Archived - Notes for an address at the Discussion Forum on the Perspectives of Canadians of Diverse Backgrounds on Linguistic Duality – Session for English-Speaking Canadians of Diverse Backgrounds
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Halifax, November 9, 2011
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
First, I would like to welcome you all to the Discussion Forum on the Perspectives of Canadians of Diverse Backgrounds on Linguistic Duality. You were invited to participate because of your active involvement in and your commitment to Canadian society. I would also like to thank you for accepting my invitation. Your contribution here today will help me fulfill my mandate to promote linguistic duality throughout Canada. Your presence and our discussions at the forum will also help define a vision of linguistic duality that more accurately reflects the reality of Canadians from all backgrounds.
This is the third forum of its kind that my office has organized. Building on the success of the first two forums, which were held in Toronto and Vancouver, we decided to pursue this initiative in the Atlantic region. In addition to its strong Scottish and Loyalist traditions, Atlantic Canada also has numerous sources of diversity. Only in this region do we find the country’s only officially bilingual province—New Brunswick.
The two previous forums enabled us to improve our understanding of the relationship Canadians have with the country’s language debates, but the picture is still not complete. Here in Halifax, another one of Canada’s increasingly multicultural cities, you will help us better understand the similarities—and differences—of our country’s various ethnocultural communities, from coast to coast.
Linguistic duality refers to the fact that Canada has two official languages of equal status and that each language is associated with a language community whose history and cultural traits have helped make Canada the country we know today.
The Official Languages Act, which has been in effect for over 40 years now, guarantees and protects linguistic duality. As Commissioner of Official Languages, my mandate is to take all measures within my power to ensure that the three main objectives of the Act are met, which are:
- to ensure the equality of English and French in Parliament, the Government of Canada, the federal administration and the institutions subject to the Act;
- to ensure the preservation and support the development of official language communities in Canada; and
- to advance the equality of status and use of English and French in Canadian society.
I am an agent of Parliament, which means that I report directly to Parliament and not to the government.
The Act applies only to federal institutions and therefore does not apply to provincial, territorial or municipal governments. Some provinces and territories, however, have adopted legislation and policies to protect English, French or Aboriginal languages within their jurisdiction. For example, New Brunswick is officially bilingual; Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island each have a French language services act; and Newfoundland and Labrador has an Office of French Services.
The linguistic profile of the population in Atlantic Canada varies widely from province to province. In New Brunswick, French is the first language of 32.7% of the population. Except for Quebec, it has the largest proportion of Francophones in the country. Newfoundland and Labrador, with 0.4%, Nova Scotia, with 3.6%, and Prince Edward Island, with 3.8%, are just under the Canadian average with respect to the number of French-speaking residents.
Canada’s social fabric, characterized since its beginning by the intermingling of English, French and Aboriginal cultures, has been marked by moments of tension and negotiation, but also continued dialogue and understanding. I believe that it is this respect for linguistic and cultural differences that has made Canadians more open to further diversity in Canadian society. Over the decades, Canada has amended some of its legislation and adopted various judicial and political tools for eliminating discrimination.
Linguistic duality and cultural diversity are central elements in Canada’s history, and now constitute two fundamental values of Canadian society. Canadians of diverse backgrounds adopt one of the official languages and contribute to the vitality of linguistic duality, and this allows people of all backgrounds to participate fully in Canadian society and to enrich it in all respects.
According to Statistics Canada, 98% of Canadians could speak English or French in 2006. The 2006 census also revealed a slight increase over the previous five years in Anglophones’ and allophones’ knowledge of French (from 9% to 9.4% and from 11.8% to 12.1%, respectively). It is interesting to note that Canadians whose first language is neither English nor French are more bilingual in the two official languages than those whose mother tongue is English.
In the coming decades, Canadian society will continue to see significant socio-demographic changes. Recent projections by Statistics Canada show that, by 2031, between 25% and 28% of the population will have been born outside Canada, which means we can expect to see an increase in the proportion of Canadians whose mother tongue is neither English nor French.
Linguistic duality will also continue to evolve. However, for linguistic duality to benefit from these changes, all English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians, regardless of their origins, must have the opportunity to learn the other official language and to receive federal government services in the official language of their choice.
In reality, there are still some obstacles to overcome before we can take full advantage of the complementary nature of our linguistic and cultural diversity policies. One of these obstacles is most definitely the disconnect between our aspirations for linguistic duality, as expressed by our laws and political discourse, and our present reality, in which linguistic duality is absent from the day-to-day life of many Canadians. By participating in this forum, you can help bridge that gap.
As we have witnessed in other parts of the country, newcomers and cultural communities seem to have a complex relationship with Canada’s official languages. The discussions you are about to take part in are about the future of Canada as a multicultural country where the national dialogue takes place in two languages.
Before you start, I would like to remind you of a few historical facts.
In 1963, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was established. It was agreed that there was an urgent need for an interim report that would tell Canadians how serious the situation was—Canada’s social fabric was about to burst at the seams. The Commission declared that Canada was going through the greatest crisis in its history.
The Commission proposed a new partnership between English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians. In the future, the Government of Canada would function more effectively in both official languages.
In 1967, language rights were defined as twofold: the right to use and the right to learn. The entire edifice of language rights constructed over the next four decades rests on these two pillars.
In 1969, the Trudeau government passed the Official Languages Act. This legally established the obligation of the federal government to serve Canadians in English or French, as they wished.
Just two years after the Official Languages Act, in 1971, the Government of Canada developed a multiculturalism policy within the general framework of linguistic duality. This led to the adoption of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act in 1988.
Language rights were further expanded in 1982 with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom, which ensures minority language education rights. In 1988, the right of federal civil servants to work in the official language of their choice was guaranteed by a new version of the Official Languages Act, although this applies only in designated areas, all of them located east of Manitoba.
The reaction to the Official Languages Act was puzzlement in the Atlantic provinces, enthusiasm and hope in Quebec, anger in much of Ontario and, well, not much better farther west.
But support for linguistic duality has gone up significantly over the past decade. Polls show that 62% of Canadians say they feel they live in a bilingual country. Still, Canadians continue to debate the merits of their particular brand of bilingualism within a society that aims to embrace diversity.
The main goal of today’s discussion is to get a better understanding of your perceptions of linguistic duality and the links that exist between linguistic duality and cultural diversity. We want to connect with you in order to continue and enrich the dialogue we began a few years ago.
I encourage you to share your experiences and perceptions in your own communities, and to discuss your role in relation to Canada’s linguistic duality. Feel free to make suggestions and propose action plans. Your point of view counts, and I would like to thank you in advance for sharing it with us.
I look forward to hearing what you have to say, and will be happy to answer any questions you might have.