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Speaking notes for the Calgary French for the Future Forum
Calgary, April 19, 2011
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
It is a pleasure to be here for the Calgary French for the Future Forum. One of the privileges of being Commissioner of Official Languages is the opportunity to meet young people like you who are learning French and making room for it in their lives. By doing this, you are also opening doors. I am particularly pleased to be talking to you today because you are the ones who are building the future of linguistic duality in Canada.
I would like to take this opportunity thank to Myriam Lafrance for inviting me to speak today.
Your generation faces great challenges, including climate change, economic crises and international instability. At the same time, you have remarkable tools that give you unprecedented access to information and instant communication. You have libraries, film archives and music collections at your fingertips. In this context, it is reassuring to know that so many young Canadians value our country’s linguistic duality. These new technologies open all kinds of doors to Francophone culture. Your language skills are a valuable asset that will serve you throughout your lives.
Your generation has never known a country where the teaching of French was prohibited or limited to a small minority. When I was your age, French second-language programs did not exist—no intensive French, no French immersion, no core French. So I am a bit envious of you. I was born in Ottawa at a time when French was a private code used among Francophones. The barrier between Anglophones and Francophones was impenetrable, and the French that we learned in class was nothing like what we heard on the street.
Later, during my last year of high school, a friend invited me to a concert by Quebec singer-songwriter Gilles Vigneault at the University of Toronto. I was only vaguely aware of his existence at the time, and so it was an amazing discovery. I barely understood a word of what he was singing, but I was dazzled. Here was a cultural phenomenon in the flesh: Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, in person, right in front of me. It was a deeply moving experience.
I don’t know if any of you have already had this feeling of being spellbound by a song or a book or a film—it’s the beginning of an infatuation. I had this experience with Gilles Vigneault and, later on, with the monologues of Yvon Deschamps, the songs of Beau Dommange and Pierre Lapointe, the novels of François Gravel, the films of Claude Jutra, Denys Arcand and Denis Villeneuve, and the plays of Wajdi Mouawad. I not only discovered artists—I also discovered a people.
Nowadays many performers, both Francophone and Anglophone, are crossing the language barriers in Canada, in the United States and all over the world. And they are excelling. Montréal’s bilingual group Arcade Fire won the 2011 Grammy for best album. Allez Ouest, Galala, Jason Kodie and Justin Blais, all from Alberta, are also excellent examples of bilingual musicians. I’m sure you know many others—certainly more than I do!
I encourage you to get to know all the Francophone and francophile artists in Canada, both in Quebec and all across the country. Go and listen to what they have to say. I’m sure you will recognize yourselves in their words and their music. They all represent Canada’s Francophone culture in their own way.
I came to Calgary to bring you an important message: learning French does not necessarily end when you reach Grade 12. As the old French protest slogan goes, “Ce n’est qu’un début, continuons le combat!” (“this is only the beginning, keep up the fight!”). Learning another language is a lifetime’s work, and to keep up your skills in that language, you have to use it. We know that hockey players play better in April than in September—it’s the same thing for language: use it or lose it.
A few years ago, the Province of Ontario introduced the French version—“Tant à découvrir”—of its “Yours to discover” licence plates, the Ontarian equivalent of “Wild Rose Country”. Learning a second language has taught me that there is much to discover in French, both in Canada and around the world.
Take the opportunity of this French for the Future Forum to begin your journey of discovery, to stimulate your sense of curiosity—about what is going on in your country, in the official language minority communities and in cultural communities that have chosen to settle here.
Canada, with its two official languages, is respected around the world. People leave their own countries to come and live here, knowing that linguistic duality is a fundamental part of Canadian identity. This is today’s Canada, and you are all part of it.
Speaking of curiosity, curiosity was the starting point for my career working in both official languages. First, I have to tell you that I was born in Ottawa and moved to Toronto with my family as a teenager. I studied in English at the University of Toronto, and I was unilingual.
After my first year in university, a year after I heard Gilles Vigneault, I got a summer job at an archaeological dig at Fort Lennox on the Richelieu River near Montréal. That was a revelation—a real shock. There I was in my own country, but it was completely unfamiliar. I couldn’t understand what the other students were saying, I didn’t know about any of the issues they were concerned about, I didn’t know any of their songs or anything about the world they lived in. So I listened a lot and I asked a lot of questions. And so, in addition to learning French, I became very interested in and passionate about Quebec, and that has never left me.
Learning French, I became more sensitive to what people go through when they come here and learn our language. Speaking French with an accent helped me better understand how people who speak English with an accent feel. That experience helped me understand how hard it is to learn a second language, and it gave me some insight on what it is like to be an immigrant. Learning another language and another culture does help us understand each other better, that’s very true, but more importantly it helps us simply to function from day to day!
When I was an English-speaking student in a French-speaking community, my immediate need was not to understand Quebec culture, much as I wanted to. It was just to know what people were saying, understand their jokes, be part of the gang.
Before I was appointed Commissioner of Official Languages in 2006, I was a journalist—in 1968, and then from 1976 to 2006. I spent a good part of my career writing about Quebec and the Quebec political scene for the rest of Canada. I worked for publications like the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s and The Gazette, in Montréal, Toronto, Québec City, Washington and Ottawa. Between 1995 and 2000, I did the opposite. As a guest columnist for Le Devoir, I wrote about what was going on in the rest of Canada. In a way I have been a linguistic and cultural bridge between the English- and French-speaking communities throughout my career as a journalist.
Given my own experiences, it is only natural for me to encourage you to explore Quebec or other French-speaking parts of the country. If you get the chance, treat yourself to the bilingual Canadian experience. Go abroad and discover how your knowledge of French opens doors, both professionally and personally.
You don’t need to go very far to continue to improve your French. You can do that right here in Alberta. For example, the University of Alberta’s Campus Saint-Jean offers a number of programs in a unique French-speaking environment. The University of Calgary’s Faculty of Arts has a variety of courses in French, and Athabasca University offers BAs with a major, minor or concentration in French. The University of Lethbridge requires candidates for a certificate in immersion teaching to spend at least one semester in a French-language university in Canada or Europe.
To help you find post-secondary educational institutions that offer courses and programs in French, or institutions where French is featured, the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages has an on-line tool that I hope you will find useful.
It’s an interactive map of Canada that shows the various second-language programs across the country. With it you can access different kinds of information, such as language courses in the second language; other courses taught in the second language, the type of support available, opportunities for networking and exchange programs through which you can study in your second language.
You can also participate in events put on by Francophones to celebrate their culture. For example, why not discover French-language films by attending the 9th annual Festival du cinéma d'expression française in Medicine Hat in June? Or if you are an athlete or an artist, or simply passionate about French, and you want to see more of your country, why not travel to Sudbury in July to see the Jeux de la francophonie canadienne? We are extremely lucky in this country because we have two official languages—which are also international languages—that give us access to two world cultures.
According to the 2006 census, 9.6 million Canadians (that’s 30.7% of the population) speak French. Here in Calgary there are 84,085 bilingual individuals—people who have created a dynamic and vibrant culture. And you are not the only young bilingual Canadians outside of Quebec. The census data also shows that 13% of 15- to 19-year-old Anglophones outside Quebec speak both of Canada’s official languages. In Alberta, 66,000 people report that French is their first language. More than 225,000 Albertans can speak French. You are helping to build a diverse, vibrant community. The French language belongs to all Canadians, and your community’s vitality depends on you.
Loving what you do is so important in life. You are all here today to declare your love for French and your desire to make it a focus in your life. If you love French as I think you do, then don’t let anyone or anything stand in your way. French belongs to you, as it belongs to all Canadians. The love of French is not a factor that divides, but a value that keeps multiplying.
Let me give you a few concrete examples that I think will help you explain the value of French in your life. To be a political leader in Canada, you need more than just knowledge of the two official languages; you need to be able to speak them fluently. This is also a requirement for advancement in the federal public service. And bilingualism is essential not only in the public service but also for anyone who wants a career in journalism, business, tourism and hotel management, the armed forces, and even in sports, judging from the ease with which Olympic athletes give media interviews in English and French.
The public service of Canada hires some 12,000 to 15,000 graduates per year to replace people who are retiring. Five thousand are in positions designated bilingual. And this need to replace retirees is far from over. It is expected to last another 10 years or so. If you want to work in the National Capital Region, which includes Ottawa and Gatineau, it is very important to arrive with the necessary language skills in order to be eligible for as many positions as possible.
Proficiency in our two official languages can also lead to multilingualism, which in turn can lead to more opportunities on the international scene. Unlike some people, I see no contradiction between linguistic duality and cultural diversity. I would even go so far as to say that, without the recognition of Canada’s two language communities, the very idea of multiculturalism would be harder for people to accept. And while I believe that linguistic duality and cultural diversity are connected, I also think that the connection is not always well understood.
Nunavut did understand this, however, and passed an official languages actthat recognizes three languages: English, French, and Inuktitut. Last week, I was talking to a senior federal public servant who has responsibilities in Nunavut. Right now, she is learning Inuktitut.
As Commissioner of Official Languages, one of my tasks is to explain this important relationship between linguistic duality and multiculturalism to all communities in Canada, not just the English- and French-speaking ones. Saying that linguistic duality is one of our values means that we accept and welcome cultures that are separate yet connected.
Knowing our two official languages is the key to your success, especially considering the global knowledge economy and growing international competition.
Let me give you an example. When I was a journalist, I was involved in one of Team Canada’s trips to China. The federal government had called on all the Chinese speakers working in the various embassies in the region. It also recruited Canadians living in China to act as guides and interpreters for the hundreds of Canadians taking part in the trip. I was very impressed by these young Canadians, some of whom had studied in China or worked in other Asian countries. Although I couldn’t tell how good their Chinese was, I did notice that they were able to explain to the bus driver where we wanted to go and when he should come back to pick us up. They were also more than able to converse with people and provide us with explanations. And on top of this, they all spoke both of Canada’s official languages.
Clearly, learning French (in the case of English Canadians) and learning English (in the case of French Canadians) had not stopped these young people from learning Chinese. Rather, learning a second language was one of the factors that led them to learn others. Thus I would urge you to continue to make room for French when you go to university. The more arrows you have in your quiver, the more competent and competitive you will be, and the more attractive a candidate to prospective employers. Your community is an important resource that can support you as you pursue your chosen path. Today you are meeting other young Francophones and francophiles from this region.
When you are ready to join the workforce, your skills will be in great demand and you will want to stand out from the crowd. Knowing both official languages, and even one or two other languages, will give you a strong competitive edge.
Please remember that my office and many other organizations are just a phone call or a mouse click away. Take advantage of these resources throughout your education and your career. They were put there for you.
For me, discovering the French facet of Canadian identity when I was at university was a revelation that has continued to evolve throughout my life. You may be thinking that your adventure with French is about to end, but believe me, the adventure is just beginning—it’s up to you. Pursue your interests and make bilingualism a priority in your life. You will never regret it.
You are already a member of that privileged group of Canadians who are fortunate enough to be able to speak both official languages. Don’t let anyone deny the value this accomplishment.
Throughout my career, I have always found it useful to be able to speak both French and English, and to understand the Francophone community. I’ve been across the country and around the world, and I’ve never met anyone who regretted being bilingual. I have, however, met a fair number of people who bitterly regretted the fact that they had never mastered a second language.
Thank you for your attention. I would be pleased to answer your questions and hear about your own experiences of linguistic duality.