Archived - Notes for a speech at the Metropolis Pre-Conference on Francophone Immigration in Canada
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Montréal, March 18, 2010
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Mesdames et messieurs, chers amis, bonjour.
I would first like to thank Metropolis and the Ministerial Conference on the Canadian Francophonie for giving me this opportunity to take part in your proceedings. I appreciate this opportunity to share my thoughts with you, and to reconnect with some of the people with whom I have had so many impassioned discussions in recent years.
I know that many of you have been working for years on projects concerning the various aspects of Francophone immigration. I think we can agree that significant progress has been made.
Ten years ago, Francophone immigration into the various regions of Canada was not on the political or public service agenda. No one wanted to hear about it, let alone invest in it.
Things have changed thanks to the commitment and tenacity of certain individuals. This is often how things evolve in official language minority communities. But there is also the reality that for quite some time now, Francophones from just about every corner of the world have chosen to come and live in our Francophone and Acadian communities. Community leaders have had to recognize this phenomenon, and the need to take action to welcome Francophone immigrants and make it easier for them to be included in the various aspects of the Canadian francophonie. Once the communities began to regard immigration as a way of ensuring their future, a certain momentum was created that brought even the most recalcitrant on board.
Today’s event reflects this momentum. Metropolis is no longer a small-scale event for avant-garde researchers. Participants now come from government departments, community associations and funding agencies. They will go back to their communities and offices with fresh ideas, a renewed sense of purpose and an expanded network of contacts.
The conference is increasingly political. Officials from provincial and federal governments come to get insights that will help them make policy decisions. There are financial investments to consider. Today, the issue has enough political weight to attract opposition from time to time.
It also helps that the issue can be presented in a simple way: francophone communities account for 4.4 percent of the Canadian population, but have an immigration rate of less than 2 percent. In addition, existing communities often don’t have all the resources to completely integrate these immigrants. We need to improve conditions to allow Canada’s francophonie to develop in all regions of the country. The end result would be a better balance between linguistic duality and cultural diversity. This is the core of the issue.
Accepting this premise raises a wide range of issues and policy choices, in a context that is fairly complex. That is why research is important and why we are having this gathering.
We are faced with a major challenge. From an existential perspective, how can we expand the meaning of “us”? How can we improve a sense of belonging to the community among immigrants? How can we welcome, integrate and succeed in retaining immigrants who have not been involved in our struggles for survival and community-based political action? What can be done so that “they” and “you” feel they are part of “us”?
This challenge is not unique to French-speaking communities. It has been a constant throughout Canada’s history; we have often engendered the late historian Arthur M. Lower’s characterization of the mood of pre-Confederation Canada: “hatred as a virtue: Canada as a melting pot of belief and prejudice.”
Generation after generation, Canada has absorbed groups of immigrants who were initially viewed with disdain as irremediably foreign. Canadian society has since broadened its cultural perspectives so that tensions between Protestants and Catholics, discrimination against Jews and prejudice against African-Canadians have gradually diminished, and are no longer socially acceptable by the majority of Canadians. The new challenge is to ensure that celebrating Ramadan is taken for granted and respected as much as marking Lent or celebrating Yom Kippur.
The first phase in the inclusion of French-speaking newcomers had to take place within the communities themselves. As Franco-Ontarian researcher Benoît Cazabon put it 15 years ago: “[translation] we must learn how to build a community based on different origins and a common will to live together.Footnote 1
Throughout our French-speaking communities, there are clear signs that this learning process is now well advanced.
If you think about it, Francophone and Acadian communities made the identity switch quickly and easily. It’s a remarkable phenomenon that must be highlighted, and I would like to hear what you have to say about it. In my own view, four main factors have made this change possible.
First of all, there was recognition that many newcomers were committed to the French language and to maintaining their culture. The fact that, after several generations, members of ethnocultural communities are still speaking French and celebrating their heritage reflects resilience, with which Canadian Francophones can identify.
In addition, a good number of French-language academic and community networks have made immigration a priority issue. Since becoming Commissioner, I have made it a priority to visit as many communities as possible, and almost everywhere people mention the important role of Francophone diversity in the community’s development. Community leadership itself has changed. Far more frequently than in the past, the spokespersons and leaders of community groups are individuals with roots outside Canada.
The importance of community organizations should never be underestimated when it comes to the integration of immigrants. Last summer, I was moved when I heard a university professor of Algerian origin living in the Acadian peninsula recount his experience. He said that he would have returned to Algeria had it not been for the Scouting movement; this would have been a great loss for the Acadian community and for Canada.
Although much remains to be accomplished, the openness Canadians have shown has made it possible to successfully meet the challenge of diversity.Footnote 2 Francophone communities must develop their own models of integration, of course, but they can rely on a culture that sees immigration and its contribution to the country in a favourable light.
A final factor, research, has contributed to this shift. There was a definite need to determine the links between integration and community vitality. Researchers have been able to identify the various cultural groups present, their connection to language, and the conditions which have led them to stay, leave or assimilate. Francophone diversity is an issue where research has had a considerable influence on community group leadership and on government action.
There is thus a solid basis to build on: communities committed to and fully aware of what they are trying to achieve. This is what my team found when preparing for a series of case studies on community vitality carried out over the past few years. Immigration was identified as an important factor in development in every community we studied: the Francophone communities in Sudbury, Halifax, Winnipeg, Calgary, and British Columbia; rural communities in Saskatchewan; and English-speaking communities in Quebec. In almost every case, a direct link was made between greater diversity and community vitality. These studies on community vitality, except those on Calgary and British Columbia to be made public in a few weeks, can be found on the Office of the Commissioner’s website.
For some time now, discussion on immigration has extended beyond community organizations and the research milieu. It is not unusual these days for discussions to focus on cooperation with the various levels of government, which have been taking an interest for some time now in immigration within official-language communities.
Citizenship and Immigration Canada as well as Canadian Heritage have been actively involved for about ten years through the Francophone Minority Communities Steering Committee. Some provincial governments have been part of this initiative from the beginning and others have been working on the issue as part of their ongoing relationship with their francophone community.
This cooperation is terribly important. Greeting immigrants and integrating them into francophone communities touches on a wide range of services and policies, from training to health care, from housing to support for refugees. It simply cannot work well without the participation of all levels of governments. In some areas such as New Brunswick, municipal governments have also proven to be valuable partners.
The success stories and best practices we have so far reflect the importance of this multi-faceted co-operation. For example, the Franco-Manitoban community has been working with the provincial and federal governments to put in place an effective integration strategy. There, the Accueil francophone has established itself as a valuable first contact for French-speakers arriving from other countries.
French-speaking immigrants are greeted at the airport and taken to temporary housing. Children are enrolled in French schools. Their progress is followed closely over many months, as they learn lessons from their positive and negative experiences.
Government services are well-coordinated and linkages are made with local businesses. The Société franco-manitobaine has focussed much of its energy in this area and the results are a source of great pride for its president, Ibrahima Diallo.
In addition, the Franco-Manitoban community has been involved in the province’s economic missions outside the country. For the province, it’s an opportunity to showcase the francophone community as an economic advantage to potential investors. For the community, it’s an opportunity for economic development and to use the network of contacts and skills it has gained through immigration.
I don’t mean that Manitoba’s example should be followed everywhere, but I have seen cases where French-speaking immigrants were not greeted in French and did not know that French-language medical services, community centres and schools were available in their host communities. And by the time they did find out, they already had a doctor, community centre, and school—all in the majority English-speaking community.
Other communities have used different models and are starting to see their efforts bear fruit. What is important to note here, I think, is that the success stories seem to have certain points in common, such as a strong commitment by community leaders and coordinated efforts among researchers, government and the business community. Sharing the practical experience gained when these winning conditions are all present could be beneficial.
In this spirit of sharing, I find the initiatives taken by Quebec’s English-speaking community to be of special interest. They could serve as a source of inspiration for Francophone and Acadian communities. There is a very long tradition of integration not only here in Montréal but also in such different settings as the Eastern Townships and the Gaspé. The Quebec context is definitely unique, but it is precisely this uniqueness that is the impetus for innovative ideas. Canada’s Francophones are very familiar with the phenomenon of innovation inspired by difference.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that Canada is going through a period of intense reflection regarding its approach to diversity and immigration. Statistics Canada reminded us recently that the country’s population will continue to diversify at an accelerating rate. The debates on various models of multiculturalism, interculturalism, and pluralism currently underway have been part of the social landscape in Canada for some time. It is a discussion that will continue, with a growing sense of urgency.
Both Quebec’s English-speaking community and Francophones throughout the country have an important contribution to make to this dialogue. Canada’s linguistic history has been based on accommodation and respect, which has enabled us to learn how to live and build a country together. I firmly believe that it is not by pure chance that one of the countries that has paid the most attention to its language situation is also one of the countries that is the most open to diversity.
The bridges between our two major language communities and our two official languages today also serve as a means of communication among Canadians of all origins. Many newcomers understand this dynamic, as shown by the popularity of French immersion programs in areas like Greater Vancouver.
Our two most recent governors general, Adrienne Clarkson and Michaëlle Jean, are perfect illustrations of the way language and culture come together in Canada. Having arrived here as refugees, these women decided not just to learn both official languages, but also to speak them eloquently. You could say that they symbolize a multicultural country where conversation takes place in its two official languages.
This context makes today’s discussions especially promising for the future, in my mind.
Thank you. I would now like to hear your comments and answer your questions.
- Footnote 1
Benoît Cazabon (ed.), Pour un espace de recherche au Canada français, Ottawa, University of Ottawa Press, 1996.
- Footnote 2
As illustrated by the Angus Reid poll of June 8, 2006, showing that of the eight countries surveyed, Canada has the highest proportion of citizens who think immigrants have a positive impact on their country.