Opening remarks for the Archives and Libraries in Official Language Minority Communities – Issues and Future national conference

May 20, 2021
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

Hello everyone!

Although we’re meeting virtually today, I would like to acknowledge that I’m addressing you from Treaty 1 territory, the traditional territory of Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota and Dene Peoples, and the homeland of the Métis Nation.

I’m happy to be joining you in your respective communities and territories.

I’d like to thank Leslie Weir for inviting me to the conference today.

First, I’d like to congratulate Library and Archives Canada and its partners for their proactive efforts, which have made it possible to begin defining the relationship between memory and vitality. This is important work to better support official language minority communities in Canada.

I applaud the spirit behind this conference: to come together to exchange information and identify best practices to support the development of official language minority communities.

I believe that this partnership among communities, academia and government is key to advancing the common pursuit of preserving and accessing community memory resources, which are part of our collective heritage as a country.

When I look at the vitality of official language minority communities across Canada, I see that heritage and libraries have not been considered as indicators of vitality in the same way as, say, demographics or geography.

It is clear that, as these communities evolve and as our collective understanding of what fosters their vitality changes, our definition of community vitality must also evolve.

Living as we are in the digital information age, our idea of what heritage is and how it can be accessed is changing, and so are our expectations in terms of the resources and services that libraries provide.

Of course, this digital shift comes with both opportunities and challenges. But what does not change is the fact that the experiences of official language minority communities—their stories, their challenges and their successes—are part of their identity. The need to protect this collective memory, which is the beating heart of these communities and which reflects the evolution of their identity, remains fundamental.

My organization has regional offices across the country to serve all Canadians. At the beginning of the COVID‑19 pandemic, I was heartened to see the flurry of work happening within official language minority communities as they continued to support each other and enhance their vitality, despite the restrictions.

I know that historical societies in official language minority communities across Canada are also coming together to help underscore how important a community’s memory is to its vitality. I will be monitoring their work with keen interest.

With all the technological advances we’ve seen during the pandemic, I wonder what opportunities there are for the heritage sector, for archives and for libraries. And how can we better engage communities in virtual spaces?

At the same time, we can’t ignore the complex and extensive impact of the pandemic on official language minority communities.

The current health crisis has put a tremendous strain on these communities on many levels—community centres, community health organizations, post-secondary institutions, and the arts and culture sectors have all felt the brunt of the pandemic.

It will take years to understand the full impact of the pandemic on our official language minority communities.

The topic of discussion today is about how policies can foster community access to archives and libraries and help remove language barriers. I’d like to share some reflections on this.

First and foremost, all policy development—from design to implementation to assessment—should include communities. The “by and for” concept now widely used in official language minority communities is essential for the success of any policy.

In terms of access to archives and libraries and the language barriers that can exist, members of official language minority communities must have access to skilled archivists who understand the resources that are available and who can help them navigate those resources in their language.

And in terms of interpreting, understanding and communicating the history that those resources can tell us, we must ensure proper support for historians in official language minority communities.

I’m almost halfway through my seven‑year term, and it looks like the second half of my mandate is going to be very busy, especially with the modernization of the Official Languages Act, which is now more than 50 years old.

Canadian society has evolved considerably in recent years, both demographically and technologically. The federal government must now take action on its proposed reform of our national language policy.

As I’ve mentioned on several occasions, the Official Languages Act, which is the cornerstone of our language policy, must be reviewed in-depth to ensure that it is relevant, dynamic and strong. That’s why I’m pleased with the scope of the measures the government has recently proposed in its document on official languages reform.

The proposed measures appear to breathe new life into efforts to protect and promote our two official languages and to strengthen linguistic duality.

The government has committed to modernizing the Act by the end of this year. My office will be closely monitoring the development and tabling of a bill through Parliament to modernize the Official Languages Act, and we will intervene as necessary.

The 2018–2023 Action Plan for Official Languages is past the halfway mark, and it’s time to start thinking about the next action plan and how we can strengthen it for the benefit of our official language minority communities.

I’d like to call on federal institutions whose mandates impact our collective history and heritage to reflect on how they can help preserve memory in our official language minority communities so that they can help uphold one of our core Canadian values: to ensure that English and French communities can coexist and thrive across Canada.

Beyond Library and Archives Canada, these institutions include museums, galleries and organizations that protect heritage sites.

We received some promising news last month with the official languages-related proposals in the new federal budget. The funding proposed for post-secondary minority language education is sorely needed.

I was deeply troubled by the devastating cuts announced at Laurentian University, which resulted in the elimination of the entire French-language history program. How will that loss of memory vitality affect the health of Northern Ontario’s French-speaking community in the years to come?

Cuts to post-secondary institutions in official language minority communities—such as what we’ve seen at Laurentian University, at Campus Saint-Jean in Alberta, and in other minority language educational institutions throughout the years—are short-sighted and fail to consider the long-term impacts on community memory and vitality.

We need to ensure sufficient funding for our universities so that there is a continuum of opportunities for students to learn in both of our official languages. And we shouldn’t be losing history professors, who play a critical role in memory vitality in official language minority communities.

Since my first day as Commissioner, I have been telling myself that the work we do today will have an impact on language policy and on official language minority communities for the next 50 years.

“Know thyself.” It’s one of the great maxims taught to us by the ancient Greeks, and it continues to be as much a marker of community vitality as it was over 2,000 years ago. But how can we truly “know ourselves” without knowing our history?

We need the archivists to gather and preserve it, the librarians to catalogue it and make it accessible, the historians to interpret and communicate it, and the resolve of our federal institutions to help safeguard the heritage of our communities.

I know that this discussion on memory vitality is, in many ways, pioneering work, but it’s also very important work that stands to benefit official language minority communities in the long term.

And so I’d like to express my profound gratitude for your continued commitment to memory vitality.

I’m very much looking forward to hearing your presentations this afternoon. Thank you.

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