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Avantage Saint John Advantage, a model of linguistic and economic cooperation

At a time when New Brunswick’s economic self-sufficiency has risen to the top of the political agenda, Beth Kelly Hatt takes some comfort in knowing that she’s helping to improve the business climate for both Anglophones and Francophones in the province.

“You realize that people are just people, and they really do want to work together,” says the founding president of Avantage Saint John Advantage (ASJA). “There is a tremendous economic advantage to bilingualism, and the business community in Saint John has really embraced this. When you get this sort of commitment, it really helps.”

The commitment Hatt speaks of is a partnership among the Saint John Board of Trade, Enterprise Saint John, and the Association Regionale de la Communaute francophone Saint-Jean dedicated to improving the metropolitan area’s business, education, health, and community development sectors.

Established in 2002, Avantage Saint John Advantage’s guiding principle has been to promote and support the financial and cultural benefits of bilingualism and to serve as a model of linguistic and economic cooperation. Over the past five years, the organization has developed a weekly French-language lunch program that is open to the entire public; bilingualism workshops targeted at the business community; and an initiative called “connections” that encourages public school students to continue their studies in French. As well, ASJA pioneered “Lebottin.org”, an online directory of all products and services available in French in Saint John.

According to the Hatt, the results have been, to say the least, rewarding. “People have become more courageous and confident,” she says. “They’ve become more open.”

Courageous, confident and open are words that might just as easily apply to Hatt. Born and raised in Charlo, N.B., she caught a bad case of the entrepreneurial bug at an early age, and she’s never been able to shake it. “When I was 11, I opened a small canteen in my home town for the summer,” she says. “It was successful enough that Mom and Dad continued it through the winter, and it eventually became the village grocery and meat store.”

In 1982, she arrived in Saint John. Struggling in vain to find a tour that would properly introduce her to the city, she started her own, which mostly offered city excursions to summer visitors. Within five years, Aquila Tours Inc. grew so rapidly that it required full-time management. Today, the company organizes services for groups of travellers from across Atlantic Canada. It also hosts outbound tours to destinations around the world. Hatt brought her infectious energy and enthusiasm to ASJA. “During my term as president there, between 2002 and 2005, we were really working hard to introduce a wide variety of new programs designed to build bridges between the Anglophone and Francophone business communities.” It worked. Today, the city’s Francophone population is active and growing, and the links to the Anglophone commercial sector are stronger than they’ve ever been. In 2006, ASJA received the Lieutenant-Governor’s Dialogue Award for its successful efforts. And Hatt, who is now serving out her term as the organization’s past- president, couldn’t be happier. “Business,” she says, “is all about building relationships.”

This feature is a copyright (2007) of Dialogue New/Nouveau-Brunswick, which promotes understanding, respect and appreciation between English-speaking and French-speaking New Brunswickers.