The language barrier is hard to overcome, but when you’re suffering from mental illness, or living on the street, it can be the difference between life or death.
La Boussole – which translates to “Compass” in French – is a non-profit organization which supports the the francophone community of Vancouver with connections to French langue resources, specialists, and programs. While they began as a simple drop-in centre in the Downtown Eastside, since their incorporation in the 90s La Boussole has become many things for many people.
“Our mandate sort of grew over the years, [based on] what was demanded of us, and changed based on social changes – single moms, new immigrants in Canada, refugees – our clientele wasn’t so homogeneous,” Erik Dubois of La Boussole told Vancity Buzz. “It was seen in our best interest to move out of the Eastside so we could take in more individuals.”
From their brand new headquarters at Broadway and Fraser, La Boussole provides a place for people to relax, have a cup of coffee, and connect with the resources they need. There are even spaces used by filmmakers, festivals, and education programs.
“[That way] it becomes more of a French centre, period, rather than one that happens to provide social services,” he says.
Dubois says organizations like La Boussole are filling a hole found in many communities in Canada. Numbers show that in Vancouver, the various shelters, detox programs, and social housing complexes in B.C., the presence of francophones is disproportionate.
“The francophone community in B.C. is only 1.5 per cent, but on a recurring basis… francophones in homelessness counts have stayed relatively around 10 per cent,” says Dubois.
After working in the DTES for 10 years before joining La Boussole, Dubois says these numbers come as no surprise.
“If any given day, if I was in a local shelter or something, on a list of 30 I knew there was three or four francophones – that’s 10 per cent,” he says. “Contact centres, drop-ins, detoxes, the same thing, pretty much they were always representing that 10 per cent, and I knew there was nobody serving them.”
As opposed to having their own detox facilities or psychiatrists on staff, La Boussole helps connect those in need of services with francophone specialists in the city, something that the current system has trouble providing.
“There are psychiatrists in town that speak French or are French, but they’re not mandated to work with francophones,” says Dubois. “If there’s a psychiatrist at VGH, that’s of no use to a person ideally who is in need of consultation or a psychiatrist on a regular basis. They’re there are a psychiatrist, not a French psychiatrist, and they have those set hours.”
At the end of the day, helping people overcome the language barrier that often arises from living in a new environment, Dubois says the work done at La Boussole is vital in Vancouver.
“Especially things that go to the mind, whether it’s substance abuse that needs counselling, or just approaching people who have psychiatric or trauma needs, language plays a huge part,” Dubois says. “What’s lost in translation is critical.”