Address at the launch of the study on challenges in French-as-a-second-language education teacher supply and demand in Canada

Vancouver, British Columbia, February 13, 2019
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

Ladies and gentlemen, teachers and students, good afternoon.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we have gathered today is part of the traditional unceded territory of the Coast Salish peoples, including the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations.

I am delighted to be here with you today to present my Accessing Opportunity study, which looks at challenges in French-as-a-second-language (FSL) education teacher supply and demand in Canada.

I’d like to thank l’École Bilingue Elementary School for having generously agreed to let us hold this news conference on its premises. I’d also like to thank all of its students, many of whom are in attendance today. Your future is why we are here, so a big hello and welcome to all of you!

This afternoon, I will be talking about the causes of our national shortage of FSL teachers. I will also be giving you a background analysis and an overview of my recommendations.

One of my main responsibilities as Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada is to promote linguistic duality in Canadian society.

Access to FSL education—an issue I care deeply about—is fraught with obstacles. It is my duty to draw attention to these obstacles and to help further develop the strategies that have resulted from discussions initiated by a group of professionals who have been studying the issue. My office commissioned Canadian Parents for French to put together a group of seasoned experts to conduct the study whose findings we are releasing today. I’m especially delighted to be doing this launch in British Columbia, a province that is celebrating half a century of French immersion. The very first program in western Canada started in Coquitlam in 1968.

French as a second language has been taught in Canadian schools for over a century. Canada’s first French immersion program also predates the Official Languages Act. The St. Lambert Bilingual Study Group, started by a group of courageous mothers in 1965, was a springboard for French immersion programs in schools. The 1970s and 1980s then saw a significant jump in enrolment in French immersion.

For example, in the 1976–1977 school year, close to 260 schools in Canada offered a French immersion program. In 1991–1992, that number had grown to 1,800. Over the same 15-year period, enrolment in French immersion programs increased more than tenfold, from 23,000 to more than 267,000, while enrolment in regular FSL programs rose from 1.5 million to 1.8 million.

Fast forward to the 21st century: in 2015–2016, 430,000 students were enrolled in French immersion programs across the country, compared to 360,000 in 2011–2012, an increase of nearly 20% in just four years—and at a time when the total student population stayed more or less the same.

After decades of exponential growth, school boards are having trouble finding enough qualified teachers.

Recruiting and retaining FSL teachers is a chronic problem that needs sustainable solutions.

There’s only one way to meet the demand: the focus needs to be on teachers. That’s why today I am calling on the Minister of Official Languages to take on a clear national leadership role to address the chronic FSL teacher shortage in Canada.

The federal government wants to increase Canada’s bilingualism rate from 17.9% to 20% by 2036, which it plans to achieve by raising the bilingualism rate among English speakers. And while this is a laudable goal, reaching it will require focusing on recruiting and retaining FSL teachers.

I am recommending that the Minister establish a national FSL consultation table with provincial and territorial partners and with FSL stakeholder associations and encourage greater standardization of FSL teachers’ required language competency and other relevant qualifications. I’m also recommending that the Minister ensure a timely and effective dispensation of funds in the Action Plan for Official Languages 2018–2023 for FSL teacher recruitment and retention.

These recommendations will benefit an entire generation of second-language learners. The Minister, together with the provinces and territories, must look at sustainable solutions for recruiting and retaining FSL teachers to help build a more bilingual Canada.

Many of the gains in official languages learning in Canada have resulted from the efforts of parents who recognize the benefits of bilingualism. Canadian Parents for French has been instrumental in raising public awareness of the advantages and challenges associated with learning French as a second language in Canadian schools.

Provinces and territories face common challenges in attracting and retaining FSL teachers. Some of these teachers report having low status within schools and lack professional development opportunities, which can sway them away from teaching FSL and into the English stream. Also, FSL teachers’ ability to work in different areas of the country is hindered by the lack of standardized qualifications in Canada.

Some provinces also have unique challenges. British Columbia is having difficulty attracting teachers to both its remote towns because of the location and to its urban centres because of the high cost of living. In its struggle to meet the high demand for FSL programs—especially French immersion programs—the province has had to resort to wait lists and lotteries.

At the same time, B.C. has implemented some innovative strategies that could be replicated across Canada to promote careers in education and to increase the supply of French teachers.

Learning the other official language in school is especially important for English-speaking Canadians. In a 2016 Nielsen survey, 79% of Anglophone respondents who could speak French said that they had learned the language in elementary or high school. According to survey respondents, limited access to language instruction is the main obstacle to learning the other official language.

More than ever, Canadians want their children to enjoy the advantages that come with being bilingual. No matter where they live, every child in Canada should have the opportunity to become bilingual.

The government’s dedicated funding for FSL teacher recruitment strategies in the Action Plan for Official Languages 2018–2023 is a step in the right direction. I am also recommending that a long-term national strategy be developed to build a sufficient supply of teachers. Achieving sustainable results will require greater collaboration among provinces and territories, as well as among ministries, school boards and university faculties of education.

That’s why I’m recommending that the Minister work closely with provincial and territorial partners to lead the development and promotion of a free, federally funded on-line job search platform on which school boards across Canada can advertise job postings for FSL positions, and through which teachers can apply to several different postings using the same profile.

I hope that this study will also help FSL stakeholders in developing their strategies and project funding proposals, and that it will help to ensure that this important component of the Action Plan is effectively implemented so that we can all work together to increase access to bilingual education for youth in English schools.

In closing, I’d like to remind you that by investing in young people, we are ensuring the continuation and vitality of Canada’s official languages.

I’d like to take this opportunity to congratulate all of the students who have chosen to study in their second official language. It shows their openness to Canada, to the world and to diversity. To the Grade 7 graduates, who will be continuing their education at another school next fall and putting what they’ve learned to good use—I wish you every success. And to all of the teachers here today, I’d like to express my profound gratitude—your excellence and dedication are commendable.

Thank you for your attention. In a few minutes I’ll be happy to answer your questions, which you are, of course, welcome to ask in the official language of your choice. I will now turn the floor over to the other guests, whom I’d like to thank for being here today.

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