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Assia Bah: "Everybody smiles and says ‘hi.' In that way, it’s like Guinea.”

‘Madame Assia’ enjoying small town life in Lindsay

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What a difference an hour-and-a-half drive can make. Toronto is one of the most multicultural and diverse cities in the world. Over half the population was born outside of Canada and over half of Torontonians belong to a visible minority group.

Lindsay? Not quite so diverse.

'Madame Assia' enjoying small town life in Lindsay
Columnist Jamie Morris.

But that’s slowly changing, and though everyone has a story to tell, maybe we should be paying particular attention to the stories of those who have come here from other countries and cultures. What has brought them here? What fresh perspectives do they offer and how are they shaping and being shaped by our community?

With that preamble, meet Assia Bah — “Madame Assia” to the kids at Leslie Frost Public School, where she is a French monitor, assisting the teachers by working with a few kids at a time to improve their ability to speak, understand, read and write French.

Assia, who is now 26, was born in Guinea, a West African country that is one of the 21 French-speaking countries on the continent. She is the eldest of three children. Her parents, Muslim Peuhls (members of the Falu tribe), were both professional engineers and two of her grandparents were teachers.

In Assia’s culture, as girls approach puberty they are expected to undergo excision (female genital mutilation). Her mother was determined to save her daughters from this. She wanted a different, better life for her children, and when Assia turned 10 made the decision to seek refuge in Canada, known for its freedoms and safety.

Montreal was the obvious choice: francophone, and already home to some of her mother’s relatives.

Assia and her mother left her siblings and father behind. They arrived in Montreal in November. What hit her first, coming from the tropical heat of Guinea, was the cold. November in Canada, eh?

But there was a different kind of froideur (coldness) as well. She was the new kid at school and it was hard to make friends.

Assia explains: “In Guinea there’s warmth between people. Everybody speaks to everybody and nobody is left out. It wasn’t like that in Quebec.”

Her French accent was different from the Quebecois, so it took a while to make that adjustment, too.

Meanwhile, her mother was facing different challenges. She had to navigate the immigration and citizenship process (which was complicated 10 years later when Assia’s siblings arrived and the family was reunified). She took additional engineering courses but couldn’t find a Montreal engineering position. Instead, she worked in a daycare and did lots of volunteering, helping new arrivals and assisting at a centre that advocated for renters’ rights.

(Let’s hit “pause” on our story for a second and note that though we can’t always control our circumstances, we do have some control over our reactions to them. You should know that as Assia shares her story there’s not a trace of self-pity; in fact, over a two-hour chat, the prevailing mood is  good humour and there is lots of laughter (an important feature of her culture, she tells me).

Back to the story. Assia went through the public school and CEGEP system, then on to university, first (hoping to become an immigration agent) completing  a certificate in immigration and intercultural relations, then a bachelor’s degree in political science and international development from the Universite de Montreal (UdeM). She graduated last year.

It was time for a change. “For the past couple of years I hadn’t seen myself evolving,” she says. “I felt I was stuck in the same position.”

Change has come; in fact, two big changes. Lindsay has provided the second of those changes.

The first was a three-month internship helping farmers learn small business skills in a small village in Senegal, a country just along the coast from Guinea (where her father now lives). It was a return to her African roots after 16 years away, her first opportunity to immerse herself in African culture again. It was also a chance to have time with her father. (“I spent the whole week crying — happy tears!” she says).

And the second life-changing experience was coming here, to Lindsay, last August.

As of last year, officially a Canadian citizen (after 16 years in Canada), Assia had decided to leave Quebec.

“I told myself ‘Canada is a huge country’,” she says.

She had applied and been approved for Odyssey, a federal/ provincial  program created to promote our two official languages, and was given a few choices. She’d already visited and enjoyed Halifax — attracted by its historic connection to black culture — and she’d seen PEI, but decided on Ontario, where she also has relatives.

She chose the placement at Leslie Frost Public School because she was told Lindsay had a good transportation system. (She laughs when she tells me this; I laugh too).

What were her impressions of Lindsay?

“After Montreal it’s small, but that’s what I wanted. It’s quiet and I like that. Everybody smiles and says ‘hi’ and people are helpful. In that way, it’s like Guinea.”

What’s really had an impact is her work at Leslie Frost. It works both ways — the school’s had a real impact on her and she is contributing to the school.

Assia admires the administration and teachers and the way everybody is so involved — not just in teaching but in extracurricular activities as well. She’s learned that she loves to teach.

“The kids always want to read with me and try to speak with me in French,” she says.

Clearly she has an aptitude for teaching, and it’s been recognized. Teachers and the vice principal have seen her patience and the way she interacts with the kids and have asked if she’d ever considered becoming a teacher.

For some of the children, Assia is the first black woman they’ve known.

“Why is your skin a different colour from mine?” she’s been asked. And “How do your braids stay on without an elastic?” The world gets a little bigger and more complex for the kids.

Assia has been helping with extra-curriculars and next month she has a chance to combine two passions: her love of teaching and her roots. February is Black History month, and she’s been given approval to organize some activities.

Who knew that the inventors of the ice cream scoop and of traffic lights were black? Assia, obviously, and the Leslie Frost students will soon as well. They’ll also learn about other kinds of contributions to Canadian culture.

At the end of June the students will say goodbye to Assia. Shortly after, sadly, she’ll be saying goodbye to Lindsay.

Next stop? After her Lindsay experience she has decided to apply to a Faculty of Education so she can become a teacher.

Roderick Benns is the publisher of The Lindsay Advocate. He is the author of 'Basic Income: How a Canadian Movement Could Change the World,' and is also Vice Chair of the Ontario Basic Income Network. An award-winning author and journalist who grew up in Lindsay, Roderick has interviewed former Prime Ministers of Canada, Senators, and Mayors across Canada. He also wrote and published a series of books for youth about Canada's Prime Ministers as teens.

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