Archived - Notes for the Canadian School Boards Association Congress
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Québec City, July 5, 2012
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.
I would like to thank you for attending this session and for being open to discussions about the importance of minority-language education in Canada. Education remains the cornerstone of the development and vitality of the country’s official language minority communities.
As Commissioner of Official Languages, I firmly believe that minority-language education is indeed un atout pour nous tous—an asset to all of us. Linguistic duality is a value that Canadians hold dear, and we all have a role to play in making sure that this value remains strong and steadfast. I hope that this panel and the discussions that follow will inform you, as decision-makers in education, so that the vitality of Canada’s English and French linguistic minority communities is sustained and nourished.
Across the country, people still have difficulty making a distinction between French minority‑language education and immersion. The two systems serve different clienteles, they have different purposes, they have different goals—and they should not be confused. However, this does not mean that there are not opportunities for the two systems to work together and share resources.
Successful immersion programs have been developed throughout Quebec’s nine English school boards—and while the Quebec context is unique, sharing best practices would be a great way to promote a better understanding of language learning for all students in Canadian schools.
While minority-language education is important to ensuring the vitality of official language communities, that vitality is sometimes difficult to bring to life in the immersion system, which is often an “artificial” milieu. One of the challenges for the French immersion system is that its students usually do not have enough contact with the minority community and authentic French-language culture. Immersion schools do collaborate with French-language schools on field trips, hosting French‑language theatre troupes, and so on. But more cooperation between minority and majority institutions would improve students’ learning.
Furthermore, access to immersion schools remains a problem: in some provinces, parents still wait in line all night to secure a place for their child.
We have 40 years of proof that immersion is a success, and yet school boards are still reluctant to provide funding to expand those programs. Across the country, there is a deep desire on the part of parents to ensure that their children have access to high quality French-language education. These parents include newcomers to Canada, who sometimes have linguistic duality more at heart than Canadians whose families have been here for 15 generations.
Many school board leaders woke up long ago to the fact that parents from all over the country are saying—and showing—that second-language immersion is what they want for their children. I have met with many people who got involved specifically to ensure that their school boards offered more second-language education choices. But demand still exceeds capacity in many areas.
Every Canadian child should have the opportunity to become bilingual in order to participate fully in this country’s economy, governance and society. However, the reluctance of school boards and school authorities to adapt to the needs of students with learning disabilities in immersion has created an unfortunate dynamic.
Children with any kind of learning disorder are often excluded from immersion programs for fear of compounding their problem. But research has shown no justification for such exclusion. Children should not have to adapt to the needs of immersion programs: immersion programs should be inclusive and meet the needs of all students.
It would be healthier if provincial departments of education, school boards and schools provided the same level of behavioural- and learning-problem support in immersion programs that they currently provide in the English stream.
The other thing that I think is critical to the success of any minority‑language education system—whether it’s English in Quebec or French in other parts of the country—is quality. In a society where education is the door to success, we must offer students a quality education. No parent will sacrifice the quality of their child’s education for a principle, however important it may be. This is why minority-language education must be excellent.
One thing that has undermined the English-language education system in Quebec is the fact that about 20% of the parents who are eligible to send their children to English schools choose to send them to French schools instead. Many believe that their children will not learn enough French in the English system to be able to operate successfully in a French-speaking society. So the English system in Quebec has a double handicap—it’s missing 20% of its eligible population, and another 20% of the students who do enrol—in some schools it’s 50%—don’t speak English at home! And yet their parents are rights holders, so basically the school is teaching English as a second language but not receiving support funding as it would if those students were immigrant children.
This brings me to question the paradigm of our education system.
I think you will agree that teaching kids is not like assembling cars on a production line. Whether you teach math, science or art to children, and whether you teach it in their first or second language, there is no one “method.” But our education system is built like a factory—based on models of mass production and conformity. It puts aside children who don’t fit the mould and stigmatizes them.
Our world is changing at a pace that has never been experienced in all of human history. No one can anticipate what the world will be like in the next 50 years—in fact, we can barely anticipate what it will be like next year—so how can we educate our children for the 21st-century economy with a public education system that was created in the 19th century to meet 19th-century needs?
Sir Ken Robinson, author of The New York Times bestseller The Element,Footnote 1 gave many speeches and interviews about how schools kill creativity and how our education systems should be not just reformed, but revolutionized. In his view, public education is not adapted to modern realities. It was built at a time when not everyone agreed that education should be provided equally to all children—including to street kids and working-class children, whom many people thought incapable of learning and reading and writing.
So though the school system was driven by the economic imperative of the time, this intellectual model ran through it: in public education systems, there are only two types of people—academic and non‑academic, or, if you prefer, smart people and non-smart people. The consequence is that many brilliant people think they are not brilliant, because they have been judged according to this skewed view.
Newcomers are also victims of this archaic way of thinking. When it comes to French immersion, they tend to be thrown into the same boat as academically challenged students. School boards, principals, pedagogical advisors and teachers tend to advise immigrant parents to not enrol their children in immersion—even though the evidence shows that the immersion experience can be positive for immigrant children, who end up learning both official languages.
We are also seeing changes in our communities’ demographics, in terms of diversity. Immigrants have also carved a place for themselves within the French community. Our education system plays an important role in transmitting Canadian values such as linguistic duality to a new generation of Canadians.
Of course, the issue of diversity affects both language communities in Canada, and it presents a great challenge to educators. Newcomers in Canada often have one or two languages under their belts before setting foot in the country, which means that English and French tend to become their third and fourth languages.
Therefore, we are responsible for ensuring that the programs we offer respond to their particular needs. We have to ensure that these children and their parents understand the reasoning behind English and French as languages of emphasis in our schools.
We also have to clearly demonstrate that there exists a mutually beneficial relationship between diversity and linguistic duality, and that these two elements are not working against each other.
Inclusive practice needs to be the norm, not the exception.
We must establish a new paradigm for language education. As parents and educators, that is our challenge—not our children’s.
- Footnote 1
Ken Robinson, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, Penguin Books, New York, 2009.