Notes for an address at the Annual General Meeting of the Committee for Anglophone Social Action (CASA)

A community built on foresight – 40 years of looking ahead

New Carlisle, Quebec September 11, 2015
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

Bonjour. Good afternoon.

It is a real pleasure to be here with you this afternoon as part of your annual general meeting, and also to celebrate your 40th anniversary.

An anniversary is a significant event: it provides important opportunities to learn about our history, reflect on the past and consider the future.

I would like to thank CASA for inviting me. Looking around this room, I see many people who have played a key role in the history of this community. I see Cynthia Dow, for one. It’s probably embarrassing for both of us if I mention how long I have known Cynthia. We met when I was a reporter in Québec City, a long while ago. At the time, I was intrigued by the relationship between English and French in Quebec, and I was well aware of the energy and determination of the English‑speaking community in the Gaspé Peninsula. I heard the stories about the founding of CASA, and the enormous amount of work that has been done in the Gaspé’s English-speaking communities over the years. Cynthia has devoted so much of her life to strengthening the vitality of the community through CASA, the newspaper SPEC, and other organizations. Thank you Cynthia for your hard work and community engagement.

I would also like to congratulate all of you who have played a role in CASA’s history, most notably two of the founding members of CASA, Lynden Bechervaise and Gary Briand. Everyone in this room must now know that they will be honoured next month in Montreal with the Sheila and Victor Goldbloom Distinguished Community Service Award in recognition of their foundational work in the Gaspé region. CASA’s success as an organization is a testament to the strong bonds in the community, and the extraordinary commitment of its members, who have been determined to keep the organization alive through the ups and downs of life in the Gaspé region over the past 40 years.

Your 40th anniversary is a significant one. Today we celebrate your community as a whole and the great work of those who contributed to its foundation. What strikes me the most is the remarkable foresight that CASA has shown through the years. Indeed, CASA was Quebec’s very first Anglophone regional association. Its creation signaled, for the first time, that Gaspesian Anglophones had a clear desire to work with the Francophone majority in order to maintain their community’s vitality and take part in decisions that had an impact on their future and on the future of Quebec society.

This brings me to the relationship between good planning and good leadership. Your community embodies both. Indeed, 40 years ago, your community had the foresight to see itself as a minority with a need for an organized collective voice. This community has been anything but passive; you have shown clear and determined purpose, you are always looking ahead, and you have found ways to keep your community alive and thriving.

In the 1970s, CASA showed foresight by organizing itself a full year before the 1976 election of the PQ and two years before Bill 101, and by creating the community newspaper, the Gaspé SPEC. In the 80s, it showed leadership in the development of English access plans in health care. In the 90s, it played a determining role at the Community Table that brought CEDEC into existence, which has since gone on to be instrumental in the economic development of official language minority communities. And lastly, in the past decade, CASA has established strong and long-standing partnerships with the government of Quebec, making it one of the most notable regional Anglophone community groups in the province.

When it comes to maintaining the vitality of the Anglophone community in the Gaspé, CASA has had the foresight to develop projects to preserve the gains the community has made, and the leadership and resourcefulness to keep going forward.

This community’s best resource is, of course, its people. I am always very impressed with how tightly knit you are and how much pride you have in your heritage and your community, even though your members are spread out over hundreds of kilometres. For instance, I was impressed to learn that the Eastern Shores School Board had the highest voter turnout of the 72 Quebec school boards, English and French, in the November 2014 school-board elections. Let me give you the exact numbers, because I think they speak volumes about community engagement in the region. The average turnout for the region was 38.5%; in Ward 5, which includes New Carlisle, the majority of people voted, at 52.6%. Even in Ward 4, which had the region’s lowest turnout at 22.2%, the turnout was higher than the overall voter turnout for all nine of Quebec’s English school boards, which was only 17.3%. For Quebec as a whole, the turnout was a mere 4.85%. The high rate of voter participation in the Gaspé region speaks to an appreciation here of the importance of schools as focal points of community vitality.

I would say that this strength of community involvement is not only reflected in how active CASA is, but is also supported by CASA. It is a mutual reinforcement that has been the backbone of this vital community for the longest time. CASA has continuously shown sustained leadership and foresight. When you demonstrate community engagement, involvement and the strength and health of local organizations, you see the kinds of results that we are seeing in this region.

Recently, we have seen people return to the communities in the Gaspé. People who grew up in the region but left for school or work, and who have decided to come back to their hometowns to start a life and raise their families. We are also seeing people who moved away from the region and lived most of their adult life elsewhere come back to retire in the Gaspé. The sense of community endures. I've noted that you can still find historic names such as Dow, Duthie, McLennan and Willett alongside LeBlanc, Arseneau and others in the region. To me, this is a good indication of the resilience of Gaspesians and of the love and attachment they have for their region. English- and French-speakers alike are connected to this community and want nothing more than to stay within its borders and help it thrive. There is an important element to the phenomenon of people who are either deciding to stay in the Gaspé or returning here, and that is the degree to which there is a much closer cooperation between the Anglophone minority and the Francophone majority. I would like to think that the federal government’s promotion of linguistic duality in the years since the Official Languages Act was passed in 1969, and the creation of the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages in 1970, has something to do with this. But the hard work and goodwill of the people who love this region of Quebec is a more likely explanation.

Your community pride is unmistakable, and we see it in many sites and activities in the region. For example, the Gaspesian British Heritage Village—which was co‑founded by Joan Dow, Cynthia’s mother, and Gordon Duthie, who I hear lives across the street from the village—demonstrates the important role of English‑speaking settlers in the history of the Gaspé Peninsula. The British Heritage Village recognizes the historical importance of linguistic duality and of building bridges between the English and the French. It also serves to highlight the Mi’kmaq people’s historical contribution to the region. What’s more, I was told that the Heritage Village hosts a bluegrass festival every summer, which just wrapped up last Sunday. I’m sorry I missed it!

Thanks to the presence of the English-speaking community and bilingual programs offered at the CEGEP, you have the necessary resources to provide services in both official languages to visitors to your region.

As the Gaspé Peninsula deals with economic renewal, it is more important than ever that all members of the community be at the table to discuss how to improve community life and ensure the vitality of minority language communities, which should be considered a great asset to the region. All levels of government should also be involved; the federal government has a legislated mandate to support our official language communities, and the provincial government has certain obligations to this effect as well.

Working in partnership with the French-speaking majority, together you can ensure that all Gaspesians continue to thrive in their own culture. I urge you to keep celebrating your differences and your similarities, as well as the great feeling of inclusiveness and diversity that exists in your communities.

You continue to serve as an inspiration to other official language minority communities across the country and, for that, I congratulate you. Happy 40th anniversary!

Thank you.

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