Archived - Open Letter - Numbers are deceptive, argument unconvincing

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Ottawa, February 15, 2012 – On Friday, Savroop Kullar, a health sciences student at the University of Ottawa, told an international conference on post-secondary immersion why he was in the immersion program, taking many of his courses in French.

“For me, it is a question of identity,” he said. “I am Canadian—I speak French.”

I thought of this remark reading David Frum’s argument (The dénouement of French Canada, February 11, 2012) that Canada’s immigration policies will mean the gradual disappearance of the political influence of French-speaking Canada in general and Quebec in particular. The argument is nothing if not familiar: Lord Durham made the same case in 1839, and John A. Macdonald responded to precisely the same argument 156 years ago, in a letter to a conservative who was just as grumpy as Durham and Frum about the influence of the French.

A century later, in the 1950s, American sociologist Everett Hughes told a conference that the assumption of his colleagues at McGill was that “French Canadians would be absorbed, sooner or later, as an ethnic group in the great Canadian whole.” Throughout Canada’s history, people like Frum have announced the beginning of the end of the French fact in Canada.

However, facts are stubborn, and percentages do not reflect the vitality or the values of a community and its culture. Frum mentions a hypothetical Québécois who meets a girl from a Chinese immigrant background. What he neglects to mention is the enthusiasm that the Chinese community has demonstrated for sending their children to French immersion schools, perhaps inspired by former governor general Adrienne Clarkson’s eloquence in both official languages. Many immigrants, like nursing student Savroop Kullar, see bilingualism as an aspirational goal linked to Canada’s identity.

(This is not unique to Canada; Irish language classes in Dublin are filled with immigrants from Eastern Europe who see learning Irish as a way of affirming their commitment to their new country.)

Frum points to the out-migration of 50,000 Quebecers, including French speakers, between 2006 and 2011 as if this were a direct loss to French-speaking Canada. In fact, those Quebecers who are moving to Western Canada are sending their children to French-language schools, joining Francophone associations, watching French-language television, listening to French-language radio, and strengthening the minority language communities outside Quebec.

And when their children attend French school, they will be sitting beside immigrant and refugee children from the Congo, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Algeria, Tunisia, Belgium and France. The French-language schools in Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver—not to mention other cities across Canada—are becoming as culturally and ethnically diverse as the English-language schools. Immigration is strengthening, not weakening, the minority French-speaking communities in Canada.

There are remarkable signs of the vitality of the French language and culture in Canada today. Philippe Falardeau’s extraordinary film Monsieur Lazhar has been nominated for a foreign-language Academy Award, just as Denis Villeneuve’s film Incendies was a year ago. One of the most-watched Canadian television programs, in either language, is Tout le monde en parle, but you need to tune in to Radio-Canada on Sunday night to know it exists.

As Frum points out, Stephen Harper has won a majority government without strong representation in Quebec. But this has not stopped him from beginning every news conference in French, and speaking French at G-8 meetings in Washington and Beijing. This is partly his understanding of Canada’s identity, at home and abroad. But he also knows that, while 98% of Canadians speak English or French, there are 4 million French-speaking Canadians who speak no English. And he also knows that, in addition to the 75 seats in Quebec, there are 19 seats outside Quebec where French speakers represent at least 10% of the population—and he won 10 of them.

For the first time, six of Canada’s premiers are bilingual: a reflection of their interest in understanding national issues, but also the interest that premiers Charest, Ghiz, Alward, McGuinty, Selinger and Redford have shown in the minority language communities in their provinces. The lone unilingual candidate for the leadership of the New Democratic Party withdrew from the race when he realized he could not communicate with one third of the NDP caucus. It is now possible to go from kindergarten through to a post-secondary degree studying in French in every province except Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island.

And those Canadians who want to understand the country as a whole—whether politicians, public servants, soldiers, academics, labour leaders, business people, judges or hockey coaches—have made a point of learning both official languages.

It is true that immigration is changing Canada. But this does not mean the diminution of the importance of both of Canada’s official languages any more than it did when Lord Durham made the same prediction 172 years ago. 

Graham Fraser is the Commissioner of Official Languages.

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