Notes for an appearance before the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages regarding French-language and French-immersion education programs in British Columbia and the importance of early childhood education

Ottawa, Ontario, Nobember 21, 2016
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Good evening, Madam Chair and members of the Committee.

I am impressed by the fact that you visited British Columbia and were able to hear from parents, students, teachers and administrators on this important topic. Your observations are necessarily based on a more recent visit than my own, and my statements will instead be supported by our studies and our intervention in the Rose-des-vents case.

A striking consensus has been reached on our official languages: they no longer divide Canadians. In fact, according to a recent Nielsen survey conducted for the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, 84% of Canadians are in favour of bilingualism and 88% support the objectives of the Official Languages Act.

Learning both official languages helps preserve linguistic duality as a Canadian value. In this regard, I presented Canadian Parents for French with the Award of Excellence – Promotion of Linguistic Duality this year for the key role the organization has played in promoting linguistic duality on a national scale.

Many young Canadians have learned both official languages through immersion or French-language education programs. Today, a number of senior officials in the Canadian public service as well as members of Parliament and ministers are among those who have benefited from these programs in the past. Many newcomers express their feeling of belonging in Canada by ensuring their children learn both official languages.

In the Nielsen survey, among Canadians who have a certain command of French as a second language, 80% indicated that they had acquired it in elementary or secondary school.

We also asked people who reported they were not bilingual about what prevented them from perfecting their second language. The most common response (33%) was a lack of access to language courses. This means that the road to bilingualism generally starts in school.

In British Columbia, enrollment in immersion programs has increased by 40% over the past 10 years. More than 49,000 students are enrolled in French immersion, 5,000 students attend French-language schools and a third of public school students are enrolled in core French.Footnote 1 These numbers could be higher. French as a second language programs do not suffer from a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the students or a lack of willingness on the part of their parents, but from insufficient resources.

Stumbling blocks such as quotas, ridiculous overnight lineups and the lottery system still hinder access to second-language education programs in many regions, as is the case in British Columbia.

Demand from parents still exceeds the number of immersion spots. Rather than lamenting the stagnant rate of bilingualism, the government could work to break down barriers.

Now, what about French-language education?

My office recently published a report that enabled us to look at early childhood, meaning the preschool years, between 0 and 6 years of age, and its importance for the vitality of Francophone communities. The report also gave us a better understanding of the possibilities for collaboration between community organizations and the federal institutions that play a role in early childhood development—which is crucial to the vitality of Francophone communities.

Education in minority-language environments should comprise early childhood development. This means that all services related either directly or indirectly to early childhood  offered in a community should allow children to develop in an environment that most closely resembles their reality, in which they can make progress rather than having to adapt. In this regard, the Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie-Britannique launched a pilot project this past September and offered a new kindergarten program starting at age four. About 50 students, spread across four schools,Footnote 2 were able to start school in French as a first language. This is the first time that a British Columbia school board has offered French schooling starting at the age of four.

As with other provincial areas of jurisdiction, federal institutions can provide assistance, as many have done in the past, under Part VII of the Official Languages Act, which states that the Government of Canada is committed to enhancing the vitality of official language communities. Federal institutions should not miss out on this opportunity.

Like the federal government, provincial and territorial governments do not always respond adequately to the requests made to them by official language communities or even to rulings from the courts on language matters. For example, in the Rose-des-vents case, involving the only French-language school in the west part of Vancouver, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that British Columbia had not respected a Francophone community’s constitutional right to instruction by failing to provide facilities equivalent to those provided to majority-language schools. It is essential that Canadians benefit from the same quality of education in the west of the country as in the east of the country, in both official languages. It is unacceptable that Francophone parents in British Columbia had to fight such a long battle to have their language rights recognized, as set out in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Providing more support for education in collaboration with the provinces would make it possible not only to promote linguistic duality as a Canadian value, but also to enjoy the benefits of French-language learning. Canadian businesses could certainly benefit from a bilingual workforce. In particular, the renewal of the federal public service relies on access to graduates with strong language skills, in all regions of the country. Canada can meet this objective by targeting sustainable measures and investing more resources to provide more second-language learning opportunities to all Canadians—from early childhood to the post-secondary level. Guaranteeing that official language communities receive the same quality of education as majority communities also contributes to this objective.

On that note, I would like to conclude my remarks, Madam Chair. I would be happy to answer any questions you or your colleagues may have.


Footnote 1

Infographic, Francophones in British Columbia, Office of the Commissioner of official languages

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Footnote 2

For now, four schools are participating in the project, namely École La Vérendrye in Chilliwack, École des Sept-sommets in Rossland, École des Deux-rives in Mission and École de l’Anse-au-sable in Kelowna.

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