Notes for an address at the conference on The Future of Linguistic Duality: Our Official Languages, Our Identity

Ottawa, Ontario, November 30, 2017
Ghislaine Saikaley - Interim Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

Good morning ladies and gentlemen.

First I would like to thank you for attending our conference, which is being held simultaneously in six Canadian cities. This is our first national dialogue of its kind, with three hundred of us attending all across Canada: people in Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montréal, Moncton and here in Ottawa. I am very proud to welcome you to our showcase event to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary.

I invite you to approach this day as a unique opportunity to project ourselves into the future and think about what the state of linguistic duality and bilingualism will be in this country for the coming generations.

We have brought you together today because your voices are crucial to our process of discussion and reflection.

As you know, a number of questions are on our minds, especially since the release of Language Projections for Canada, 2011 to 2036, prepared by Statistics Canada, and the 2016 Census language data, which have generated a good deal of discussion in the media since August. In light of those statistics, we find ourselves wondering what impact these demographic and language changes will have on Canadian society in the future.

We are also wondering how immigration will shape the country’s linguistic landscape and how having several identities and allegiances will affect Canadian linguistic duality.

I have no crystal ball for predicting the future. At the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, we look at the mid- and long-term language statistics, such as those showing that, from 1961 to 2016, the bilingualism rate rose around 12% to 18% in each age category for school-age children whose mother tongue is English. These indicators give us a good idea of how the future is taking shape.

Since arriving in this position, I have been striving to make the case that linguistic duality is a fundamental Canadian value and not just an administrative obligation imposed by the federal government. This is why it is crucial that the government show leadership when it comes to protecting our language achievements.

Growing up in Rouyn-Noranda made me passionate about linguistic duality and inspired me to promote it across the country.

In the neighbourhood where I grew up, Francophones and Anglophones lived together. We were open to different cultures. I am thinking of the Polish people, the Germans and the Hungarians who lived in Noranda. In our house, we spoke both official languages. We listened to music in the language of both Molière and Shakespeare.

Linguistic duality is part of my identity, as it is part of the common identity of all Canadians, regardless of their origin.

In an era when globalization is giving new meaning to national identity, linguistic duality is still a cornerstone of Canadian society, and our national dialogue takes place in both English and French. But how can we align that national dialogue with the realities in regions where other languages are increasingly used?

Today, in this country, French is the first official language of 8 million Canadians. English is the first official language of 26 million Canadians. About 18% of Canadians are bilingual. How many will be in 2042 or 2067? I would hope that this percentage will continue to increase, but that will not happen all on its own.

When we say “bilingual,” we are talking about English and French, but it has always been more complicated than that. What does bilingual mean in Halifax, or in Toronto, or in Surrey?

Two years from now, in 2019, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Official Languages Act. For me, it will be an opportunity to remember the original purpose of the Act, which is to recognize the equal status of English and French in all federal institutions. Its main goal is to ensure that Canadians have access to the services of federal institutions in the official language of their choice.

There are three other subjects I would like to address briefly, because time is moving on, and I know the panellists have a lot to say on these important matters.

First, on immigration. We all know that immigration has a substantial impact on official language minority communities. This issue is gaining increasing attention in the Canadian media and raising many questions in different settings, especially in education sectors and from the point of view of integrating immigrants into those communities.

By 2036, immigrants and their children could account for nearly one in two Canadians. We are making great efforts to introduce the idea of minority English- and French-speaking communities as host societies for newcomers. What will this mean for these communities?

Second, the subject of Indigenous languages is another burning issue these days. About 70 Indigenous languages are currently spoken in this country. These languages are a fundamental part of Canadian social fabric.

In December 2016, the Prime Minister of Canada promised to table legislation to preserve, protect and revitalize Indigenous languages. The government might even take this opportunity to re-establish the budget envelope to support initiatives for promoting Indigenous languages. It will be another step toward reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. Will that change the conversation about the status of English and French as Canada’s official languages?

Third, I would like to talk about multilingualism. I will spare you the statistics, but this phenomenon is clearly gaining traction in Canada. Canada is becoming more and more linguistically diversified.

With the imminent arrival of a new Commissioner of Official Languages, our office is poised for renewal. This conference represents a unique opportunity for you to tell us what direction you think the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, the government of Canada and Parliament should take in the years to come. But before you have a chance to answer that question, we would like you to discuss what actions we should take together to continue to advance linguistic duality in a rapidly evolving society.

And given all the demographic, linguistic and technological changes taking place, how do you imagine the future of linguistic duality as an integral part of Canadian identity?

We do not expect to reach consensus today. We want to tap into your individual inspiration and your collective wisdom. We want to hear about your hopes, your fears and your ideas.

I hope you will enjoy the conference, and I look forward to listening to you and pooling together our thoughts on these issues. We will talk again at the end of the day.

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