Archived - Notes for an address at the 2012 National 4-H Conference
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Montréal, September 19, 2012
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Good evening, bonsoir.
One of the things I appreciate most about being Commissioner of Official Languages is that I am able to meet with young Canadians who are interested in our official languages—I always learn something new. You are the ones who are building the future of Canadian linguistic duality, and I am very interested in what you have to say.
I would like to thank Quebec 4-H for inviting me to speak to you for the opening ceremonies of your national conference. I would like to welcome all the 4-H delegations, who come from all over Canada—and I understand we have a group from the United States—welcome to all of you! This conference’s theme—Destination Communication—is very much relevant to our times, and your realities as young connected Canadians.
All of you have a key role to play in the future of the country. The fact that you are here today suggests that you are concerned about your future, your ideals and your goals, and those of your larger communities. Inevitably, the values you espouse today will affect the world of tomorrow. I think that Canada’s linguistic duality should be among those values.
But what is linguistic duality? It refers to the fact that Canada has two official languages with equal status, and that it reinforces the existence of the two language communities that share the same country. But linguistic duality is more than that.
The idea of linguistic duality highlights the concepts of sharing and dialogue between Anglophones and Francophones. Granted, building bridges between communities is not an easy task. It requires time and effort.
We may come from different cultural or linguistic backgrounds, but there is much we all have in common.
There was a time when life in rural Canada was much more isolated than life in urban Canada, but that is no longer the case. Social media have broken down these barriers; agriculture is now as connected and global as any other industry in Canada.
Increasingly, farms—and other spheres of activity in agriculture—need to understand the world: trade agreements, currency fluctuations and international markets. Language is becoming more important in a global economy.
Your organization faces the same challenges that many non-governmental organizations face, where there is a partner in Quebec that operates in French, and partners who operate in English in the rest of the country. Different organizations have different ways of addressing this issue, where you have basically two unilingual communities working side by side in the same country. There are particular challenges in communication in trying to address common issues—this is why bilingualism is so important.
Canadian linguistic duality means that Canadians have a right to be served by the state in the language of their choice; it is not an obligation to be bilingual. It is, in effect, a right to be unilingual. I’m curious to know what you think of linguistic duality. But before I ask you about that, I should explain who I am and what I do.
Before I was appointed Commissioner of Official Languages in 2006, I worked as a journalist—in Toronto, Montréal, Québec City, Washington and Ottawa. Linguistic duality has always fascinated me, and six years ago, I decided to leave journalism to apply for the position of Commissioner of Official Languages.
The Official Languages Act, which has been in effect since 1969, established the position of Commissioner of Official Languages and defines my responsibilities. I have a mandate to monitor respect for the official language status of English and French, and to determine whether federal institutions are complying with the Official Languages Act.
I am an agent of Parliament—therefore, I do not report to a minister, as do Deputy Ministers or heads of agencies, but to the two houses of Parliament. My name was put forward by the Prime Minister, but voted in by both houses—and it would take a vote of both houses to fire me.
I am also Canada’s official languages ombudsman—the protector of Canadians’ language rights. Citizens can contact me when they believe their language rights have been violated by a federal institution. My office receives about a thousand complaints every year. We also look at complaints about failures to support the vitality of the official language communities. I investigate these complaints and recommend corrective action, if any is appropriate.
So to sum up, my role is part cheerleader, part nag—or more formally, to encourage and to disturb. The Official Languages Act gives me a number of ways to fulfill this dual role.
As Commissioner, I promote linguistic duality within the federal bureaucracy and also within Canadian society. This is an aspect of my work that’s very important to me.
My own awakening to the linguistic reality of Canada took place when I was just about your age. During my last year at high school, a friend invited me to a Gilles Vigneault concert at the University of Toronto. I was overwhelmed and, ever since, my desire to learn more about French in Canada has never flagged. By the way, if you don’t know who he is, Gilles Vigneault is one of Quebec’s greatest poets and singer-songwriters—he is now 84 years old and he is still writing and singing.
A year after that concert, I got a summer job on an archaeology dig at Fort Lennox, on the Richelieu River, near Montréal. It was a real shock. There I was in my own country, but it was completely unfamiliar. I didn’t understand what the other students were saying. So I listened, and I asked a lot of questions. In addition to learning French, I developed a strong interest in Quebec and a passion for it that has never left me.
This curiosity and my thirst for knowledge took me on my career path as a journalist working in both official languages. As members of 4-H, you are probably as curious and eager for knowledge—the simple fact that you are part of an organization where you all pledge your Head, Heart, Hands and Health to your club, community and country means that you have already taken important steps towards being the leaders of tomorrow.
This is why speaking to you today is important for me as Commissioner of Official Languages. I want you to know how important linguistic duality is as a Canadian value, and how important it is to understand your country as a whole—speaking both official languages is a skill that you should be eager to master. To be able to communicate in two languages—and why not more than two, if you have the chance?—is one of the greatest assets you will ever acquire
Using social media is another way of building bridges—and I’m sure you know a lot more about that than I do! But I want to emphasize that there are lots of youth networks, in both English and French, and also in French-speaking communities outside Quebec. Reading articles on the Web and taking part in discussion forums are good ways to practise your second language, and to build relationships as well. In fact, my office will be launching a Facebook and Twitter account in just a few weeks. I hope you will follow us.
The world has changed a great deal since your parents were your age. Language borders are increasingly open, and electronic communication is instantaneous. It’s hard to keep up, and understanding one language is no longer enough to deal with all the information coming at us from the four corners of the world. Canada’s linguistic duality highlights this situation and makes us realize the importance of multiculturalism for Canadian society. Our respect for our two founding languages is recognized worldwide; we should talk about linguistic duality, keep it alive, and recognize its immense value.
Young Canadians are both more bilingual and more open to cultural diversity than any other generation before. I have met a large number of students of French as a second language over the last few months. I have been impressed by their language skills, but also by their curiosity about other cultures.
That is because learning a second language is not a barrier to learning other languages and experiencing other cultures: it is a bridge.
There is no question that learning Canada’s two official languages leads to a better understanding of the country’s history, politics and culture. But it also creates sensitivity to other cultures generally. Learning a second language is a little like becoming an immigrant in one’s own country. You discover what it means to be less articulate, to have an accent, to fail to understand jokes. No one who has struggled to learn another language is ever insensitive to the extraordinary challenges and barriers that immigrants face.
Understanding ourselves and grasping the complexity that is involved in learning another language and culture are not an obstacle or an alternative to getting involved in the world. They are an essential part of the process.
Canada’s cultural diversity is a direct result of the steady growth of its immigrant population over the past few decades. It is in part Canada’s openness and spirit of accommodation, which are the result of the development of the two major language groups in Canada that have encouraged immigration and diversity in the Canadian population. The fact that there are two official languages in Canada helps convey this difference. I think cultural diversity and linguistic duality are two key Canadian values, and are values that complement each other.
As 4-H members, you are presented with many opportunities to learn new things, to give back to your communities, to improve the lives of your fellow citizens. Many of you will become community leaders—therefore, I would like to point out that, in Canada, linguistic skills are leadership skills.
As you know, linguistic duality does not just mean French in Quebec and English elsewhere in Canada. There are many official language minority communities outside Quebec. There are Francophones in New Brunswick, in Ontario, in Manitoba and in Alberta, to name a few. Canada has thousands of young people like you who treasure French, want to keep it alive, and want to build links with others like themselves who are in linguistic minority communities. Sometimes you don’t have to go very far to make cultural discoveries!
Your generation faces major challenges, but at the same time, you have unprecedented access to information and instant communication. You have tools your parents did not have. Today, physical distance is less relevant. The new technologies are opening doors wide for you. You can explore both French and English culture with the click of a mouse. With electronic media, not a single day passes when you are unable to have contact with our official languages. You can live with them as a matter of routine.
Knowing more than one language opens the door not only to education and jobs; it also lets you extend the influence of your mother tongue and culture as you go out into the wider world. If there is a single quality that is essential these days, it is curiosity – and I encourage you to be curious, not just about your own part of the country, but also about all minority communities in Canada—French-speaking communities outside Quebec, and English-speaking communities inside Quebec.
Your organization’s pledge is “Learn by doing”—but opportunities to use your second language don’t come along every day. If you want to improve your language skills, you should take full advantage of your visit to Montréal—reach out to people, dare to speak first, use gestures to help convey what you mean. This requires a large amount of courage and perseverance—having a sense of humour is a big help when learning a second language! Plus, I read on your website that, on top of learning skills in communications, leadership, problem solving and goal setting, most of all, Quebec 4‑H is about having FUN!
I encourage you to make room for the two official languages in your college or university studies. The more tools you have, the more competitive, the more skilled, and therefore the more desirable you are in the eyes of future employers—or the more prepared you are to start your own business.
To conclude, if you want to be leaders of your communities, whether it’s in politics, journalism, business, tourism, the hotel industry, the armed forces or even in sport, not only do you need to know both official languages, but you have to be able to speak them fluently.
Thank you for your attention. I would be pleased to answer your questions and hear about your experiences with linguistic duality.
Sample questions to ask the 4-H conference participants
Who here is bilingual?
Do you think it’s important to be bilingual? Why?
Do you think being bilingual keeps you from learning your mother tongue properly and from contributing to the vitality of your culture?
What are the benefits for you, as young leaders, of being able to communicate and live in both official languages?