Archived - Notes for an address at the National Metropolis Pre-Conference on Francophone Immigration in Canada
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Toronto, February 29, 2012
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends, good afternoon.
I would like to begin by thanking the team at the Metropolis Secretariat for giving me the opportunity to take an active part in this session. I appreciate having the chance to share my thoughts with you, and to again see some of the people with whom I have had so many fascinating discussions in recent years.
The Metropolis Project has played a major role in creating opportunities for governments, community stakeholders and research institutions to meet. Although the Project is now winding down, it is important that its partners continue to share information. I therefore encourage you to continue your cooperative efforts so that we may pursue our work and fulfill our mandates.
Canada has always been, and will continue to be, a land of immigrants. Immigration is the past, present and future of our country. Just a decade ago, Francophone immigration in the various regions of Canada was not on the political or public service agenda. But things have changed, because of the commitment and willingness of our governments and partners. And also, as the 2011 Census results show, because of the increasing role of immigration in Canada’s demographic growth and in the preservation of our official language minority communities. Linguistic duality is a basic Canadian value and it is imperative that action be taken to enhance the vitality of our official language communities. The political equilibrium of the nation depends on it.
The co-existence of linguistic duality and cultural diversity is an issue of growing importance in Canadian society, although it perhaps looms larger in our Francophone minority communities than elsewhere. Given the small size of these communities, its impact on social life is greater and it is felt sooner.
As Commissioner of Official Languages, it is my job to keep a watchful eye on the vitality of official language communities. I sincerely believe that, to ensure linguistic duality continues to be a part of our identity, Canada needs French-speaking immigrants. We need them to settle here and remain. The only way to achieve this is to effectively plan their integration into Francophone communities.
Canada’s immigration practices must thus seek to achieve two goals:
- Prepare immigrants for Canada’s linguistic reality long before they arrive in their communities; and
- Prepare host communities, enabling them to integrate French-speaking immigrants and ensure their inclusion.
It is critical that minority communities be supported and well prepared to play their roles as host communities. Otherwise, the linguistic imbalance will continue to grow. Without proper preparation, neither French-speaking minority communities nor Canadian society as a whole will be able to benefit from the new energy that immigrants bring with them.
Francophone immigration is virtually a lifeline for French-speaking official language communities, given that the demographic trend has reflected a decline for several decades now. Our official language communities are stronger than they were 10 years ago, but they remain fragile. It is our responsibility to ensure their stability.
Often the communities do not have enough resources to serve immigrants effectively. Though significant progress has been made in this regard in recent years, the government must maintain its support of settlement organizations and other organizations at the provincial level. It must also continue its learning process to better harmonize linguistic duality and cultural diversity. We must continue to ensure that the Canadian Francophonie thrives in all regions of the country.
As Commissioner of Official Languages, I am pleased that the vitality of our official language communities is being assured through the arrival of French-speaking immigrants. But the challenge is enormous. How can we improve the sense of belonging to a community? How can we change communities that already have solid, cultural identity reference points? How can we help these Francophone immigrants to find their place among “us”? Our traditional “French-Canadian” communities are changing, little by little, into “Francophone” communities; their cultural identity is being shaken. And this is no smooth process. Both the immigrants and their host communities are experiencing a “culture shock” to which they must adapt. And our whole perception of linguistic duality in Canada is being affected.
For a Francophone minority community whose identity has historically been based on traditional resources such as its parish and church, making the transition from a French-Canadian community to a Francophone host community is a challenge to say the least. Such communities are experiencing upheaval. They have a lot of preparing to do, both before immigrants arrive and particularly during the period when the newcomers are settling in.
Take, for example, the Francophone community of Manitoba. Recent statistics show that it is undergoing changes due to growing immigration. According to the numbers just published by Statistics Canada, the country’s rate of demographic growth has increased since the last census, and has now reached 5.9%. Alberta is the province with the highest rate of growth, at 10.8%. Winnipeg, in comparison to other cities outside Quebec, has the largest proportion of French-speaking immigrants from Africa.Footnote 1 Last month, the Winnipeg Free Press presented the example of the Joseph family, who left the Niger and settled in Winnipeg as refugees. They had no idea what to expect when the federal government directed them to Transcona. Thanks to a competent settling network, they have been able to gradually integrate into the community. The children are going to school in French, and both parents are taking English courses to more easily adapt to the realities of life in an official language community. We must not deceive ourselves. In minority Francophone communities, proficiency in English is a necessity for economic reasons. Regardless of what anyone says, finding a job in Manitoba without being able to speak English is no easy task, and keeping it is an even greater challenge.
The new globalized economy is resulting in many language and identity changes within communities. Tensions are emerging between cultural and linguistic identities within a single city or province. Hybrid cultural and linguistic identities are emerging, with a tendency to slip to one side or the other in terms of identity, depending on where a person is located, but especially in cities. Monica Heller, a professor of sociolinguistics at the University of Toronto, has published a study on this subject.Footnote 2 It is interesting to note that Canadians lack a clear sense of the distinction between linguistic identity and cultural identity.
A few years ago, Linda Cardinal invited me to take part in a seminar on immigration at the University of Ottawa. There I heard the story of a Franco-Ontarian woman, originally from Africa, who had left Ottawa to move to Toronto with her son, who had been born at Ottawa’s Montfort Hospital. When she arrived in Toronto, she was astonished at how different the city was culturally from Ottawa. In Ottawa, her son identified himself proudly as a Franco-Ontarian, but in Toronto, he was immediately identified by others in terms of his mother’s country of origin rather than his linguistic identity as a Franco-Ontarian. He had not changed language, culture or country, but his social identity had changed dramatically! His mother had not expected him to undergo a “culture shock” when she moved to a city located just a few hours away from the place where he had been born. Both of them had to adapt to the new situation.
Because of the growing contribution of ethnocultural minorities to the development of our Francophone communities, we can no longer base identity solely on a shared past. Today, we must value all of the cultures that form part of the Francophonie. As I have often said during my mandate, multiculturalism and linguistic duality are not opposing concepts; to the contrary. They are both Canadian values, shared by all citizens, regardless of their ethnic origin or mother tongue.
Government institutions that encourage Francophone immigrants to settle outside of Quebec face their share of challenges. Our institutions have a responsibility to be very clear about the nature of our Francophone communities. Everyone is pleased to see the arrival of Francophone immigrants boosting the vitality of our communities, but if these immigrants are not bilingual, speaking both French and English, they will experience a profound shock.
Immigrants do not always understand the complexity of Canada’s linguistic reality. They think that, because Canada is bilingual, it must be bilingual everywhere. That is far from the Canadian reality, and far from the reality of Francophone communities outside Quebec.
In Manitoba, an initiative of the Société franco-manitobaine known as Accueil Francophone, facilitates the settlement of newly arrived Francophones and provides classes in English tailored to their context. This organization makes sure that immigrants are welcomed at the airport, that their children are enrolled in a French-language school and that they find housing located near French-language services. It also recognizes the importance of learning English.
In Alberta, the Centre d’accueil et d’établissement d’Edmonton, an initiative of the Francophone community in the Edmonton area, helps French-speaking newcomers with their economic and socio-cultural integration. It also makes the local Francophone community aware of the cultural diversity among these newcomers.
The importance of community associations should not be underestimated when it comes to the integration of immigrants. A few years ago, I was moved by the story of a University of Moncton professor of Algerian origin regarding his arrival to the Acadian peninsula. He said that, without the support of the Scouting movement, he would have returned to Algeria. The culture shock would have been too great.
I believe it’s also very important not to be led astray by the somewhat idealistic values we convey to immigrants. During a workshop on Canadian values in Halifax, part of a discussion forum on the perspectives of Canadians of diverse backgrounds about linguistic duality, I heard an account given by a man originally from Columbia. The participants were all referring to typically Canadian values, good values—tolerance, inclusiveness, cooperation. But when this man from Colombia spoke, he said that this was not at all what he had found when he arrived in Canada. What he noticed was competition, individualism, materialism, and only when he left Montréal for a small community in New Brunswick did he discover that these “good” values, like solidarity and inclusiveness, really did exist in Canada. He now works for an organization that provides settlement services to immigrants arriving in Acadia. That led me to think about the way in which we welcome new immigrants. We repeat fine words about Canadian values. We promote an idealistic version of Canada as welcoming and inclusive, without necessarily acknowledging that the reality is at times entirely different and that there is enormous variation from province to province and from one city to another.
This discrepancy must be addressed with the greatest respect and tact. A “one size fits all” approach doesn’t work when it comes to our policies for welcoming immigrants into our minority communities. Welcoming a Belgian chef who wants to open a Belgian restaurant in Saint-Boniface is not at all the same thing as welcoming a family that has spent the past five years in a refugee camp on the border between Rwanda and Congo. These situations require contributions from a variety of organizations, and different types of reception infrastructure, as well as a great deal of cooperation among those involved. Demands on the health and education systems differ. To effectively help those who have had traumatic experiences, they must be given appropriate assistance and support. And special attention must be paid to young people whose educational level does not match their age and experiences. Putting a 16-year-old into a Grade 6 or Grade 8 class is almost an incentive to drop out and an invitation to join a street gang. Often immigrant families are under considerable stress, with both parents away, working at two jobs, often at minimum wage. This is a reality settlement organizations have to deal with.
I would like to repeat something I said earlier: the importance of community associations in the integration of French-speaking immigrants must not be underestimated. Here in Toronto, an organization called La Passerelle Intégration et Développement Économique helps with the integration of Francophone newcomers and French-speaking ethnocultural minorities. Like so many other organizations in Canada, it plays a key role in promoting inclusiveness, combating racism and facilitating the full and equitable participation of Francophone newcomers in all aspects of Canadian life. These organizations play a pivotal role in the success or failure of immigrant settlement policies.
The vitality of our linguistic communities depends on the extent of the participation and commitment of immigrants. That is what my team has found over the course of recent years as we prepared a series of case studies on community vitality. Immigration was identified as an important factor in the development of every community we looked at: the Francophone communities of Sudbury, Halifax, Winnipeg, Calgary and British Columbia; rural communities in Saskatchewan; and the various English-speaking communities in Quebec. In almost every case, there was a direct relationship between greater diversity and community vitality. These studies on community vitality are available on the Office of the Commissioner’s website.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that Canada is going through a period of intense reflection on its approach to diversity and immigration. And the country is changing rapidly; therefore, it is vital that we have tools and flexible policies to enable us to adapt to the current reality. Statistics Canada recently reminded us that the country’s population will continue to diversify, and at an accelerating rate. Drawing on this, certain journalists have declared that French will disappear from the national political arena and that assimilation is becoming more and more prevalent. But people have been making such pronouncements for two centuries now, and they have always been proven wrong. There is a vital Francophone presence throughout Canada and that will continue to be the case.
Today, our two official languages serve as a communications tool among Canadians of all origins. It is no accident that a country that has paid so much attention to linguistic matters is also among the countries most open to diversity. Many newcomers are well aware of this dynamic.
We need to work together to ensure that French-speaking newcomers can flourish in the official language of their choice. In that way, our official language communities will be able to develop and enhance their vitality. That is what makes our discussions today particularly important.
Thank you. I would now like to hear your comments and answer your questions.
- Footnote 1
- Footnote 2
Monica Heller, “Globalization, the new economy, and the commodification of language and identity,” Journal of Sociolinguistics, 7/4, 2003, pp. 473–492.