08/25/2011 03:44 EDT | Updated 10/25/2011 05:12 EDT

Vermont Quebec Campaign Targets Francophones


MONTREAL - Vermont, long known for its small-town charm and friendly people, is sending a message to its neighbours to the north: Canadians are ''bienvenue.''

Burlington city council has unanimously passed a non-binding resolution encouraging local businesses to put up more French signs and to get their employees to learn the language.

"We really want people to know we're putting out the welcome mat," Norman Blais, the councillor who sponsored the motion, told The Canadian Press.

A strong Canadian dollar has meant more tourists than ever are flocking south of the border.

According to the Vermont tourism office, Canadians already make up nearly 20 per cent of visitors to the state, and although hard numbers aren't available for this year, deputy commissioner Steve Cook said Canadian travel agencies are ordering twice as many Vermont travel guides this year.

It's a trend Burlington wants to encourage.

Blais says the fact the notoriously divisive city council voted unanimously, when "normally they can't decide on which side the sun will rise," is a testament to local enthusiasm for the plan.

For Ron Redmond, executive director of Burlington's Church Street marketplace, the move just makes sense. He says the increase in the number of Canadian tourists this year is a great opportunity to deepen already close ties between Vermont and Quebec.

"We want to build strong relationships that don't depend on currency fluctuations," he said.

"Everyone here has relatives across the border. Connections are so deep."

This is just the latest in a series of moves designed to make the city more French-friendly.

For years, a local association has offered French classes to local entrepreneurs, and Redmond's group has run a "Welcome Quebec" tent in the town's central square, festooned with blue-and-white Quebec flags.

Now, it is helping to translate menus and signs and handing out buttons to local retail workers describing how much French they speak,

"We have 'Bienvenue Quebecois' stickers in almost every window," Redmond said.

Nicole Shakesby of Chateauguay, Que., who has visited the Burlington area for the last 20 years, says she has never seen as many Quebecers as this year.

"I'm hearing a lot more French on the beach," she said.

Although she and her family are bilingual, she still appreciates the efforts the city is making toward Quebecers.

"I've noticed in restaurants, the staff really tries to understand French guests, and it's nice to see" she said.

"We are so close to Burlington, it's so easy to come here, so it's good of them to make the effort."

With the Quebec and Vermont governments looking into the possibility of high-speed rail service between Burlington and Montreal, as well as the expansion of Autoroute 35 between Quebec and New England, cross-border traffic is only likely to increase in the future.

Both Redmond and Blais emphasize, however, that the initiatives are about more than just getting their hands on those multicoloured Canadian tourist dollars. They’re also about helping Vermonters honour their cultural heritage.

"A generation ago, one-third of Vermonters had French-Canadian surnames," Blais expvermont welcome quebec, bienvenue quebecois, lained.

He himself is a good example. Both his parents come from Quebec, and he grew up speaking French around the house.

"Then I got grew up, got assimilated, and I rejected French as sort of un-American," he said. "As I got older, I realized what a loss that was.

"A lot of Vermonters want to rediscover that heritage."