By Ross Marowits
Far from the foothills of Alberta and the bastion of Canadian conservatism, students like Rahim Rawji are discovering Quebec's unique joie de vivre.
The 22-year-old Calgary engineering student is one of 80 anglophone Canadians who are learning French, more about Quebec's culture and the province's unique brand of politics.
Rahim Rawji (left) and Robyn McArthur are Alberta students working in Montreal as part of an exchange program where they are immersing themselves in Canada's other official language.
An equal number of Quebec's francophones are making the reverse journey as part of an interprovincial summer exchange.
Since it was formally launched between Quebec and Ontario in 1969, more than 9,000 students have discovered a little more about what binds and divides the country.
More than half of this year's arrivals to Quebec come from Ontario. Twenty-one are Albertan, two are from P.E.I., nine from Manitoba and eight hail from New Brunswick.
British Columbia ended its participation in the program in 1981 after two years.
In addition to enhancing language and employment skills, the program exposes young Canadians to life in other parts of the country, said Melanie Brousseau, who runs the program in Quebec.
"We live in one country but we don't experience the same things in the same way," she said from Quebec City.
"The social context and realities are very different."
Over 13 weeks, university students are paid modest salaries between $8.25 and $10 per hour while they work in government departments or agencies.
As a Quebec employment counsellor, Rawji helps young students find summer jobs.
"It has always been important to me to be fully bilingual," said Rawji, who was first enrolled as a five-year-old in Calgary's French immersion program.
"I can say officially on my resume that I'm bilingual but I think after these four months it will carry some weight and I can back it up."
Besides improving his language skills, Rawji hopes to learn a little more about Quebec's unique take on politics.
"We haven't got into politics because we don't want to offend anyone, yet," he said of political discussions he's had with full-time government workers.
But Rawji is keen to learn first-hand about sentiments on the thorny issue of sovereignty.
"I'd really like to know if it's the older population that really wants sovereignty and what it's like with the youth and people our age."
Kimberly Cheng is also curious to contrast the conservative thinking she's seen in Alberta with Quebec's more free-spirited inclinations.
"People are a lot more liberal here, I think, with their ideas," said the 20-year-old Edmonton psychology student.
"Their attitudes towards life are more about taking it easy, having fun and even though it is busier here, I think people have more time to maybe enjoy things a little bit more."
Cheng said she's particularly keen to boost her beginner-level French skills.
"The French part is a little bit hard but I'm sure that will come soon," she said from southshore Montreal where she's helping the provincial police implement a new model of community policing.
Halfway across the country, Josiane Torresan, 23, of Rimouski, Que., is chasing bears in Canmore, Alta. The biology student is eager to gain experience in her field while learning English.
"I want to speak and think and dream in English," she said with a thick accent that fails to mask her excitement.
"I just started to think in English and that's good for me. I hope to have a lot of opportunity to work with wildlife and for sure I hope to see a grizzly bear."
While speaking English isn't required to survive in her Lower St-Lawrence community, Torresan said it would boost her career prospects.
Robyn McArthur is thinking the same thing. As a prospective French elementary teacher, the resident of Williams Lake, B.C. and a University of Alberta student hopes that becoming truly bilingual and developing a Quebec accent will help her chances of landing a great job.
"I want to be a good teacher," she said in the office she shares with Rawji.
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