Categories: Our People

Daniel Cournoyer: From St. Albert roots to Edmonton’s French Quarter

Most days, you’ll find Daniel Cournoyer bustling about La CitĂ© Francophone in Edmonton’s French quarter – going from theatre to restaurant to office.

As executive director of the multi-use facility – live theatre space, cafĂ©, library, gallery, conference/event halls and more – Cournoyer tackles mundane as well as exciting tasks, from putting out patio chairs and stoking the wood in the outdoor fire pit at CafĂ© Bicyclette, to planning the next edition of the yearly winter fete – Flying Canoe Volant. It’s an exciting and demanding post, but one that the native St. Albert son thrives on.

“I spent all my youth in St. Albert. I’m a francophone from Western Canada, so I feel at home here at La CitĂ©, and in this neighbourhood,” said Cournoyer, who now lives just a short walk from his work. “I feel like my life is about pushing boundaries, while still being inclusive. I want all to feel welcome here.”

The all-season patio at CafĂ© Bicyclette is a good example of Cournoyer’s efforts in welcoming the broader community – it’s often named as one of the city’s favourite winter-friendly patios, oozing atmosphere (blankets, chair cushions, snow wall, crackling fire, etc.) and attracting coffee lovers from beyond just the surrounding Mill Creek and Bonnie Doon neighbourhoods.

Maybe it’s because Cournoyer didn’t grow up in Edmonton’s French Quarter that he’s able to see ways to draw those from surrounding areas to his doorstep. The energetic 48-year-old’s St. Albert roots run as deep as they come – his father was born and raised in Morinville, but his grandfather brought the family south to an acreage in St. Albert in 1956, (at 4 Garnett Drive) where he built and ran the Gavreau Bros. Garage on Perron Street (site of the post office today).

The youngest of seven, Cournoyer played hockey and attended French immersion school, but said his family was always very arts-oriented. “We missed going out for Halloween one year because our parents had tickets for the opera,” he said. “When I was 15, I was in the first-ever production at the new Arden Theatre – I was a turkey seller in A Christmas Carol.”

Behind-the-scenes work with St. Albert Children’s Theatre, puppetry and other artistic ventures followed through Cournoyer’s youth.

“I’d say there’s a francophone history in St. Albert that isn’t being celebrated to its full extent. I even got permission to marry in the Father Lacombe Chapel years ago – it was important for me, with my heritage, to be in that building,” he said. “I think most St. Albert residents are newer today, but I still see the strength in our history.”

An appreciation for the arts has remained with Cournoyer since leaving home and St. Albert, first with theatre and then arts and cultural management training at MacEwan University, followed by a few years acting and singing with Alberta Opera and others. For the next 20 years, Cournoyer immersed himself with Edmonton’s L’Uni Theatre, creating new French language works (about 40 shows a year) to tour to French communities across Alberta – St. Albert schools included.

“I was blessed to become the artistic director and executive director of L’Uni, directing theatre for young audiences. We were even invited to perform at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. That was a highlight,” he said.

As L’Uni has been a home tenant at La CitĂ© Francophone, it was a natural transition for Cournoyer to take the helm for the entire building. The renovated facility grew to 104,000 square feet and Cournoyer grew his leadership skills too, creating a beacon for the city’s French community – a vibrant, community centre alive with people and far from the “boring office building” of La Cite’s early years, he said.

Now, it’s the two-week long Flying Canoe Volant, community plays and musicals and the vibrant year-round Sunday afternoon farmers’ markets that help make the space “alive and beautiful.”

“People pull up on their bikes, park them on the hill and shop a little, or enjoy the patio and cafĂ©. We took over the food and beverage at La Cite in 2013 – it’s a social enterprise and gives people a reason to come here,” Cournoyer said. “We make a full-on effort with CafĂ© Bicyclette. The French bistro culture makes us unique in the city, and there are people who look for that. It’s not just about the coffee.”

Cournoyer sees opportunity in providing a go-to space for the 10,000 francophones that live within 10 minutes of La Cite. While neighbourhood and business revitalization continues in the area (the French Quarter goes north to south, from 82 Avenue to 88 Avenue and from 97 Street W to 83 Street E), inside the building, Cournoyer hosts 38 not-for-profit organizations, including a sports federation, youth and law associations, and francophone school board, employment office and welcome centre.

Despite his administrative roles, the arts-loving Cournoyer hasn’t left that part of himself behind. He remains involved with PACE (Professional Arts Coalition of Edmonton), and directs Polyphonik, a French music competition.

“It’s all part of who I am,” he said.

Lucy Haines: Lucy Haines has been a freelancer writer for the St. Albert Gazette since 2012. She writes features on travel, food, seniors, homes and gardens.