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From curious sociolinguist to accomplished educational leader: Normand Labrie’s journey to becoming interim dean of OISE

October 7, 2021

By Perry King

Professor Normand Labrie began his term as Interim Dean of OISE on July 1, 2021. A renowned sociolinguist, Labrie has held several leadership positions at OISE and has also lent his skills to the likes of the European Commission, the Agence universitaire de la Francophonie and UNESCO (photo by Marianne Madeline Lau). 

For Normand Labrie, teaching underprivileged students in India was one of the more rewarding times of his life.

Labrie, who began his stint as Interim Dean of OISE on July 1, remembers a sabbatical year in Mumbai where he ended up unexpectedly volunteering as a teacher. “I wanted to observe classrooms during my time India, so I contacted a foundation which was offering an afterschool program that helped underprivileged students access university,” said Labrie, who joined OISE in 1991.

One day, while observing a class, the teacher told Labrie that he could go home early as she would be teaching geography and it would be “very boring.” Labrie asked, “How can geography be boring for 12-year-olds? It is about the universe, the sea, cities, the environment.” The teacher responded, “If you think it's so interesting, why don’t you teach it?”

He accepted the challenge.

Students came from different parts of India and spoke different Indian languages at home—yet Labrie was expected to deliver a text-heavy curriculum in English. This all felt extremely rigid to Labrie, a trained sociolinguist.

So, he deviated by getting creative. He experimented by bringing in videos and technology to help the kids who struggled with text-based learning.

“I still used the textbooks as prescribed but, let’s say, I pushed the boundaries a little bit on the ground of pedagogical approaches, and we had a lot of fun, in English—but not only,” said Labrie.

In the end, all the kids he taught got into university. It was an achievement that Labrie describes as being a “great satisfaction.”

Learning new languages and culture, while working to improve classroom pedagogy, was a life-changing experience for Labrie, who had a strong interest in understanding the complexity of linguistic systems and the connection of language and cultures.

His passion for sociolinguistics developed during his undergrad years. It took him to Germany where he observed the trajectories of Turkish-speaking children in the German education system, and then to doctoral studies at Laval University where he studied how Italian-Canadians in Montreal navigated their day-to-day life using three or more languages.

Engaging with different cultures and languages expanded how he could make an impact—and improving classroom curricula and providing educational leadership have become hallmarks of his career.

Proudly, Labrie has lent his skills and leadership to the likes of the European Commission, the Agence universitaire de la Francophonie, UNESCO, and now 30 years at OISE as a professor and administrator. To date, he has published three books, made dozens of keynote addresses and been cited hundreds of times in academic research.


WATCH VIDEO: Get to know Professor Labrie — what keeps him motivated, why he became interested in sociolinguistics and how teaching underprivileged students in India ended becoming one of the most rewarding times of his life (video by Marianne Madeline Lau).


Dr. Labrie’s ongoing impact

Since joining OISE, Labrie has held several senior positions—including Associate Dean, Research and Graduate Studies, Associate Dean, Research, and most recently as Associate Dean, Programs. His research focuses on linguistic pluralism, language politics, linguistic minorities, and discourse analysis.

Professor Labrie has also served in several senior positions outside the University. In 2012 he was appointed Scientific Director to the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Société et culture, the Quebec funding agency in the social sciences and humanities. In 2018, he served as Interim President of the newly founded Université de l’Ontario français. A member of the Governing Council of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), he currently chairs its Programs Committee.

As a result of his calm and consistent leadership over the years, Professor Labrie has been widely recognized by his peers for his ability to build consensus and drive meaningful change.

When appointed as Associate Dean, Programs in 2019, he wanted to move forward with more efficient recruitment systems by leveraging social media and other digital technologies—an approach that contributed to a substantial increase of applications.

He doesn’t take sole credit for the increase in enrolment—many students sought to further their education and OISE was poised to broaden their horizons. “However, the approach we had taken, I think, was the right one,” he says, “both in terms of the efficiencies but also to be able to recruit groups that we haven't been able to reach in the past, such as underrepresented and international students.”

Labrie’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. Professor Gretchen Kerr, in her previous role as Vice Dean of Programs, School of Graduate Studies, has worked with Labrie to support graduate students in their educational and research endeavours for years. Kerr praises his commitment to those in his care.

“One of Normand’s most important strengths is his commitment to students,” says Kerr, who began her own stint as dean of U of T’s Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education on July 1. “He is passionate about optimizing the quality of student experiences, providing the best possible educational opportunities to students – both within and outside of the classroom – and supporting them in their academic pursuits, all through a lens of equity and inclusion. These have been key to his successes.”

Professor Kerr is confident that Labrie will excel in his role as Interim Dean, and as the pandemic continues to plays out. “Normand is well-positioned to ensure a smooth transition back to in-person education and research, re-affirming key partnerships and supports, and pursing important new directions for OISE,” she says.

A commitment to his students

In his teaching and research endeavours, Labrie has shown incredible commitment to his students in the Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning.

Stories abound from students over the years who have gone on to work in various sectors of education. Notably, Labrie has helped 18 of his doctoral students gain faculty positions at numerous global universities.

That includes Professor Hong Zhu from Northeast Normal University in China. Zhu met Labrie in 2000 when she enrolled at OISE for doctoral studies in modern languages. Zhu credits Labrie, her faculty advisor and thesis supervisor, with helping her transform from a college instructor to an independent researcher.

“Labrie was a source of consistent support for me during my doctoral journey,” she says. “I came to OISE with an English as a foreign language teaching background and little experience in research,” says Zhu. “Normand was very patient with me when I got lost searching for a research topic.”

He recommended that Zhu start her research with a pilot study in order to hone her research skills and identify her final research focus—and it paid off. “My pilot study on the common phenomenon of ‘communicative language teaching’ revealed many interesting findings of Chinese professional immigrants’ English practices in Canada,” says Zhu.

Labrie also pushed and challenged Zhu intellectually.

“After reading my paper, Normand said to me, ‘Hong, you must read Foucault and Bourdieu.’ This led me to the field of sociolinguistics and helped me develop a critical lens to interpret immigrant language practices in the socioeconomic context.”

It was a career-changer, leading to Zhu’s teaching and research responsibilities in China.

Zhu wishes Labrie, now her career mentor, all his best in his role as Interim Dean.

"I hope my dear teacher, Normand, will make full use of his recourses as an interim dean of OISE.” Zhu says. “I know he will build a powerful team of great minds with a shared vision, while facilitating the faculty to enjoy their academic life and nurturing the students to grow up as independent scholars." 

Ultimately, through each and every student, Labrie seeks to anchor OISE in communities, create inclusive classrooms and make OISE a force for change—and he plans to continue doing so as Interim Dean.

“I like people. I like diversity. I like change. I like planning ahead. So, as long as the environment allows me to uphold this, I hope to help OISE continue to excel,” he says.

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