About six or seven years ago, Chantal Cornwall was in her kitchen when she realized she couldn’t remember the French word for fork.
“It sounds stupid, but I was like, ‘How’d that happen?’ Because I never use it. I live in an English community where I don’t have to use the language,” Cornwall said.
Originally from Montreal, where her family had lived for 150 years, Cornwall moved to Prince Rupert in 1990. When she realized she was losing her first language Cornwall decided to take action.
She happened to know Patrick Witwicki, the director of L’Association des Francophones et Francophiles du Nord-Ouest (AFFNO), from their days at the Daily News where he was the sports editor and she was a columnist.
Since then, she’s been a member of AFFNO, then a board member and now the regional director for Prince Rupert for three terms.
“I find a lot of the French people incredibly happy — la joie de vivre is really embraced. For me, when I came to AFFNO, it was like getting it back,” Cornwall said.
Of the many events the society hosts, the Sugar Shack winter festival is probably the most popular. For Cornwall, it mixes two of her passions: language and food. In fact, the self-described foodie taught herself to read English by pouring over restaurant reviews in the Montreal Gazette.
But just a few years ago she said AFFNO was giving away tickets to what has now become one of their signature events. For the past two years in a row the Sugar Shack brunch has been sold out.
“I’m proud of it. It’s part of who I am,” she said. “As a child in French immersion school, our field trips were based on going to the cabane à sucre, the sugar lofts two and three hours away. This is a really important part of Quebec economy, the maple syrup industry. I love those. These are generational places where it would be like grandpas started it way back.”
The mother of two is also proud to have passed down her taste for traditional Quebecois food to her sons, although her Toronto-born husband, Phil, doesn’t appreciate the sweet flavours.
Many of Cornwall’s initiatives have featured or were inspired by her boys. Raising them in Rupert, Chantal and Phil became heavily involved in Scouts Canada and coaching soccer.
“My sons would say, ‘If you’re coaching, mom or dad, then I’ll do it.’ So it was an incentive,” Cornwall said.
“I think if you have certain gifts to give to your community, volunteering is an awesome way to do that. You meet really great people.”
Now that her sons are older, Cornwall leads a nine-member strong pack of kids at the Kids Club Daycare. For the past 14 years, she’s made it her mission to inspire integrity, kindness and accountability in the children she cares for through the program.
“I think there’s this awesome never-ending supply of wonderment for [kids]. They’re in awe of everything. As we get older and we’re tainted to life, we forget the awe. When it snows for the first time or [there are] a hundred dandelions, to you and I might be weeds, but to them, they’re wonderful and colourful. I’m addicted to that — I love that awe of certain things.”
Cornwall has a gift and an eye for finding that awe in the everyday. Her phone is full of photos of kids, dogs and what she calls wonderment moments.
“If I can inspire other people to live more in the moment through slowing down a little bit. Whether it’s light — there’s beautiful light this week from the sun that’s hitting the grass or beaming through the trees and in half an hour it’s gone. If you can capture that moment in your head and your heart, embrace it,” Cornwall said.
“I’m a writer. I’m going to look at that as a metaphor. If that moment is given to me at the right time, I’m in the right spot.”