One on one with Frédérique Dombrowski
In my younger and more vulnerable years, I remember being intensely self-conscious about my accent in French. It was in the courtyard of an old tobacco factory in Lyon in 2014 that I encountered a fellow Canadian who informed me how to pronounce the word femme properly. I'll never forget it.
She was always kind, but she possessed the kind of self-assurance that could appear somewhat daunting to the more ineffectual souls on exchange. She spoke English and French natively. À l'époque, I initially didn't know what to make of her. She sang Disney songs beautifully. On a hike up the Mont Salève (the Balcony of Geneva), she advised all the women matter-of-factly to get pap smears.
She's now 26 years old. She recently revealed to me that she's spatially impaired. "Distances are a real struggle, and I’m the annoying person blocking traffic in a subway station because I can’t visually perceive movements," she shares. "I’m constantly mildly injured from navigating the world extremely poorly." That being said, at the time of this interview, she's taking her 18th flight of 2018 to go spend a week in the New Mexico desert by herself. I’m impressed.
Frédérique Dombrowski has been living in Toronto since 2015 but her hometown is Québec City. She expresses amusement that the word “sensible” has completely different meanings in French and English. "I’m also a bit freaked out by the fact that 'cheap' and 'horny' don’t even have translations in French, and how much it says about France because everything is expensive and horny is just a way of being," she muses.
Frédérique’s forthright expression in two languages has served as an inspiration to me. "Self-honesty without self-love is nothing but self-abuse," she says, citing Liz Gilbert's words as her personal philosophy. It is my absolute pleasure to present this interview with an unapologetically strong woman.
RS: You tell me you're from a family with "a lot of opinions about everything." How did your upbringing affect you?
FD: I was brought up in Québec in the 1990s, so politics is an intrinsic part of our collective identity. I was taught to speak my mind from an early age and to fight for what I believed to be right. My parents can't speak a lick of English but they always encouraged my curiosity for the language. I would watch my favourite Disney movies in English (not dubbed) and add French or English subtitles and obsessively write every new word in my makeshift dictionary. There was nothing cooler than learning a new word and hearing it in a sentence a few days later on a show.
RS: So your lack of spatial intelligence makes you totally auditory.
FD: I have a very hard time picturing my fiancé, best friends, or parents when I close my eyes, but I could recognize their voice in a crowd of 1,000 people. I can also listen to a song once and recite it almost perfectly or listen to an audiobook while translating a document on my computer. Being auditory also means I lost most of my accent quite quickly because I can reproduce pronunciation easily.
RS: How was the prospect of learning English elsewhere one of the scariest things you've done?
FD: My first solo trip was to Ottawa for 5 weeks at the age of 17. I was part of an English immersion program at the university of my dreams (UOttawa). I almost didn’t get on that train and threw up every 5 minutes for about half of the train ride but I did it and it was fabulous, and I met a friend who has since become a sister to me. It was terrifying because I was fighting my anxiety so much and I didn’t know if it was going to win that day. I’m glad it didn’t because I wouldn’t be where I am today if I had not gotten on that train.
RS: You studied Indigenous politics in university. What did that lead to?
FD: I got really interested in how Québec nationalism influenced our relations with First Nations, Métis and Inuit in Québec. It was a period of emotional and intellectual turmoil that made me re-evaluate my stance on Québec independence.
RS: What's your stance now?
FD: I had always been an separatist and I’m not so sure what my position is anymore. I can’t really stand behind a nation unilaterally claiming a territory that’s never really been theirs. This is a conflict that has been shadowing me for over five years now, both in my work and my personal life.
RS: Your political views shape your every interaction, eh?
FD: I recently read this on Twitter: “To say ‘I’m not political’ is a privilege revealing you haven’t had your very existence politicised for you." I can’t compromise on social equity and I can’t keep quiet when women are paid up to a third less than men for the same job across Canada (even in government!!), and when First Nations in Ontario don’t have running water.
RS: Never compromise! What's your job?
FD: I work as the Outreach and Stakeholder Manager at this amazing non-profit organization called CIVIX. We run, among other civic education initiatives, mock elections for kids in Canada so they learn about our electoral process and become the next generation of decision-makers. It’s a privileged position to be in because I can give Canadian youth some tools to foster their own critical-thinking skills. I was looking for a profession that combined my passion for politics and school. Working in civic education is a natural fit.
RS: What do your days consist of right now?
FD: Office time, meetings, and preparation for our upcoming four elections that are coming up this fall across the country. I’m contributing to the development of teaching resources that will be shared with educators at the beginning of the school year. I’m also meeting with various stakeholders to obtain their support on our projects.
RS: Why do you want to spend more time in the Territories?
FD: I want to make myself available to students who can be easily forgotten by our governments and offer them my time so they can get their voices heard.
RS: You went to Nunavut last fall and you absolutely loved it.
FD: While some people dream of Hawaii, I’ve been dreaming of the Territories since I was a toddler. I had the opportunity on my birthday to be in Rankin Inlet and Iqaluit, and my eyes filled up with tears of gratitude. I was so proud to have made it there and I was just content. Everything had aligned. I was on this hill facing Iqaluit and Frobisher Bay and the sun was rising and it just felt right and beautiful.
RS: Must you be non-partisan for your work?
FD: Yes. Let’s just say that some days it’s easier than others, but I’m issue-driven, not party driven. Parties need to adapt to the reality that millennials don’t sign on a full platform, and may agree with all four parties at House of Commons or Queen’s Park because their opinions are varying on the spectrum and complex in their matters.
RS: You've never seriously considered doing anything besides politics?
FD: It’s always been clear to me that I would work in that field one way or another. It’s been a reassuring constant in my life. There is so much Canada could do better, and I want to contribute somehow. I grew up a few minutes away from the Wendat reserve of Wendake. Even though we shared a neighbourhood, it was a completely different world. The more I learned about Canada’s colonial heritage, the more I wanted to do something. To be honest, we are a fascinating country that has been very successful at promoting this perfect image abroad.
RS: Canada is like an Instagram model.
FD: Everyone knows we can’t be this perfect, but we still get millions of likes on everything we post. So I try to deconstruct the narrative, advocate for what I care about, and hopefully make a positive difference.
RS: Are there any other challenges of your work you'd like to comment on?
FD: Not being male can suck regardless of the industry, but the political world thrives on masculinity. I’m obviously speaking here as a privileged, bilingual, educated, white cis woman, and this is only my experience, but I have had to temper my personality, take a back seat in meetings when I should have been in control, and keep my mouth shut on multiple occasions because women are “irrational,” “hysterical," and not “cut out for the job." It’s a constant battle whether you work directly in politics or in its periphery. I’m trying my best.
RS: What do you read for fun?
FD: I’m a die-hard fan of anything dystopian … There’s nothing more fascinating to me than reading about or watching someone’s interpretation of the collapse of civilization. Each author or filmmaker has their own interpretation of what makes us human, and the way they rebuild post-apocalyptic societies says a lot about who they are and what they believe in. Recently, I read Station 11 by Toronto-based Emily St. John Mandel. This book has haunted me ever since. I’m about to start The Party, which is about the rise of a far right nationalist party in the UK that emerges after Brexit and attempts to deport any non-British born person.
RS: Who makes you laugh?
FD: Jean-Marc Parent is a Québec-based stand-up comedian who will physically make my belly ache within five minutes of getting on stage. His story-telling is just the best, he can turn the most mundane activity in a one-hour story. I saw his show during my first heartbreak, right before moving out of my parents’ house, and I’ll be flying home to see him live right after getting married. Just like me, he’s a hypochondriac, so as they say “Mieux vaut en rire qu’en pleurer."
RS: Musical discoveries we should know about?
FD: Hubert Lenoir, a Québec-city native (represent!) who has a very androgynous look and has been shaking things up and giving the baby-boomer internet trolls a run for their money. He makes super catchy indie-pop. I’ve also been obsessed with David Giguère for years. We’re super lucky in Canada to have incredible Indigenous artists who make you travel through their music. I would HIGHLY recommend Elisapie (and her early stuff with Taiga) as well as a Tribe Called Red and Koriass.
RS: What else do you find grounding?
FD: Since my line of work can be quite theoretical, I journal and weave regularly. It’s fun to make something tangible. I’m trying to expand to new mediums since it has such therapeutic effects on my scattered brain.
RS: What do you look for when writing?
FD: I used to think everything I was writing or creating had to wholly represent who I am as a person. Talk about anxiety-inducing and such an impossible task! Now I see everything as a snapshot of what I’m feeling or what I wanted to get across in a very precise moment. It doesn’t have to be the same tomorrow, but it was authentic at the time of its creation.
RS: That alleviates a lot of pressure. So writing is a daily exercise?
FD: I write to figure out how I'm feeling. Therapy is expensive, you know! And my journal has always been a place to untangle my thoughts, insecurities, irrational fears, and overwhelming feelings. Writing is powerful. Overwhelming situations and obsessive thoughts soon become much more manageable once you’ve written the whole thing down in half a paragraph. I mean, it can’t be that big of deal if it can’t even fill a full page in your journal.
I have been lucky enough to not experience extreme failure or loss in my life… yet. Sometimes the feeling that something horrible will happen is paralyzing, and some days are better than others. Tempering the funk is my perpetual fight but it’s taught me how to be resilient.
RS: Was your mental health taboo when you were a kid?
FD: I can’t blame anyone for it because they wanted to protect me, but it’s also made me feel quite lonely during rougher times. Now that I openly speak about my mental health and try to de-dramatize the whole situation, I’ve managed to turn my Generalized Anxiety Disorder into an ally. God knows what trouble I’d get myself into if my anxiety wasn’t there to chill me out.
RS: Tell me about the Curated Closet approach you recently started.
FD: You use a capsule wardrobe and switch up seasonal pieces four times a year. It’s forced me to analyze what was missing in my closet and make more informed purchases. There is a reason why Jobs and Zuckerberg wore the same thing every day: it frees up space to think of other things. While I’ll never adopt a strict uniform, I’ve really enjoyed using consumption as a tool rather than a bottomless pit of poor decisions. To be honest though, there is a lot of room for improvement. I still go to Walmart more often than I’d like to admit.
RS: How are your closest friends different from you?
FD: Most of them have families and have settled down near their hometown. They are anchors in my life and I know where to find them. They have a clear path (I could not have erratic friends like me who spend most of their time hopping from one place to another). They provide guidance, balance and continuity in my life. Other good friends are artists, both in their profession and at the core of their being. They create to feel alive and live an existence I wish I had the courage to live.
RS: Big cities can be overwhelming and soul-sucking places.
FD: Sometimes you don’t realize the toll they take on you until you leave, and the pace of living is exhausting. They’re also madly diverse, exciting, and open-minded, and it’s hard to stay away for too long. I have a very conflictual relationship with Toronto as you can see!
RS: Apparently Toronto can easily make you forget Québec even exists.
FD: La Presse is by far the website I visit most because it keeps me up-to-date with what’s happening back home and they don’t have a comment section. I try to keep up using my Tou.Tv Extra subscription and consume as much culture from home as I can. We make dope music, shows and movies.
RS: Remarks on art?
FD: I think it’s important to show respect to those who have the courage to bring their work forth, and to believe their story and their truth. Whether you get it or not is quite irrelevant. If the art speaks to you, that’s incredible and you’ve built a bridge between you and this creator. If it doesn’t speak to you, move on. I wish art, beyond pop culture, was not perceived something inaccessible or bourgeois by people close to me. I’ve had to roam dozens of museums and exhibitions to realize that art is just a cry to be seen, regardless of style or era.
RS: What are some of your favourite feelings and scents?
FD: The feeling of cold rain in the fall, and the sharp, cold dry air on your cheeks in January. Pool chlorine is a nostalgic smell for sure. Burning sage and sandalwood is good for the soul. Growing up, I really enjoyed being indoors, but ever since I’ve been living in big cities, the outdoors is screaming my name. I feel most at peace in the forest, surrounded by familiar smells of pine and leaves – you feel that you’re part of the flux. I’m organizing the next 5 years of my life to get closer to the forest again.
RS: What do you find romantic?
FD: “Hey, let’s order sushi tonight and drink that bottle of red at home.”
RS: Do you crave time at home?
FD: Although I travel regularly and pick bizarre destinations, I actually crave time at home. Travelling will always be a part of me and while I hope to continue going on adventures for many decades to come, I can only live permanently in a stretch of about 600 km between Toronto and Montréal. I will never move east of Montréal and I couldn’t stand being west of Toronto.
/// If you'd like to get in touch with Frédérique, contact her on LinkedIn. She's currently open to new volunteer opportunities! Or if you simply wish to be mad at the world together… voici son Twitter.