Notes for an address at the Round Table on French Immersion during the Annual General Meeting of the Société de l'Acadie du Nouveau-Brunswick

Fredericton, New Brunswick, June 15, 2019
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.

It’s great to be back in New Brunswick again and to be speaking to you today.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we gather is part of the traditional and unceded territory of the Maliseet and Mi’kmaq.

For thousands of years, these Indigenous peoples lived, hunted, traded and travelled here. They have been important allies throughout the province’s history, and today, they are a vital part of New Brunswick society.

Before I get to the subject of French immersion, which is the focus of this afternoon's discussions, I’d like to thank New Brunswick Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development Dominic Cardy, and my counterpart, Michel Carrier, Commissioner of Official Languages for New Brunswick, for being here today. I’d also like to thank the Société de l’Acadie du Nouveau-Brunswick for inviting me to speak and for being open to talking about this issue, which is truly a societal issue.

When I speak at meetings of Francophone organizations, I usually do so only in French. However, given the theme of this round table and the presence of participants from both language groups, I will give this speech in both of Canada’s official languages.

One of my main responsibilities as Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages is to contribute to the advancement of English and French in Canadian society. My vision for immersion is clear: I believe that every child in Canada should have the opportunity to become bilingual. Now more than ever, Canadians want their children to be able to enjoy the benefits of learning our two official languages.

Let’s start with a bit of historical context. French as a second language (or FSL) has been taught in Canadian schools for over a century. Canada’s first French immersion program 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.

Over the years and still today, reductions in FSL programs and limited access to them have been and continue to be worrisome and are a serious concern for parents who want their children to benefit from them. For many students, these barriers will have a profound impact on their future, as they will not get the chance to learn their second official language in school.

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 a study whose findings we released last winter.

The study showed that recruiting and retaining FSL teachers is a chronic problem that needs sustainable solutions.

The federal government recently announced that it 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.

Provinces and territories face common challenges in this area. Some FSL 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.

This is why I recommended that the Minister of Tourism, Official Languages and La Francophonie establish a national FSL consultation table with provincial and territorial partners and with FSL stakeholder associations and that she encourage greater standardization of Canadian FSL teachers’ required language competency and other relevant qualifications.

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. Groups like Canadian Parents for French have been instrumental in raising public awareness of the advantages and challenges associated with learning French as a second language in schools, particularly in New Brunswick, where the decision to change the Grade 1 entry point into French immersion has been put on hold.

Canadians strongly support learning both official languages. A 2016 Nielsen survey found that eight in ten Canadians agree that more needs to be done to ensure young people can become bilingual and that provincial governments should offer more spaces in immersion programs. My office’s field observations support this data, as evidenced by the popularity of immersion programs across the country. Some parents are even willing to camp outside the school to register their children in these limited enrolment programs!

I am calling on Ministers of Education across the country to think about the future of our young people and to implement policies that promote second-official-language learning. They play a key role in contributing to this shared vision and in fostering the development of bilingualism in Canada, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Official Languages Act.

Official languages have never been about competing against each other for a prize. Recognizing linguistic duality is not a zero-sum game where we increase what we have at the expense of others.

Historically, economically, geographically, and above all, linguistically, no other province has represented the Canadian reality better than New Brunswick.

New Brunswick is role model. It’s Canada’s only officially bilingual province, and its linguistic duality is also celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Always remember that the eyes of the other Canadian provinces are on the actions of the New Brunswick government.

Just as it was for Canada’s pioneers, may the principles of openness, inclusion, respect for others and protection of both official language communities continue to guide our government’s decisions, no matter what the context (culture, health, education) and no matter what the official language.

In these financially uncertain times, this is a great opportunity for the government to consider the existing evidence and the advice of the experts in order to find innovative solutions to the various challenges that have been raised with respect to immersion.

Having two official languages is what sets Canada apart as an open and inclusive society. English and French make Canada greater than the sum of its parts by promoting national unity, helping to raise our profile on the international stage, and creating opportunities for our children to learn and grow by opening them up to another language and another way of thinking.

Promoting and protecting New Brunswick’s official languages have not been without their share of challenges, conflict and tension. But their success has been and continues to be the result of Anglophone, Acadian and allophone New Brunswickers working together in a partnership of mutual respect. This is a good time to seize opportunities to work together and advance English and French in New Brunswick and across the country.

Thank you for your attention.

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