Notes for the opening address at a workshop on Francophone immigration in Western Canada

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

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Beginning of dialog

Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon.

I am pleased to welcome you to this workshop on Francophone immigration in Western Canada.

During the workshop, Carsten Quell, who is from my office, will present a brief outline of a report on Francophone immigration that I published in cooperation with Ontario French Language Services Commissioner Francois Boileau. We will then hear from representatives from French-speaking communities in British Columbia and Alberta who will present some challenges regarding Francophone immigration in their regions. David Johnston, my representative in the Quebec region, will then talk about challenges regarding immigration in Quebec’s English-speaking communities.

It is great news for Canada’s linguistic duality that new French-speaking immigrants enhance the vitality of our official language communities. For that duality to remain strong and relevant, dialogue must remain at the heart of Canada’s duality and diversity.

In Canada, the national conversation takes place in English and French, our two official languages. The combination of linguistic and cultural diversity is playing an ever more important role both in Canada and on the international stage. In an ever-changing world where national identity is becoming increasingly complex, linguistic duality is still a fundamental value of Canadian society, and it serves as a link between cultures. I believe it is the foundation of Canadian multiculturalism.

I do not think I am exaggerating when I say that many countries are going through a period of intense debate about their approach to diversity and immigration. Because the situation is changing rapidly, it is vital that we have tools and flexible policies to help us adapt to today’s reality. Populations will continue to diversify at an accelerating rate.

Canadian multiculturalism aims to recognize the vitality of diverse minority cultures, and bilingualism is a skill that can help build bridges between languages and cultures. It is one of the ways in which linguistic duality and diversity are complementary.

When the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism made its recommendations more than 50 years ago, immigration was still predominantly from Europe. Most refugees came from countries behind the Iron Curtain. At that time, integration was a relatively linear process: immigrants came, adapted, integrated and stayed. This is not necessarily the case today. Nowadays, people often identify with more than one language and more than one culture. Identities are characterized by movement, and they become plural. You can be Canadian and Franco-Ontarian and Congolese at the same time—adopting an identity does not diminish the attachment to the others.

It was not until the end of the 1960s and the changes to the Immigration Act that Canada began to welcome a significant number of immigrants from Asia, the Caribbean and Africa. According to Statistics Canada’s 2011 Census, more than half of British-Columbia’s French-speaking immigrants come from Europe, almost a quarter come from Asia, and 15% come from Africa.

Canada is 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. Every year for the past few decades, Canada has welcomed 200,000 or more new immigrants or permanent residents. Some arrive knowing both official languages, and some are bilingual but speak only one official language. 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. The government has recognized that this proportion of immigrants in the population does represent a challenge for official language communities.

For French-speaking minority communities whose identities have 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 a significant degree of upheaval. They have a lot of preparing to do, both before the newcomers arrive and even more so when they are settling in. We will have an opportunity to discuss this a little later.

Immigration, diversity, reception and integration are important issues everywhere in Canada. In Quebec, these issues are being raised in a specific context, as David Johnston, my representative in the Quebec region, will explain.

Our traditional “native-born” French-Canadian communities are also becoming Francophone communities by adoption. Their cultural identity is being shaken. Immigrants and their host communities are both experiencing culture shock, and they both need to adapt to the changes. Our whole perception of linguistic duality in Canada is being affected.

And so we are faced with a major challenge.

How can we improve the sense of belonging to a community? How can we change communities that already have solid cultural-identity reference points? How can we help French-speaking immigrants find their place among “us”?

These are questions to which we will try to find answers today.

Language is only one of many ways in which Canadians define their identity. But the coexistence of English and French—what we call linguistic duality—will always be an indelible feature of Canadian society. It is a value that absolutely must be communicated to newcomers and reinforced among established Canadians.

Thank you.

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