“Language is like a lens through which we view the world. If you have two languages, you have two different sets of lenses, and you can capture different meanings, different understandings, different facets of our reality. The power of shared language to dissolve barriers and build mutual understanding, respect and friendship is extremely important in our society.”
Teacher, professor, researcher, dean, senator and community builder, the Honourable Claudette Tardif formerly of Edmonton and recently of Calgary has long been recognized as one of Canada’s foremost advocates and defenders of bilingualism and minority linguistic and cultural rights. She has made considerable contributions to secondary and post-secondary education in Alberta.
Claudette Merkowsky was born on July 27, 1947, in Westlock, the eldest of seven children. Her father Leonard was a parts manager for the Ford dealership, and her mother Yvonne was a homemaker and nursing assistant. Language was always a part of Claudette’s background. Her maternal grandparents were deeply invested in her maintaining the family’s French language and culture. Claudette was particularly close to her grandmother Ernestine. “She gave me a strong sense of who I was and where I came from. She was the foundation in which my Francophone cultural identity took root,” she says. Claudette’s education up to Grade 12 was a true mixture of French and English.
Claudette enrolled in the teacher education program in French at Edmonton’s Collège Saint-Jean in 1964, living in a house for young women on campus. Through that group of friends, she met Denis Tardif, who came from a French-speaking family in St. Paul. They would marry in 1968.
After completing two years at the collège, Claudette moved to the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta. In 1968, she obtained a B.Ed. in Secondary Education. In her second year of teaching, the Edmonton Catholic School Board offered her a position setting up and teaching the French program at the new Louis Saint Laurent High School. She accepted the challenge and loved it.
Claudette and Denis started their family with Claudine in 1972, with Natalie and Pierre arriving over the next few years. While Claudette did some substitute teaching, she felt the pull to further her education. She enrolled in a master’s program at the University of Alberta, writing her thesis on the role of culture in second language teaching. In 1978, she earned her M.Ed. in Secondary Education, Curriculum Studies.
In 1976, the University of Alberta purchased Collège Saint-Jean, renaming it Faculté Saint-Jean, a full-fledged faculty of the university. In 1978, Faculté Dean Frank McMahon asked Claudette to teach educational psychology, knowing it had been her minor in her master’s program. Always up for a challenge, Claudette accepted the offer. In 1981, she became Director of the Education Division, teaching a variety of courses and setting up new four-year teacher education programs.
“Nowhere in Canada were there teacher preparation programs specifically geared to working in a Francophone school or a French immersion program. So my colleagues and I started working on such programs. Since then, Faculté Saint-Jean has prepared hundreds of immersion teacher graduates and French-first language teachers. I’m very proud of that,” says Claudette. Encouraged by their success, she set about creating more programs, including the first Master of Education program at the faculté.
Following the adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, and more specifically Article 23, Claudette served on one of the committees setting up the first French language school in Edmonton in 1984.
Claudette received her Ph.D. in Educational Administration from the University of Alberta in 1984 and completed the Senior Administrative Leadership Course at the then Banff Centre in 1998. She served as associate dean of the Faculté Saint-Jean from 1991 to 1995, and as dean from 1995 to 2003, as well as a member of the university’s senate.
Claudette’s leadership as dean propelled the faculté into a new and exciting era. She created and launched the French language Master of Arts program in Canadian Studies and, in cooperation with other faculties, created Canada’s first joint bilingual Bachelor of Commerce Program, western Canada’s first bilingual Bachelor of Science in Nursing program, and the first year of a Bachelor of Engineering program. She also successfully established numerous student bursaries and scholarships and created the “Connecting Canadians” Louis Desrochers Conference Series in Études canadiennes/Canadian Studies.
When the university wanted to tear down the faculté’s student residence, she not only had the decision reversed, but also convinced the Francophone community, the provincial and federal governments, and the university itself to contribute funds, raising enough to build a new residence and renovate the old residence into an academic and community conference centre.
In 2001, Edmonton hosted the 8th IAAF World Athletics Championships. Claudette served on the board of directors and as chair of the Francophone Advisory Council, a vital role considering a primary language of the International Association of Athletics Federations was French, and all ceremonies and communications were issued in French and English. She also served as a member of the Steering Committee for the 2005 World Masters Games and president of its Francophone Advisory Committee.
Claudette’s publications – three books, 43 articles/book chapters, one major monograph and 12 reports – focus on issues of interest to her throughout her academic career, including second language acquisition and teaching, French immersion education, minority language education, and teacher education.
She had begun a well-earned sabbatical in 2004 when Claudette accepted an offer from then university President Rod Fraser to become the interim Vice President of External Relations. She loved the job, but in March 2005, just four months after she started, she received a call from Paul Martin, then Prime Minister of Canada, asking her to serve her country as Canada’s newest senator.
In the Senate of Canada, Claudette was appointed Deputy Leader of the Official Opposition in the Senate and served as ex-officio on all Senate standing committees. Under her leadership as Chair of the Standing Committee on Official Languages, the Senate approved a major study on the modernization of the Official Languages Act.
“I think our future as a society really depends on how we prepare our youth to face the challenges of our society. My maiden speech in the Senate was on the importance of post-secondary education and promoting equal opportunity through education. That’s a cause to which I’ve devoted most of my life.”
Of particular importance to Alberta, Claudette was also a member of the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Forestry. She was an outstanding ambassador for Alberta and for the French-speaking communities in Alberta and across Canada. As chair and vice-chair of the Canadian section of the Canada-France Interparliamentary Association, she actively contributed to Franco-Canadian relations.
Always motivated to create opportunities, Claudette was part of a fundraising team to build aging-in-place facilities for Edmonton’s senior francophone community. Centre de Santé Saint-Thomas also provides practicum opportunities to the bilingual Bachelor of Nursing students from the nearby faculté.
Claudette and Denis actively support La Fondation Franco-Albertaine, with Claudette having served as the honorary president and then member of the board of governors. They created two endowment funds for the foundation: one to support teacher professional development, the other to support cultural programming at École Claudette-et-Denis Tardif in Sherwood Park. Claudette also funds the Claudette Tardif Award for students in teacher education at Faculté Saint-Jean.
Claudette has received multiple awards recognizing her leadership, community involvement, scholarship and teaching excellence. Just a few include Prix Maurice Lavallée award (1990, 1997) from the Alberta French Canadian Association; Edmonton ITV Women of Vision Award (2000); Award of Excellence (Visibility), Association canadienne-française de l’Alberta régionale d’Edmonton (2001, 2006); Order of Merit, Association canadienne des éducateurs de langue française (2001); L’Ordre des francophones d’ Amérique from the Government of Québec (2011); Award of Excellence, Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa (2003); Ordre de la Pléiade, Assemblée parlementaire de la Francophonie (2005, 2018); and an honorary doctorate from the University of Ottawa (2006). In 2016, Claudette received the French Legion of Honour, France’s highest honour. In 2018, she received the Prix Boréal from the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada, and in 2019, she received an honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Alberta. Claudette has received the Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee Medal, the Alberta Centennial Medal, the Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee Medal and the Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee Medal (Alberta).
Claudette retired from the Senate in 2018. She and Denis live in Calgary and also spend time at their cottage near Kelowna, BC. Claudette enjoys reading, gardening and playing the piano. She and Denis treasure spending time with their children and seven grandchildren.
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