Notes for the launch of the proceedings from the 2010 International Conference on Language and Territory
Sudbury, Ontario, May 1, 2014
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
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Beginning of dialog
Good afternoon, bonjour.
What a great pleasure it is to be back at Laurentian University. My last visit to Greater Sudbury took place in 2010 when I was invited to preside over the International Conference on Language and Territory. It was such an extraordinary privilege to serve as honorary president at an event that featured some of the world’s foremost experts on that fascinating space where language, policy and culture converge.
Four years later, the wealth of ideas and expert analysis presented at the conference has inspired the creation of three impressive additions to the Human Sciences Monograph Series. I commend Professor Ali Reguigui and associate professors Julie Boissonneault and Norman Cheadle for undertaking this substantial project as editors, and I thank the many talented scholars who contributed so much of their time, knowledge and energy to make Studies in Language Planning, Literary Spaces and Studies on Urban Sociolinguistics a reality.
I was also honoured to deliver the opening address at the conference and particularly delighted to have been part of a panel discussion on linguistic spaces alongside my provincial and territorial language commissioner counterparts from Ontario, New Brunswick, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. In fact, this coming together of all five language commissioners marked the first time we had ever met all together in one place. I remember vividly the enthusiasm and pride of the conference organizers from your university, who brought us together, as well as many of the world’s leading experts on language and territory. From beginning to end, the experience deepened my appreciation of the great strides the Francophone community of Greater Sudbury has taken and the deep historical roots it has here in Northern Ontario.
I would like to share a few thoughts on Canadian language policy and our official language minority communities. As John Ralston Saul has often observed, Canada is a complex country. And so are our language issues. For example, the Official Languages Act applies to the federal government and federal institutions, but not to provincial institutions or municipalities.
As such, when we examine our own linguistic space, we notice that the Canadian approach is full of paradoxes. New Brunswick is officially bilingual. Quebec is officially unilingual, with French as its official language. Ontario has a French-language services act, which requires certain provincial services to be provided in French in designated areas. Meanwhile, Nunavut has three official languages: English, French and Inuktitut. The rest of Canada also has many different arrangements for providing French-language services, though there is sometimes a reversed situation, for example, in British Columbia, where provincial courts refuse to accept documents in French.
The provinces, territories and municipalities have a lot to gain—socially, culturally and economically—from advancing the development of their official language communities and promoting their presence, their language and their heritage. Even though certain provinces have passed legislation or enacted policies related to services in French, they have been slow to recognize that they also have a responsibility with regard to their official language communities. The high number of court cases involving language issues is a quiet confirmation of an unfortunate situation.
One component of community vitality is visibility. As I expressed at the International Conference on Language and Territory four years ago, members of official language minorities, like the Francophone community of Greater Sudbury, must be able to see, hear and live in their first language. By increasing the visibility of the minority language—in this case, French—the community can continue to flourish and strengthen its growth through economic opportunity and immigration. That is why I was so pleased yesterday to learn more about ACFO du grand Sudbury and its “J’affiche aussi en français” campaign to encourage local businesses to adopt bilingual signs, hire bilingual staff and advertise in both official languages. I see this as a fantastic example of ACFO demonstrating leadership and building the foundations that will lead to a bright future for Francophones in this region.
Similar efforts to raise awareness of the French fact in the province are the reason why many public institutions across the province proudly show signage in French and Franco-Ontarian symbols, such as the green and white Franco-Ontarian flag flying atop the Greater Sudbury City Hall. The prominent visibility of your symbols in public spaces creates a sense of pride and demonstrates that both official language communities can co-exist for the benefit of all.
According to the 2011 Census, immigration is playing an increasingly important role in the vitality of Canada’s official language minority communities. While this can be seen as a challenge when it comes to increasing bilingualism, it can be a great opportunity for official language communities with sufficient resources and a good track record of welcoming new immigrants, many of whom face significant challenges when they arrive in their new communities.
I have taken a great interest in the role that immigration plays in increasing the size and strengthening the identity of official language communities. Over the past several years, my office has found that immigration is an important factor in the development of many official language minority communities, including those of Greater Sudbury, Halifax, Winnipeg, Calgary, British Columbia, Saskatchewan and various English-speaking communities in Quebec. In almost every case, there is a direct relationship between greater diversity and community vitality.
But while our official language communities are stronger than they were 10 years ago, their future is still uncertain. That is why I have made the issue of immigration to French-speaking communities outside of Quebec one of my strategic priorities for the next two and a half years. These communities often do not have enough resources to serve newcomers effectively—newcomers that do not always understand the complexities of Canada’s linguistic reality—which is very different from the purely territorial approach typical in other countries.
Because immigration is the key to the future of Canada’s official language minority communities, some recent decisions taken by the federal government are a cause for concern. In particular, Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s decision to close regional offices and reduce the budget of the Destination Canada job fair program makes it that much more difficult for French-speaking communities to attract newcomers and leverage the potential of immigration. My office has been looking into the overall effect these cuts may be having on official language communities, especially those in which numbers are dwindling due to an aging population and an exodus of young people. If any negative impacts stem from these decisions, I will be the first to remind the government of its obligations under Part VII of the Official Languages Act.
Education remains the cornerstone of Canada’s official language communities. Access to French-language education is not a privilege—it is an essential right and part of Canada’s values, and is guaranteed under section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to ensure the development and vitality of official language minority communities across the country. I firmly believe that we must provide students a continuum of education in the minority language from primary school through university.
However, aside from a few notable exceptions, Laurentian University being one, the University of Ottawa another, universities in majority language settings offering French-language instruction in a variety of disciplines are few and far between. Add to this the fact that many Canadians—including some of our elected officials in Parliament—have trouble differentiating between instruction in the minority official language and immersion education, and the result is a situation where Francophones outside Quebec may feel as though the challenges they face are not well understood by the majority. For my part, I continue to recommend that the federal government make it clear to universities that it has a major need for bilingual graduates who will be able to communicate effectively in both official languages when they join the public service. Thanks to your commitment as academics to the advancement of knowledge, your research can also help governments make more informed decisions in language planning adapted to the needs of official language communities.
For linguistic duality to work in Canadian society, two conditions are necessary. First, everyone needs to understand that English and French are not foreign languages: they are Canadian languages. Our two official languages belong to all Canadians, regardless of their linguistic background and whether they are bilingual or unilingual. Second, linguistic duality is not a burden. It is a value cherished by many Canadians, and it is up to each and every one of us to promote and strengthen it, particularly in places where Francophones and Anglophones live in minority settings.
In closing, I would like to recognize the contribution of devoted researchers like you who work in the minority language. Through your work, whether in history, linguistics, sociology, politics or science, you are contributing to the creation of linguistic spaces for Francophones. Congratulations again to all involved in the launch of the proceedings.
On that note, I thank you for your attention, and I would be pleased to answer any questions you may have.
Thank you, merci.