Notes for an address at the Metropolis Conference

Reception with British Columbia’s French-speaking community

Vancouver, British Columbia, March 26, 2015
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

Ladies and gentlemen, good evening.

I would like to thank you for being with us. It is always a pleasure to meet with British Columbia’s French-speaking community.

In B.C., you follow a tradition of cooperation, openness and inclusion when it comes to diversity and linguistic duality. British Columbians all work together to see how each person can contribute to the common good. This is manifested in your interest in immersion programs, in the important role of Francophone organizations within the tourism industry and in the warm welcome you give to various French-speaking groups and organizations.

Since the beginning of my mandate, immigration has been one of my priorities. Whether in terms of increasing the population, enhancing the vitality or strengthening the identity of official language communities, immigration is playing an increasingly important role in the development of communities all across Canada and of the country as a whole.

French is a Canadian language, not just a language spoken by a minority of Canadians. French belongs to all Canadians, just as English belongs to all Canadians. As Bruce Hutchison said in 1942 in his book The Unknown Country, “Canada is not English—that is the first thing to understand.Footnote 1 At the time, he meant that there was a cohesive, traditional, Catholic, French-speaking society at the heart of the country. It is significant that, 70 years ago, a journalist and author based in British Columbia would recognize Canada’s linguistic duality in this way.

When Hutchison wrote his book, and for another three decades, immigrants were overwhelmingly European. The years following the Second World War saw a wave of immigration from Italy, England, Ireland, Portugal and the Netherlands, and, in 1957, from Hungary. It was not until the end of the 1960s and the changes to the Immigration Act that Canada began to welcome immigrants from Asia, the Caribbean and Africa. Since then, the immigrant population has become increasingly diverse. The number of immigrants has increased as well: in 2011, there were close to 6.8 million foreign-born Canadians, which represents 20.6 % of the total population, the highest proportion among the G8 countries.

More than 40 years after the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism recommended a policy on multiculturalism, Canada remains one of the few countries in the developed world where one can find not only high levels of immigration, but also a very positive public attitude in this regard. In Canada, the debate is not about whether a strong immigration policy is beneficial; rather, it focuses more on terms and conditions, as well as integration and retention.

It was in this spirit last November that I published a report in cooperation with Ontario French Language Services Commissioner Francois Boileau. The report highlighted some of the main challenges of immigration: the importance of learning both official languages, the lack of awareness of the possibilities offered by Canada’s Francophone communities and the importance of building relationships with English- and French-speaking employers.

The report suggests that Francophone immigration programs consider the individual characteristics of Canada’s French-speaking communities. Each one is different and has different needs and opportunities. But each one also has the capacity to welcome and receive newcomers. French-speaking newcomers should be directed toward French-speaking communities and institutions. This is the only way that lasting relationships can be forged between communities and newcomers.

This year’s annual Journée de réflexion sur l’immigration francophone was held in Ottawa on March 2nd. I was not able to attend, but I was told that many community representatives voiced their concerns about the federal government’s adoption of an immigration approach that is focusing more and more on economy and on a more important role for employers. During the Journée de réflexion, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration addressed the participants and told them about the national consultations that his department is currently organizing on the issue of Francophone immigration. The Minister committed to finding the best solution arising from these consultations and to put that solution in place before the end of fall. These are encouraging words, and I look forward to seeing the concrete results.

For a French-speaking minority community whose identity has historically been based on the traditional cornerstones of parish and church, making the transition from a French-Canadian community to a Francophone host community is a challenge, to say the least. These communities are experiencing upheaval. They have a lot of preparing to do, both before the newcomers arrive and even more so when they are settling in.

There have been a number of positive experiences, such as that in Winnipeg, where French-speaking immigrants and refugees are met at the airport and accompanied by members of a community organization during their transition to Canadian life. Other experiences have been less successful, resulting in missed opportunities for French-speaking newcomers and for communities.

If your local communities are often self-sufficient, they can sometimes become isolated. And sometimes smaller communities have bigger challenges, especially when resources are limited and when community services are provided by a small group of people. I have often heard reports of burnout among staff in community organizations.

This means that institutions that are mandated to support you need to be innovative and remain open to the priorities that you have established. Our official language communities are changing, and the organizations that support your development will need to keep up.

Many newcomers are open to learning both official languages—not only for themselves, but especially for their children. Immigrant families encourage their children to speak several languages, and they know how important multilingualism is in terms of national and international market forces.

Cultural diversity and linguistic duality are two fundamental Canadian values—values that complement each other. Openness and respect, which are the result of continued cooperation between Canada’s two main language groups, have helped to encourage immigration and diversity in the Canadian population.

That said, I was surprised to hear a newcomer tell me that he had trouble finding this welcoming Canadian society he had heard so much about. Instead, he said, he found himself in an impersonal urban environment where people do not know their neighbours, whereas he had come from a culture where people had strong ties with their local community—a model from which Canada has distanced itself in the past few decades.

Maybe official language communities are in a good position to reflect on the paradox of a society that is welcoming in principle, but whose communities are losing their connection to their people. You are all familiar with complex identities and the creation of places that reinforce identity and where the community can gather. By ensuring that newcomers are integrated in linguistic minority communities, we can develop innovative models for the whole country.

Thank you.


Footnote 1

Bruce Hutchison, The Unknown Country: Canada and Her People, New York, Coward-McCann, Inc., 1942, p. 8.

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