Archived - Notes for an address at the 2010 Annual Conference of the Association française des municipalités de l’Ontario (AFMO)
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Kapuskasing, September 16, 2010
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.
I am very glad to participate in this 21st edition of your annual conference. I would like to thank the organizers for inviting me to speak today on the theme of governance.
You have already heard a number of presentations on various aspects of governance at the municipal level. I would now like to share with you some of my thoughts on the challenges and opportunities you face as elected officials and municipal administrators, to help you increase the Francophone space in your respective regions and municipalities.
The Official Languages Act, adopted in 1969 and amended in 1988 and 2005, is designed to ensure respect by the Government of Canada for English and French and to foster their full recognition and useFootnote 1. This does not mean forcing all citizens to become bilingual, but rather enabling both English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians, whether they are unilingual or bilingual, to communicate with the federal government in the language of their choice.
Although the Act applies to federal institutions—and not provincial or municipal institutions—its adoption signalled a new era in the history of the relationship between members of the two language communities and their governments. A number of provinces, Ontario being one example, have followed in the footsteps of the federal government and have also adopted a language policy or language legislation.
Today, new players—especially municipalities—are wondering what they can do inside the Canadian linguistic space. What role can municipalities play in developing this space? What significance do municipal services have in the vitality of official language minority communities—in your case, the Franco-Ontarian community? These are some of the issues that municipalities are looking into.
In many ways, this kind of thinking and this debate have been around for some
time; events like this one are a prime example. It is now your turn to reflect on and discuss the opportunities and challenges you face in planning your own municipal linguistic spaces.
Let me remind you that Canada is not the only country having these types of discussions.
In fact, numerous European administrators and researchers are interested in the planning of linguistic spaces in urban environments. During an international symposium I attended on language planning in capitals and urban environments, a number of researchers and administrators described a wide range of different language situations and equally varied approaches to linguistic space development.
Whether it was Brussels, Helsinki, Barcelona, Biel-Bienne, Moncton or Ottawa, certain common issues held the attention of participants. The fundamental role of leadership, the role of the private sector, the promotion of language in the public sphere and the importance of municipal services were just a few of the topics covered.
By the end of the symposium, I was struck by two issues that the participants had agreed on:
- The extent to which cities and municipalities should go to promote the value of multilingualism–in Canada’s case, linguistic duality; and
- The extent to which cities and municipalities are, or in the case of Canada, have become the front-line players in the development of languages and their space.
Globalization often pits cities against each other in vying for potential investors, businesspeople and citizens. Against this backdrop, delivering services in the minority language and having this language in the municipal public sphere will allow cities to stand out.
I want to go back to the notion of “linguistic space.” What does it mean?
How the concept of space is defined varies from one discipline to another. In geography, space is a more or less well-defined as a continuous area or expanse that may or may not contain objects. Think of a field enclosed by a fence or a territory defined by a government entity.
There are also more abstract definitions of space that refer to psychological, sociological, virtual or philosophical space—as opposed to geographical territory.
Anne Gilbert and Marie Lefebvre prefer these more abstract concepts, defining the French linguistic space as being “structured by the places where we live in French […]: schools, the radio, businesses, theatre, etc., where French is the preferred language.” [translation] Here, we see a good juxtaposition of language and the concept of space.
In my opinion, a linguistic space is a place where a citizen, an individual or a consumer can see, hear and receive services in the minority language. It is, therefore, present, visible and audible on the radio, on signs, in businesses, and in the delivery of government services.
Of course, when we examine the Canadian linguistic space, we notice that there are a number of different ones. Some are bilingual, but the majority are unilingual. We also realize that the key players in government, community and civil society do not all have the same definition of what “creating a linguistic space” means.
A rather telling example is that of the recent Olympic Games in Vancouver last February. The Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC) had their own idea of what it meant to make the minority language—in this case, French—visible and audible. VANOC felt that having a Francophone choreographer, acrobat and dancers gave the French language a sufficient presence. It also believed that an English-language Leonard Cohen song could be counted as Francophone, because he was born in Quebec.
This notion—that it is possible to ensure the presence of Francophone language and culture without them being heard—makes me think of how children were perceived in the Victorian era. It was nice to have children, as long as they were seen, but not heard!
This way of thinking about language is one factor explaining why French outside Quebec has too often been seen as a private code rather than a public language. It has too often been relegated to the private or community sphere in life: in the offices of physicians, lawyers, or notaries, within families, and in community meeting places like schools and churches. Institutions such as Laurentian University or the University of Ottawa—public spaces where French has the right to be used, were too often the exception rather than the rule.
Missed opportunities, like that of the Olympic Games, can give the impression that there has not been much progress since the adoption of the first Official Languages Act in 1969. However, if we remember where we started from, we quickly realize that we have made enormous progress. Nevertheless, a number of challenges remain, including the one faced by municipalities.
The face of official languages communities—especially the Franco-Ontarian community—has evolved rapidly over the past 40 years. Urbanization, internal migration influxes, economic changes, the development of the Internet, and immigration have all had an impact on the geographical territory and the presence of English and French in the Canadian public sphere and in municipalities.
While changes to the face of the Franco-Ontarian community may have contributed to the creation, or even the expansion, of Francophone space, a paradox remains. The lack of French in the public space—on signs, in businesses, in services—makes it harder for immigrants as well as Francophiles to integrate and participate in a Francophone space.
Immigrants arriving in Toronto, London and Ottawa are not necessarily aware that there is a dynamic Francophone community in those cities. Unless they know about the history and presence of a Francophone community, institutions and availability of services in French, it will be difficult for an immigrant to become aware of the presence of the community within these cities. He or she will not know that there are French schools, community centres and health services. How can immigrants integrate into the Franco-Ontarian community if they do not know that it exists, or that services are available in French?
This is why initiatives such as your public and civic education project to raise awareness of racial and ethnocultural Francophone minorities deserve to be encouraged. This project promotes the integration of immigrants into the Franco-Ontarian community and the democratic process. This type of project also raises awareness of the services offered in French and of a Francophone space among the general public.
In the development of languages in the Canadian space—more specifically in Ontario—the Franco-Ontarian community should:
- continue to develop so as to strengthen its vitality;
- promote the use of French in the public sphere—not only in schools or as part of cultural activities; and
- increase its visibility.
Places such as the Vanier and Orléans districts of Ottawa, and the municipalities along the Highway 11 corridor, should be able to promote themselves more as Francophone spaces. They should be able to present themselves as being places where French language and culture are heard, shared and lived. They should also act as bridges between the Francophone community, Francophiles and the majority, and promote the value of bilingualism.
Of course, the presence of a language does not depend solely on a community's initiative. Governments and administrations—whether federal, provincial, territorial or municipal—have an important role to play. Municipalities—as the form of government closest to the people—can take action and make decisions that enhance the contribution of official language communities. They can encourage the use of the minority language in the public sphere. They can take measures that foster recognition of Canada's linguistic duality as a value of Canadian society. For example, in June 2008 the Township of Russell adopted a municipal by-law requiring that all new commercial signs be in both English and French. Furthermore, in a recent judgment, the Ontario Superior Court found that such an approach was legitimate given the situation of the Francophone community.
As many pointed out at the symposium on language planning in capitals and urban environments, legislation and regulation are not ends in themselves. Indeed, several people noted that it is important that municipalities develop an approach that is adapted to their reality and meets the needs of members of both language communities. Nevertheless, it was pointed out a number of times that, regardless of the path chosen, leadership is also a key ingredient in any relevant initiative. I would also like to congratulate AFMO for the leadership role it showed as an intervener in the legal proceedings involving the Township of Russell. Through concerted efforts, bilingual commercial signage has now become a reality in three other municipalities in eastern Ontario: Clarence-Rockland, Nation and Casselman. This is a testament to the leadership of the elected officials of these municipalities, who recognized the true principles upon which our Canadian society is built.
Beyond the regulation issues, municipal bilingualism must be seen as an asset worth promoting. Ontario municipalities such as yours stand to gain alot—socially, culturally, linguistically and economically—by advancing the development of their Franco-Ontarian communities and promoting their presence, their language and their heritage. The participation of the City of Sudbury’s representatives in the États généraux de la francophonie du Grand Sudbury in 2008 and its follow-ups are just one example of the type of opportunities municipalities have to take actions that promote the contribution of their official language communities.
However, a vision of promoting municipal bilingualism as a value requires strong leadership. It also means continued cooperation between municipal authorities, the private sector and community stakeholders. Everyone must participate, as everyone stands to gain. Leadership—whether among elected municipal officials, municipal administrators or the private sector—means acquiring solid linguistic reflexes in planning events, hiring employees and developing new services.
Municipalities that emphasize the importance of linguistic duality, to the point that it becomes an integral part of their image and identity, have much to gain in doing so. Those that project a bilingual image derive commercial, economic, cultural, social and tourism benefits. Moreover, their citizens feel proud to live in a city that reflects who they are.
In closing, I acknowledge that municipalities—which fall under provincial
jurisdiction—do not always have the flexibility in carrying out the responsibilities that are incumbent on them. However, they have the advantage of being the form of government closest to citizens. So, municipalities like yours can more easily innovate and develop new service delivery models that meet the needs of all their citizens, including members of Francophone minority communities. Municipalities therefore have an important contribution to make in strengthening the visibility of the French language in the Canadian public sphere.
I hope that I have given you a few ideas that will help in your discussions, and I wish all of you continued success in your efforts.
Thank you for your attention.