Notes for an address at the Grand rassemblement de l’éducation en français 2014

Ottawa, Ontario, April 11, 2014
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

Commissioner Boileau, Mr. Giroux, Mr. Couture, esteemed delegates from all over Canada, good afternoon.

First, thank you to the conference organizers for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today. I would also like to congratulate the leaders and champions of French-language education for their commitment and constant effort in helping official language communities flourish. Your attendance in large numbers here today attests to the strength of these communities.

This conference offers an opportunity to discuss our successes as well as the challenges we face in all regions of the country. It also gives us a chance to get an overview of the situation. I believe strongly that linguistic duality is a value that Canadians hold dear and that each of us must help preserve and strengthen it, particularly in areas where Francophones are in the minority. Because knowledge of both official languages is important to young Canadians as they prepare for their future, access to French-language instruction is an essential part of maintaining the vitality of Francophone communities.  

French-language schools are central to minority language communities and they are the driving force behind their vitality. Without dynamic and fully functioning schools, linguistic communities can do little more than survive while the world passes them by at full speed. What’s more, an active school helps to bring the whole community together.

When I say that schools are the engine behind community development, I am also recognizing the commitment of the men and women who are devoted to their students’ success—helping them become young Francophones who are proud of their identity and capable of shaping the world of tomorrow. The commitment of the key decision-makers and champions here today is the fuel for that engine. You make your school run and give it the power to fulfill its pedagogical and identity role. This is the idea of the community-oriented school that you’ve aspired to for some years.

In a minority language community, there is no lack of challenges. For Francophone communities, a number of social, demographic and financial conspire to threaten their identity. And yet, apparent constraints can often turn into assets, offering us a chance to make progress if we understand and seize upon them.

I tend to be a cautiously optimistic person. Regarding French-language education, I believe such an attitude is justified. What may appear at first glance as a threat to communities could in fact present an opportunity not to be missed. As I mentioned earlier, being in a minority situation includes its fair share of challenges. I know you understand this well because you live the minority experience every day. Some of these challenges, however, offer the potential for action and serve also as a source of vitality.

At this time, I would like to mention several issues that, at the outset, seem to pose problems for Francophone communities. Take demographics, for example. Outside of Quebec, Francophones made up 7% of the Canadian population in 1951. In 1981 that demographic weight dropped to 5%, and in 2011 to 4%. These numbers are worrying to many people. However, I do not believe that percentages should define the vitality of a community. Nor do I share the pessimistic view of these statistics.

In two generations, we have seen strong demographic growth in minority communities. The number of mother-tongue Francophones outside Quebec increased from 700,000 in 1951 to 900,000 in 1981. At the last Census, there were more than 1 million Francophones living outside Quebec. That is a net growth of 28%—and more than 48% compared with 1951.

In addition to that gross increase, I also see greater solidarity and mobilization in Francophone communities with citizens much more visible today than they were in 1961 or 1971. And while Francophones remain in the minority, they are far from disappearing. Francophone communities are growing, slowly but surely.

And let’s not overlook the legal advances: the federal Official Languages Act in 1969, the strengthening of New Brunswick’s Official Languages Act—Bill 88—in 1981, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, Ontario’s French Language Services Act—Bill 8—in 1986, and many provisions guaranteeing services in French in the other provinces and territories. In addition, following the Mahé (1990), Arsenault-Cameron (2000) and Doucet-Boudreau (2002) cases, we have seen much progress on the question of French-language education.

As a second example, take exogamy—mixed-language couples. Some research has shown that exogamy is one of the main sources of demographic decline among Francophones. Granted, the data reveal that children will more likely learn French if both parents are Francophone.

Nevertheless, exogamy is a reality in minority communities. A significant proportion of the children in your schools have at least one Anglophone or allophone parent. In Ontario, the rate of exogamy in 2006 was 60% for youth aged 18 and under. In most other provinces—except New Brunswick and Manitoba—70% to 80% of children under the age of 18 have one parent with a mother tongue other than French.

However, exogamy does not necessarily mean that children will assimilate or lose their cultural heritage. Look at the rate of transmission of the French language to children under the age of 18 in exogamous families. Comparing the numbers from 2006 with those from 1971,Footnote 1 we see a significant overall improvement. In the space of one generation, all provinces enjoyed a doubling of the transmission rate of French to children born of exogamous couples. This is a great success and a positive trend.

I do recognize, however, that the rates remain relatively low. In 2006, exogamous parents passed French on to one in five children in Manitoba and one in four in Ontario. I believe we can do better than that. Ultimately, I agree with Rodrigue Landry and the Commission nationale des parents francophones that exogamy offers “hidden potential.”Footnote 2 You just have to take the right approach.

Let’s look at another example: immigration. One of the reasons the demographic weight of Francophones has diminished in minority communities over the past 20 years is due to the arrival of new immigrants. About 250,000 immigrants settle in Canada each year. Your leaders and organizations recognize that Francophone immigrants can bring benefits to your communities. They bring human capital, demographic vitality, and a creative diversity, while communities in turn embrace that same diversity. Today, your schools serve as welcome and integration centres for new Canadians. French-language schools in Calgary, Ottawa, Regina and Halifax are welcoming more and more Francophones of diverse language backgrounds. This is very enriching and the positive contribution that immigrants make to the community network is undeniable.

Obviously, immigration also presents certain challenges to communities which are transforming from French-Canadian to Francophone communities. Immigration policy and economic conditions do not necessarily attract an equitable number of Francophone immigrants to your communities. This is an issue I am following closely. I intend to ensure that the federal government and its provincial partners understand the importance of immigration for Francophones, and that they work with you to strengthen the vitality of your communities.

One of the major activities in which you are involved is promoting French-language schools and recruitment. You work tirelessly to inform parents who have the right to send their children to French-language school in order to recruit as many students as possible. Enrollment in your schools over the past 10 years has been fairly stable nationally, with nearly 145,000 students registered each year in a well-established network of schools.

Year in and year out, there are more than 300,000 young Canadians—especially English-speaking—taking immersion classes. These programs are indispensable tools to improve the language skills of children in both official languages. Some Francophone youth are also taking part in the programs, for various reasons.

Some see immersion programs as a threat to French-language schools to the extent that they compete for potential students. However, if we step back and take a longer-term view, we can see the significant benefits of these programs, which enable our fellow Anglophone and allophone citizens to learn French. This is a great advantage to the Francophonie.

Everywhere across the country—and even in Parliament—Canadians still have difficulty differentiating between instruction in the minority language and linguistic immersion. The two systems benefit different clients and have separate goals. They should not be confused. This does not mean they cannot work together and share resources.

While minority-language education plays a crucial role in ensuring the vitality of official language communities, sometimes it is often hard to demonstrate this reality outside that community where most communications occur in English. Improved cooperation between majority and minority institutions would enable each community to create new bonds, new associations and new shared projects.

In 2011, there were more than 1 million Francophones outside Quebec—but there were also more than 1.5 million bilingual Anglophones outside Quebec. These French-speakers and Francophiles are expanding the Canadian Francophonie. Among the Francophiles who participate actively in the growth of your communities are many who marry Francophones and whose children attend French schools.

Other Francophiles are consumers of French-language media, such as community newspapers and radio. The Festival du voyageur in Winnipeg is a celebration not only for Francophones, but for the entire city. Anglophones—Francophile or not—participate happily in its activities. And in Bouctouche, New Brunswick, the Pays de la Sagouine advertised to attract Anglophones—and they came. Such opportunities for linguistic dialogue and rapprochement are essential. They illustrate the maturity of Canada’s linguistic situation, in which communities preserve their identity while maintaining sustained relations with the linguistic majority. 

You cannot say that Francophones in minority situations lack resourcefulness. Although they face daily obstacles, they find ways to overcome them and seize the opportunities. A Francophonie that is proud of its special character, open and multi-accented—including accents like mine—is a vital element of Canada. I draw much hope from the tenacity and resourcefulness of Francophones living in minority situations.

The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages is paying close attention to the work of your community organizations and institutions in the education sector. Their efforts to implement fully section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms are absolutely necessary to ensure the development of these communities. The strength and energy of all the stakeholders in education—teachers, researchers, administrators, parents and volunteers—are tangible proof that the Canadian Francophonie is at work from one end of the country to the other. I also note that your vision of the future gives an important place to the idea of community-oriented schools. Indeed, minority-language schools must seek academic success and foster a lifelong continuum of learning, all the while depending on social, cultural and community involvement. 

Education remains the cornerstone of building and realizing the potential of minority language communities across the country. Access to French-language instruction is not a privilege, but rather an essential tool for the growth and vitality of Francophone communities in Canada. I strongly believe that our country must provide a true continuum of opportunities to learn French and to learn in French from the elementary to the post-secondary level.

In a society where education is the gateway to success, students must have access to high-quality education. No one wants to sacrifice the quality of their children’s education in order to defend a principle, no matter how noble that principle may be. Therefore, as I have said before and will continue to say, French-language instruction in your communities must be excellent.

In closing, I congratulate you once again for your devotion. You have chosen a difficult profession, and you have made it your mission to build French-language schools in minority communities—schools of hope. Your success is remarkable—an ever-growing number of your schools are being recognized as centres of excellence.

Be proud of your success. You are among the champions of a new Canadian Francophonie—a confident, successful Francophonie that is open to the world.

Thank you.


Footnote 1

Statistics Canada (2011), Portrait of Official-Language Minorities in Canada.

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Footnote 2

Rodrigue Landry, Libérer le potentiel caché de l’exogamie : Profil démolinguistique des enfants des ayants droit francophones selon la structure familiale, Study commissioned by the Commission nationale des parents francophones, Université de Moncton, 2003.

Return to footnote 2 referrer

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