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How education and work reconnected a NOSM Francophone employee to her culture

Debbie Popien is a Francophone Student Records and Electives Officer at NOSM.

Debbie Popien is best described as the person who is always smiling and goes out of her way to see how others are doing.  She’s a Francophone Student Records and Electives Officer at NOSM at Lakehead University.

She speaks English with such clarity and ease that you’d never know her first language is French. Born in Timmins, her mom is from a small town in Quebec and her dad is from a small community outside of Kapuskasing called Moonbeam.

“When I was a year old, we moved to Thunder Bay for my dad’s business in the forestry industry, and I spoke only French until I was about four. Then I had to start school,” she recalls.

At the time, there were no French schools in Thunder Bay. Debbie recalls befriending another little girl who only spoke Italian. It was not until years later that a fully French elementary school would open in Thunder Bay called École Catholique Franco-Superieur, and high school École Secondaire Catholique De La Verendrye.

“I think it was more difficult for me back then. Now there are way more accessible services in French.”

She says for a long time she didn’t use her French aside from visiting with family in Thunder Bay. It wasn’t until she had her daughter and was encouraged to enroll her into the French school system in Thunder Bay that she reconnected with the Francophone community.

“I fell away from my culture for many years. I really didn’t have the Francophone influences in my life and I found that I missed it. I missed the traditions, it’s hard to explain culture.”

When her daughter started grade one, she debated whether to enroll her into French school. It was friends at a Francophone playgroup who convinced her to try it.  I thought, she’s not getting the Francophone experience anywhere else, and I want her to have the same Francophone experience that I had. She didn’t speak French when I enrolled her and by the end of the year she was bilingual. That’s when I started to reconnect.”

Debbie says she now uses her French all the time in her work at NOSM. She says the Francophone medical students appreciate having a Francophone to communicate with.

“You know, the French-lived experience is a big part of NOSM and the fact that we have French staff who can relate to the French students really matters because it’s more comfortable for them to have service in their preferred language. I’m able to provide them with Active Offer in French,” she says.

For Popien, it’s been personally rewarding to work with fellow Francophones.

“I feel like I’m re-immersed in the Francophone culture, rediscovering and reconnecting. I enjoy communicating with the Francophone Affairs staff at NOSM. Also, I help our French students feel connected and there’s a degree of comfort with that. It reduces a little bit of their stress.”

She says she values the Francophone inclusiveness within the social accountability mandate at NOSM; reflecting the diversity of the region and Francophone communities that NOSM serves.

“Encouraging Active Offer in French and having Francophone physicians is huge. In my own experience, when my mother was unwell and trying to explain her symptoms to the physician, I remember the difficulty she was having. She couldn’t express it in her own language.”

“It is so important for people to be able to speak to their physicians in their preferred language. That is when the barriers drop and there is a comfort level. And, there’s a huge Francophone community here; it just makes it all the more relatable.”