Notes for an address at a breakfast tribute for the 50th anniversary of French immersion

Ottawa, Ontario, April 6, 2016
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

To begin with, let me say what a pleasure it is to be here today to speak about the extraordinary revolution in language learning that began 50 years ago at Margaret Pendlebury Elementary School in the Montréal suburb of Saint-Lambert.

It is also a special pleasure to speak to Canadian Parents for French, because I feel that I am speaking not simply as Commissioner of Official Languages, but also as a parent and grandparent of immersion students.

Let me begin by telling you a personal story. A month ago, I was in Switzerland and met the Canadian Ambassador, Jennifer MacIntyre. She told me that she grew up in a small village in Cape Breton and, at a relatively early age, decided that she wanted to go into immersion and learn French. Her reason? She wanted to work at the Fortress of Louisbourg, one of Parks Canada’s national historic sites. I don’t think she ever did, but, she told me, had she not gone into immersion and learned French, “my life would have been very different, and my dreams much smaller.” For that is the heart of the immersion experience: bigger dreams.

It has now been half a century since a group of 12 parents formed the St. Lambert Bilingual School Study Group, including Olga Melikoff, Murielle Parkes and Valerie Neale. They sought the help of Wallace Lambert and researchers at McGill to provide new opportunities for their children—and changed the country.

The development of that immersion program occurred not because of some elitist theory that was tested on unsuspecting children. It happened because parents wanted it to happen. They knew that the traditional way of learning French had not worked for them, and they wanted something better for their children.

A key element in the Saint‑Lambert experiment was that it was a project driven by parents, rather than by academics, teachers or administrators.

Without parental support—indeed, insistence—immersion programs would gradually erode. It is said that necessity is the mother of invention, and in this case, parents showed great inventiveness … and perseverance.

In the years since then, parents across Canada have lobbied for immersion, sat up all night for it, recruited teachers for it and demonstrated for it. School boards and governments have resented it and resisted it. For example it took massive demonstrations by parents in New Brunswick to force the provincial government to back down, partially at least, from its plan to undermine immersion.

Immersion is, of course, much more than academic courses; it goes beyond school walls. It is a holistic experience, and the degree of the learner’s immersion has an impact on its success. In other words, a student’s success depends on his or her experience as a whole, in terms of both academic curriculum and cultural exposure.

Fifty years ago, the parents of the students in Saint-Lambert knew that life in Quebec was lived in French, and they wanted their children to be able to understand that life and participate in it.

In the 1980s, academics predicted that if the rate of growth in immersion continued, there would be a million children in immersion by the year 2000. Instead, with the budget cuts of the mid-1990s, enrolment levelled off at about 300,000, where it remains. The pressure from parents results in absurdities like lotteries or first-come-first-served place allocation. Imagine if that were how advanced mathematics programs were allocated!

Immersion is not perfect. One of the challenges that immersion faces is that parents—along with school administrators, school boards and journalists—often have unrealistic expectations of what any second-language primary or secondary program can achieve. These programs are an important step toward language mastery, but not the final step, any more than intensive math and science programs in high school produce mathematicians and scientists.

That said, thousands of immersion graduates have gone on to develop and use the language skills that they acquired and have become effectively bilingual. Immersion graduates want their children to be in immersion programs. These are indications of significant success.

In most of the country, it is difficult to find qualified teachers, and hearing French spoken outside the classroom requires a deliberate effort. For too many Canadians, French is stillan obscure concept, and its value in their daily lives and activities has yet to be demonstrated. Out of sight, out of mind.

Last fall I spoke about Matthew Hayday’s remarkable book, which describes many of these debates at the national and local levels. Reading the book, you realize that immersion made headway because the determination of the parents to see it happen exceeded both the energy of the opponents and the apathy of the school systems.

And who did we find at the centre of many of these debates? Canadian Parents for French. This grassroots, parent-driven organization had no motive but the linguistic benefit of its members’ children. This, it turns out, is enough to change education policy across the country and for generations. Indeed, it is my admiration for this national and sustained impact that lies behind my decision, which I am very pleased to announce today, to award this year’s Award of Excellence for the Promotion of Linguistic Duality to Canadian Parents for French. Presentation of the award will take place in the next few months.

The story has not ended. Challenges still remain. Canadian Parents for French continues to do remarkable work, year after year, with each generation of students, parents and teachers.

Congratulations to you all and thank you for the excellent work that you do.

Thank you.

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