Sylvia Martin-Laforge and the Art of the Possible
Sylvia Martin-Laforge loves a good historical novel, whether it’s a book by Hillary Mantel, or any intrigue involving Cromwell, Henry VIII, or Ann Boleyn. But when it comes to the books that have really inspired her, she mentions a series she read as a child, and its intrepid protagonist… Recently, Blue Met collaborator Shelley Pomerance met with Sylvia Martin-Laforge, director of the Quebec Community Groups Network, to talk about what drives her, and the female investigator who has been her role model.
“You’re going to laugh, but the books that have inspired me are the Nancy Drew stories. She was fearless, and did great stuff! She was inquisitive and investigative and she always saw the fly in the ointment. The woman I wanted to be was Nancy Drew,” reveals Sylvia Martin-Laforge, referring to the mystery series, first published in the 1930s, featuring a teenage girl who is an amateur sleuth. Is she fearless, like her role model? I ask. “That’s what people say. I’m stubborn. I’ve had the chance to work for some really impressive and smart people in my life, who asked me to do things I thought I couldn’t do, and I succeeded! But now, often I have to give myself my own stretch…”
Martin-Laforge was raised in the Eastern Townships, in Granby and Coaticook. An only child, she was always a big reader. Starting in grade 5, she became a boarder at Sacred Heart School in Montreal. “I had one foot in Montreal, one foot in small town regional Quebec.” With her maternal grandparents she spoke French. With her mother and her father, an Italian-American who changed his name from Martini to Martin, she spoke English. “I’m kind of a melting pot, with cultural references that are sometimes English, sometimes French. As a small child I learned the Mother Goose Rhymes. As a young adult in the late 60s, early 70s, I was into Pauline Julien and the chansonniers, and I missed out on the Rolling Stones!”
The Quebec Community Groups Network is devoted to advocacy and community development, to ensuring that the English community in Quebec remains vital and strong. Eight years ago, when Martin-Laforge heard about the director’s job at the QCGN, she was working on official languages in Ottawa. “I didn’t think the English speaking community in Quebec was getting its due. I thought I could help. I’ve always been interested in the minority, the underdog.” She moved back to Montreal and began developing policy for the QCGN, initially at the federal level, and more recently, provincially.
“I’ve groomed myself to pay attention. It’s part of my DNA, to see injustice and problems and skews in the system.” Sounds like Nancy Drew seeing the fly in the ointment. “And I’m not afraid to ask questions. That makes a good policy person,” says Martin-Laforge. She developed this expertise while working for a number of government organizations. First, for Employment and Immigration Canada, with a focus on issues pertaining to youth and women; then in the 80s, for the Ontario Women’s Directorate. “It was a fabulous place and I worked with some fabulous women, who were great mentors.” From there she moved on to the Ontario Anti-Racism Secretariat, under then-Premier Bob Rae, and then to the Ontario Ministry of Education, where she became the director of French-language education policy. She had a staff of 16, all of them Franco-Ontarians, and she never let on that she was an anglophone.
As Martin-Laforge enters her eighth year with the QCGN she says, “I was so busy in the first seven years, I barely had time to breathe. This is not just a job; it’s a cause, a vocation. You live it and breath it. You’re always trying to convince people that investing in the English-speaking community is a good thing.” She cites Blue Metropolis as a model. “The QCGN is about linguistic duality and Blue Met is doing some fabulous work in that area, bringing anglophones and francophones together. Arts and culture are vehicles for people to understand ‘the other’, whether it’s in English, French or any other language. When Blue Met has a festival they bring people from all over the place, who’ve written books in all sorts of languages.”
As our conversation comes to a close, I ask, half in jest, “Are you the Nancy Drew of English-language rights in Quebec?” We both laugh, but there’s a grain of truth in my question. Martin-Laforge may have been inspired by the mystery stories she read as a child; more likely, she simply recognized herself in their fearless heroine. She sums up, “I take my job very seriously. And I have a strong sense of the art of the possible …” Nancy Drew couldn’t have said it better.
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