Notes for an appearance before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages regarding the economic development of official language minority communities

Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
May 8, 2014, Ottawa, Ontario

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Mr. Chair, honourable members of the Committee, thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak with you about this important issue of economic development in official language minority communities. This is a complex and diverse topic, yet one that has been studied very little. As the community representatives who have appeared before you have mentioned, the lack of research and data is a serious hindrance to understanding the issue and developing effective solutions. I am therefore pleased the Committee is studying the matter, and I hope others will follow suit.

As some have said in recent weeks, there are economic development opportunities on the horizon for official language minority communities, whether in international trade, economic immigration, or other areas for entrepreneurs and small and medium-sized businesses.

During my meetings around the country, I have noted considerable potential within official language communities in many regions, in terms of entrepreneurship, economic development and creativity. To develop this potential and seize the opportunities, English- and French-speaking minority communities must nonetheless have the right tools and resources.

At the start of my mandate, I launched a series of studies on the vitality of official language minority communities in several regions of the country. The studies involved various partners and found that, despite similarities, each community faces a different reality. Beyond their challenges, communities each have their own aspirations that motivate them to grow.

While the economic situation of minority Anglophones and Francophones in different parts of the country is now comparable to that of the majority, the situation varies greatly from one region to another, and minority communities continue to face major challenges. The people who have appeared before your committee expressed it well: each region and each community is unique, and while best practices can be found in many communities, there is no single recipe for success.

In the West, for example, the economy is strong, the demand for labour is high and workers are therefore pouring in from other regions of Canada and abroad. French-speaking communities in this part of the country therefore require more resources to meet an increasing demand for services and community support. In some regions of the Maritimes and north and south-western Ontario, on the other hand, a challenging economy sees young people leaving for large urban centres, which threaten their community’s future and entrepreneurship. In Quebec, young English speakers have difficulty accessing the job market and are under-employed. They are leaving the province to settle elsewhere, which is undermining community vitality and renewal.

Federal institutions must therefore remain attentive and take these differences into account when creating programs and policies to support economic development and labour market integration. The institutions must also be flexible. In the minority context, the implementation of positive measures does not always involve wide-reaching action. Sometimes, small steps make a big difference to a community’s growth and development.

We must remember that employment, education and immigration are jurisdictions that are shared with provincial and territorial governments. In transferring its programs and funds to the provinces and territories, the federal government must ensure that the provincial and territorial governments are aware of the needs of official language communities and the requirement to consult these communities to fully understand their unique challenges. In this sense, bilateral agreements must contain solid language clauses and accountability mechanisms to ensure that the needs of these communities are taken into account.

A healthy economy, job opportunities, the presence of employers and entrepreneurs, and opportunities for growth can all have a positive impact on a community’s ability to stay dynamic, encourage its young people to remain, and attract new workers and new members. When a community organizes a tourism project, hosts an event, creates a cultural product or develops a cooperative, its appeal goes well beyond the community itself.

Over the years, Francophone and Acadian communities have targeted immigration as a solution for the future—a means of ensuring their growth. In recent years, the federal government has been working to modernize the Canadian immigration system, with a focus on the economy, faster work-force integration and the recruitment of immigrants with skills needed in Canada. The new system gives priority to the economy and the role of employers. In this context, French-speaking minority communities should be promoted as privileged partners and a significant asset in attracting and retaining newcomers. Whether for the French-language services and resources they have to offer, the infrastructure available to them, or their expertise, these communities are well placed to support employers, immigrants and their families. It is therefore essential that they have the tools required to build bridges with Anglophone and Francophone employers and with the provinces in order to make the most of the new immigration system.

Both directly and indirectly, many sectors have an impact on economic development, such as arts and culture, education and immigration. Cooperation among the various sectors and stakeholders and promotion of everyone’s areas of expertise are key to the accomplishment and success of many community projects. Representatives from various sectors and federal institutions must work together toward community growth, each bringing their own skills.

On that note, I will conclude, Mr. Chair, by thanking you and the members of the Committee for your work in carrying out this study, which I will read with interest.

Thank you.

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