontario premiers,” said John Doerksen, Western’s vice-provost (students).
The idea of establishing a French immersion school came from Dr. William Sherwood Fox, a professor of classics at Western University.
Fox experienced the transformative impact of immersive language learning on a visit to Quebec in 1900. This sparked his dream to establish a summer program in a solely French-speaking environment. It would be a place where young, English-speaking Canadians could learn French while learning about French-Canadian culture.
When Fox became president of Western in 1932, he seized the opportunity to pursue his vision, confident that Western could significantly contribute to national understanding. Despite anxiety over the looming economic crisis, he enlisted the support of several Western alumni who agreed to finance the search for a suitable location for the school.
Fox and his supporters visited several towns in Quebec’s Bas-Saint-Laurent region. They were looking for an exclusively French-speaking village far from a major centre yet accessible by train. They wanted to find a community that would fully embrace the project, as the vision for the school required placing students with local host families.
Set on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, approximately 230 kilometres from Quebec City, Trois-Pistoles emerged as the ideal location.
The first session of Western’s French Immersion School in Trois-Pistoles ran for eight weeks in the summer of 1933. The university had hoped for a dozen participants. Instead, 26 students registered for the inaugural program – and the school has continued to grow ever since.
Today, it welcomes more than 600 students who participate in various credit and non-credit immersion programs over the spring and summer. Since 1970, the immersion program has been recognized by the Explore Program – a government-funded initiative that promotes bilingual learning in Canada.
Housed within L’École Secondaire de Trois-Pistoles, Western’s French Immersion School combines academic learning with cultural and recreational activities. Students are encouraged to speak French at all times, regardless of their language level.
Most importantly, all participants stay and share meals with local residents. The homestay has been one of the most cherished elements of the program since the school’s inception, with some families in Trois-Pistoles having hosted students for generations.
The festivities for the anniversary celebration this summer will include live performances by Quebec musicians, workshops and a formal reception.
“Right now, this is all pandemic-dependent, but if we can be in-person, many of us – including civic and political leaders – will want to attend,” says Doerksen. “For an institution like this to last for 90 years is an extraordinary testament to the commitment of so many people, not the least of which are the people of Trois-Pistoles.”