Notes for an address during the day of reflection on Canadian Francophonie: History and migration

Gatineau, Quebec, March 1, 2018
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

First, I would like to thank you for inviting me. As you know, I have just started my mandate, and I am honoured to have been appointed Commissioner of Official Languages. I am pleased to be with you today to continue the discussion on immigration, a crucial issue for our official language minority communities.

As a Franco-Manitoban born to Québécois parents, I know firsthand that Francophone migration to Western Canada has had an unmistakable impact on the cultural and socio-economic growth of the Western provinces.

My grandfather left Quebec to settle in Saskatchewan on 160 acres of land. Along with many others, he helped to colonize Western Canada and build his adopted province.

I was born in Sainte-Anne-des-Chênes, Manitoba, a village whose population was almost 100% Francophone―and yet there was no French public school. My parents sent me to a private school so that I could have a French education.

When it was my brothers’ turn, there was a French public school for them to go to. Things had changed. The Francophones’ demands had finally been heard.

Moving to Western Canada did not dampen the Francophones’ strong desire to preserve their language and culture. French-speaking communities are very resilient that way. For my parents, a French education was not an option; it was non-negotiable.

Before moving to Montréal for school, I was a French Canadian. When I returned a few years later, I was a bit surprised to learn that I was now part of an official language minority community. It was the first time I was called a minority.

French Canadians, as they were known at the time, were descendants of immigrants from France. They also had other ethnic ancestry, of course, such as members of First Nations peoples who intermarried with French immigrants. Western Canada’s fertile soil and railway access offered migrating Francophones an opportunity to settle and prosper. It was the right time to acquire land. Early Francophone settlers came from Europe. Nowadays, they come from places like Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean.

Official language communities―both minority and majority―are becoming increasingly diverse as a result of immigration and intermarriage. They are also becoming increasingly bilingual, or even trilingual. Although this has enhanced Canada’s rich cultural fabric, it has also resulted in more complex individual linguistic identities.

And while it has led to new opportunities, it has also generated some challenges, particularly for official language minority communities. In most cases, these communities are still growing in number; however, their relative demographic weight continues to decline in several provinces because most immigrants are integrating into the majority community.

According to recent language data released by Statistics Canada, the bilingualism rate has increased in almost every province and territory, which is a good sign. However, Statistics Canada’s projections indicate that by 2036, the proportion of Francophones in the country will have continued to decrease. In addition to demographic challenges, Francophone minority communities are facing significant socio-economic challenges.

The projections highlight the importance of current efforts to create host societies for immigrants in official language minority communities across the country. To do this, however, the communities not only need support from governments, they also need tailored policies and programs.

I believe that the ability of Francophone minority communities to develop, thrive and contribute fully to the advancement of Canadian society would be even greater if they could attract more French-speaking immigrants.

Statistics Canada’s language projections are a call to action on immigration, one of the main factors in maintaining the demographic weight of Francophone minority communities.

This is not the first time that the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages has weighed in on the issue. You may recall that in 2014, then Commissioner Graham Fraser, together with the French Language Services Commissioner of Ontario and the Commissioner of Official Languages for New Brunswick, identified four principles to guide governments on immigration in Francophone minority communities.

Mr. Fraser also made recommendations to the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship in a November 2014 joint report with the Ontario French Language Services Commissioner and in his 2014-2015 annual report.

In recent years, we have seen a number of important advances, including the introduction of the Mobilité Francophone program, the changes to the Express Entry system and the new definition of “official language immigrant,” as well as various consultations with official language minority communities.

Last fall, the government announced that it would welcome 300,000 immigrants a year. It is therefore essential that the government achieve its objective of 5% Francophone immigration to maintain the demographic weight of Francophone minority communities. Up until now, its efforts have not produced the expected results.

I think the federal government needs to do even more to attract Francophone immigrants and give official language minority communities the resources they need to welcome newcomers and help them settle into their new community.

The next official languages action plan, which we have been awaiting with anticipation and which is scheduled to be released soon, is one of the ways the government can do more.

Francophone immigration was a priority for my predecessors. Let me assure you that it will also be one of mine.

I would now like to take a few minutes to talk about another subject that I believe will affect the future of the Canadian Francophonie.

As you may know, my office has initiated discussions on the modernization of the Official Languages Act. The Act will turn 50 in 2019, so now is the perfect time to ask the government to amend the legislation.

I have been in office for only a month, but I am convinced that the Act must be modernized to reflect the many ways that Canadian society has changed since 1988―changes like the country’s demographic make-up, immigration and urbanization, and technological advances and their impact on the workplace in federal institutions and on how services are delivered to the public.

Now more than ever, we need legislation that can respond proactively to the changing face of Canada.

While I focus on a number of issues, my team will continue to consult with key stakeholders and will begin broader public consultations very soon. These consultations will provide significant input into our analysis.

Key issues in this important exercise include language equality in the courts, affirming the Commissioner’s historical role of promotor and educator, the need to consider regulations for the promotion of English and French by the federal government, and including a provision for a periodic review of the Act.

I hope that you will all participate in these consultations in some way. My office wants to take a position with which both language groups and all Canadians can agree.

Since my time as a student at Saint-Boniface, I have seen and experienced both the gains and the losses of my Francophone community in Manitoba. In the various positions that I have held, I have also seen the progress made by Francophone and Acadian communities across Canada.

From French Canadian to Francophone Canadian to Francophone, my identity has evolved in step with Canadian society.

I know that there is still much work to be done to ensure the future of Canada’s linguistic duality and of its Francophone minority communities. We must build on the foundations of official languages and linguistic duality, and rise to the challenge. By participating in events such as this one, I am sure that we will succeed.

Thank you.

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