Education and language issues
On her return to Pomquet from Montreal, May was shocked to discover that the children did not speak French and quick to understand the real prospect of losing the French language. Characteristically, she decided to “fight for our language here”.
Other community members were aware of language issues that disadvantaged French residents, so May joined a committee of FANE that was devoted to its resolution. They were determined to achieve Acadian status for their local school, but authorities were not on board with this, and years of wrangling ensued. The francophone community was repeatedly rebuffed using various legalities that were buried within the approval-granting process. There were even parents who needed convincing that a new French school would not lead to deterioration in the quality of their children’s English skills.
Meetings with politicians were plentiful – “that’s where the fight starts,” May said. She and her colleagues knew they had la Fédération acadienne de la Nouvelle-Écosse in Halifax working for them, and in addition they lobbied local politicians. An unrehearsed event during an Acadian carnival provided a boost: two senior Nova Scotian politicians publicly supported the French language and Acadian cultural preservation cause. Finally, in 2000, after eight years of lobbying, the provincial government approved the construction of a new French school in Pomquet. Since then, May has been a frequent guest in the school, receiving un Diplôme Honorifique (an honorary diploma) in 2008. She has held Honorary Membership status in the Association canadienne d'éducation de langue française (ACELF), the National French Language Education Association, since 2002.
For May, the long and arduous, and ultimately triumphant fight, for a French language school went to the heart of her passion for language and education.
May was part of the committee that established the provincial group for elder francophones in Nova Scotia, Regroupment des aînés et aînées de la Nouvelle-Écosse (RANE). With federal funding assistance, RANE has lobbied for the rights of seniors and organized educational events around the province. May continues as Pomquet representative of la RANE.
Since 2003, she has served on a committee to establish an integrated local community centre to support social interaction and affordable housing to enable seniors to stay in the Pomquet area. Considerable research on alternative housing rental schemes informed the committee’s approach to the province to fund just a fraction of what will be needed to build such a centre. In the scheme proposed, local volunteers would administer the centre’s finances, raise funds, and take full operating responsibility – something that May says will pose challenges to “figuring it out”.
May has also worked on a committee of the R.K. Foundation that runs a nursing home of the same name, as part of her commitment to seniors. A few of the improvements they have achieved include a garden, improved security for residents, and higher levels of fund-raising. May champions more research into seniors that would provide firm guidance on how best to help them maintain dignity and lead stimulating lives. Her experience working for seniors in Montreal gave her a lifelong belief that seniors must not defined in terms of their physical limitations, but as whole people.
Every night we would serve cookies with hot chocolate to our residents… a time for individual conversations and story-telling that taught me the importance of recognizing the individuality of seniors and treating them with dignity and respect.
Her reputation for care spread had spread to the Quebec government in those days, and she was approached with an offer to build a care centre for her and her husband to manage that would house people with multiple challenges. But May was on her way back to Nova Scotia at that stage, where new challenges were in store for her.
As a founding member and President of FFAN/AANE, May brought Acadian women’s concerns to the provincial level, where she was in a strategic position to advocate. And in her role as Vice-President of the Federation Nationale des femmes Canadienne Française (FNFCF), she took advocacy for women to the national level.
May was one of the earliest volunteers for the Naomi Society for Victims of Family Violence, in the town of Antigonish. Today, help is also available through the Antigonish Women’s Resource Centre and Sexual Assault Services Association. Driven by the principle of women’s rights, she does not, however, call herself a feminist. But May says she is disappointed by any organization that does not overtly recognize the need for women’s equality, or the complex demands assumed by women in caring and educating their children. If she were younger, May said, she would get active on issues of homelessness and teenage prostitution.
Asked if she would call herself a leader, May answered carefully: “I don’t think so. I think I would be the idea seeker who says, ‘I think this has to be done’ – but you cannot do it alone”. The following anecdote exemplifies her approach:
When you go by the church you’ll see we have a beautiful iron fence, but it was not always there. There was an old, broken-down fence, with a damaged war monument. As we passed it one day, my sister-in-law said, “Isn’t this terrible, why aren’t they doing something?” and I said, “Who is ‘they’?” Well, it’s the general people—you and I—so are we going to do something? We formed a small committee, raised the money, and had the fence built. So whenever you want something done, you get together and do it.