Education and Vitality Forum: Supporting English-language minority education in Quebec

November 5, 2021
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Good afternoon. I would like to begin by acknowledging that I am speaking to you from Treaty One territory, the traditional territory of the Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota and Dene peoples, and the homeland of the Métis Nation. I am happy to be joining you today.

I’d like to thank the Quebec English-Speaking Communities Research Network (QUESCREN) for inviting me to speak with you. I had the pleasure of speaking at your Forum in 2018, and I’m very pleased to see another opportunity to bring together researchers, practitioners, stakeholders and policy-makers to focus on solutions for the future of Quebec’s diverse English-speaking communities.

In the ongoing pandemic situation, this multidisciplinary approach to working on best practices and initiatives is as important as ever. We need to come together to collectively navigate what our new normal is and to figure out how the past year and a half has affected the vitality of our communities and what that means for their future.

Just to repeat very briefly, for those of you who were not at the first Forum three years ago, I come from a small village in Manitoba—Ste. Anne des Chênes—about 50 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg.

When I was growing up, my little corner of the world was 100 percent French Canadian, and yet there was no French school for me to go to.

I was 16 when the Official Languages Act was passed. For me and those of my generation, it was an affirmation of who we were as French Canadians and as Franco-Manitobans.

I spent a large part of my career teaching, doing research and being a university administrator, including six years as president and vice-chancellor of the Université de Moncton from 2012 to 2018.

Before that I was an assistant deputy minister in Ontario’s Ministry of Education and Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, and Director General of the Société franco-manitobaine, which advocates on behalf of Manitoba’s French-speaking community.

The importance of education—and primarily minority language education—has always been and continues to be a running theme in my life.

And so, I’m very glad to be here with you today and to be a part of this important work on education and vitality.

Today I’d like to talk about diversity in education—one of the conference themes—as I’ve experienced it over the course of my lifetime, and to share some reflections and raise some questions for potential further study as we look to the future, especially in terms of how our official languages are part of a broader fundamental value of inclusion.

When we talk about diversity in education in Canada, it’s instructive to look back on how notions of diversity have been defined over time and what changes we have seen.

If we look back to 1867, for example, the constitution, then known as the British North America Act, laid down a framework for diversity in education along religious lines: it provided a constitutional right to either a Protestant or Roman Catholic education. But within this framework, French-speaking Catholics outside Quebec had difficulty getting access to French-language education.

In my home province of Manitoba, this led to a crisis. At the time of the Manitoba Act in 1870, the non-First Nations population was roughly half French-speaking Catholics and half English-speaking Protestants, and public funds for schools reflected that balance. But as demographics shifted over time and English-speaking Protestants grew in number, cultural and religious tensions increased, and in 1890 a non-denominational school system was created. The French-Catholic schools lost their funding, and all public schools were English only. French-speaking Manitobans felt their language and culture were being threatened and that their rights had been violated.

This fuelled religious tensions not just in Manitoba, but also among French speakers and English speakers across Canada. Eventually a compromise was struck in Manitoba, allowing some French in addition to English in public schools, but only if there were enough students.Footnote 1 Unfortunately, another result of that conflict was that English became the only provincial official language in Manitoba until 1985, and because of that, the use of French declined.

As a result, I didn’t have access to a French-language education growing up. My social science textbook at school was called My British Heritage, something none of the French-Canadian kids in my class could identify with. My mother took care of teaching me about my Franco-Manitoban history and told me the story of Louis Riel. And because my parents fought for our education rights, my younger siblings were able to be educated in French in Manitoba.

In Ontario at the turn of the 20th century, linguistic diversity in education was threatened with the introduction of Regulation 17 in 1912, which stipulated that English was to be the only language of instruction and of communication with students beyond Grade 2 in all schools across the province. French-speaking Catholics had to attend temporary “Anglo-French schools,” which were designed to transition those students to learning in English and to move them away from French.Footnote 2 Regulation 17 was effectively repealed in 1927, but its impact continues to resonate.Footnote 3

Both the Manitoba and Ontario examples illustrate how watering down language rights had an impact on generations of children. And throughout much of the 20th century, a shortage of French-language education options contributed to the assimilation of Francophones outside of Quebec.

The story of diversity in education played out much differently in Quebec, notably in Montréal, which was the largest city in Canada for more than the first half of the 20th century. Montréal’s English-language community, which had a strong denominational education system, was absorbing new waves of non-Anglo-Saxon immigration—Jews from eastern Europe and immigrants from Greece, Italy, other European countries and the Caribbean. Most immigrants attended schools reflecting their own religions, but Jews were not allowed into Catholic schools, so they had to attend Protestant schools. As columnist Josh Freed of the Montreal Gazette wrote, even though he’s Jewish, he went to Protestant schools and came out knowing the lyrics and melody of “Jesus Loves Me” as well as any Protestant kid!

Quebec’s Charter of the French Language, also known as Bill 101, completely changed the diversity equation in education when it was passed in 1977. French-language schools, still mostly under the Catholic confessional system, were now confronted with the challenge of managing diversity, as the new law put an end to the right of immigrants to attend English schools.

It wasn’t until 1997 that the province negotiated a constitutional amendment with the federal government, with the approval of the English-speaking minority, for schools to be reorganized along linguistic lines, replacing the religious framework that had been in place since the beginning of Confederation.

Meanwhile, the enshrining of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in our Constitution Act of 1982 marked a turning point in education for Francophones outside of Quebec. The new constitution of 1982 called upon both majorities, French-speaking in Quebec and English-speaking outside of Quebec, to accommodate the official language minorities in their midst.

As then Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau explained:

Section 23 … will require the other nine English-speaking provinces to provide education to their French-speaking minorities—and I’d like to say in passing that I think it will be a great day for Canada when we finally recognize that French minority schooling throughout Canada will now have a constitutional guarantee of protection [our translation]. Footnote 4

Section 23 of the Charter is also remedial in nature, meaning that it is to be construed broadly and liberally by the courts in order to help remedy or compensate for suppressive actions that contributed to a decline of the vitality of the French language outside of Quebec, and of Francophone minority communities, as well.

Education and educational institutions are, have been and will always be intrinsically linked to community vitality. Within QUESCREN, and in official language minority communities across Canada more generally, there is increasing interest in the concept of an education continuum. That is to say, while section 23 provides certain guarantees for minority-language education at the elementary and high school level, there are other challenges. Outside of Quebec, efforts are under way to preserve and promote French-language post-secondary education.

We’ve seen community backlashes in reaction to cuts to post-secondary institutions in official language minority communities, such as at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, and at Campus Saint-Jean in Edmonton, Alberta. These cuts are short-sighted and fail to consider the long-term impacts on community vitality.

We’ve also seen a tremendous mobilization among different levels of government and community groups to establish the Université de l’Ontario français, which has just welcomed its first cohort of full-time undergraduate students. This is a very promising outcome for the future of French in Ontario.

In Quebec’s English-speaking communities, I’m discovering that challenges in the continuum are presenting themselves in early childhood education. This is particularly true outside of Montréal, where the English-speaking minority is experiencing problems that are similar to those of many Francophone communities outside of Quebec, and where it is sometimes difficult to access early childhood services in the minority official language.

I had a meeting on this issue recently with the Committee for Anglophone Social Action (CASA) in the Gaspé region and with the Community Health and Social Services Network in Québec City. The needs in early childhood education that they described reminded me of the same needs I had when I was a young parent in a Francophone minority community in Manitoba.

A program developed by CASA called Bright Beginnings is being implemented across Quebec with funding from a private foundation, and there is clearly a need for more focused action in this area on the part of the federal government. And that’s not to say Montréal doesn’t have its own needs, too. Both in and outside of Montréal, there are shortages of specialized English-language services for pre-schoolers, in speech therapy and in other areas.

To be sure, Quebec’s English-language schools are facing some significant new issues today, including on the diversity front.

I am following these issues closely. Quebec’s Act respecting the laicity of the State—also known as Bill 21, or the “secularism law,”—and its Act to amend mainly the Education Act with regard to school organization and governance—also known as Bill 40—which abolished school boards and replaced them with service centres, are currently being challenged before the courts, so I am therefore limited in what I can say, given my role.

Meanwhile, Bill 96, the new language bill to amend the Charter of the French Language, could have a negative affect on future enrolment in English schools. My office is currently undertaking a careful legal and policy analysis of the issue. I hope the Government of Quebec will keep the lines of communication open with the English-speaking communities as it moves forward with the modernization of the Charter of the French Language.

My office is also looking at what impact Bill 96 could have on the modernization of the Official Languages Act. The principle of substantive equality of our two official languages is a fundamental concept of language rights in Canada.

Of course, I have noted the increasing language tensions around Bill 96. It is important that disagreements related to these issues can be debated in a spirit of respect for opposing viewpoints.

I do worry about social media, though. The proliferation of knee-jerk responses is having a divisive effect across Canada. How can we ensure that there continues to be reasoned debate and mutual respect as we forge ahead? I think conferences like this one are key—where there are a multitude of perspectives, where we think carefully about diversity, and where we help forge a common will to move forward constructively.

We’ve heard a lot about linguistic insecurity over the past couple of years, and there is an important link to make here with inclusion and education.

Linguistic insecurity in English or French is the idea that people aren’t comfortable using these languages, whether it’s their first or second official language. You could be a perfectly bilingual Franco‑Albertan who is reluctant to speak in your French mother tongue because you feel that it makes others uncomfortable. Or you could be an English-speaking Quebecer who feels pressure to use French rather than English. You may be happy to use French, but you may also be getting the message that your language is not welcome. Or you may fear that your French will be judged as inadequate. For a variety of reasons, there are insecurities at play.

The French writer Voltaire said, “The best is the enemy of the good.” I often hear from people that they feel their second language skills will never be good enough. It takes a leap of faith to be at ease with “good enough.” But that’s a very important leap to take, because being comfortable in different situations in your second language takes a lot of practice. In fact, it’s a life-long project. This is a message we try to get across in our presentations to school-aged children in Quebec, in both English-language and French-language schools, and across Canada as well.

We talk about the vicious circle: you feel insecure using your second language, so you don’t use it, and because you don’t use it, you don’t get better, and so you keep on not using it, and you never get better.

By contrast, there is the virtuous circle: you try, so you get better, and because you’re getting better, you keep trying, and so you keep getting better. Importantly, your effort to try can also inspire others to practise their second-language skills more, so everyone feels more comfortable.

Sometimes, of course, all it can take is just a few negative comments from someone about the quality of your second-language French or English—your quote-unquote “bad” accent, say, or your occasional mispronunciation—to turn a virtuous circle back into a vicious one.

When we think about diversity and inclusion in a country with two official languages, then, it’s important for us to think about building more linguistic security into Canadian society: the freedom to be comfortable speaking the language at the level you’re currently at. That means building more acceptance and acknowledgement of the diverse varieties of English and French in Canada and of people’s efforts to learn our official languages.

It bears mentioning that our official languages belong to all Canadians, regardless of their ethnic, cultural or linguistic background.

According to the most recent Census data, there are nearly seven million people in Canada whose mother tongue is neither English nor French, but who use one or both official languages to participate in our broader society.

In Quebec, among those who speak English as their first official language, 33 percent (or 360,000 people) are immigrants, 30 percent (or 330,000 people) are visible minorities, and 4 percent (or 45,000 people) are Indigenous. The English-speaking communities of Quebec are diverse and becoming increasingly more so.

Far too often, I see discourses that pit respect for diversity and inclusion against respect for official languages, as if they were mutually exclusive. They are not.

Canada is becoming more diverse, and so are our official language minority communities.

I think it’s very important to understand that in Canada, our multiculturalism and language policies were always intended to coexist and strengthen each other. We have an official languages policy and a multiculturalism policy and—now—an Indigenous languages policy. This idea of “and” is one of our greatest strengths as a country.

In my own lifetime, as I’ve said, I have witnessed first-hand some extraordinary changes in Canadian society. And not just publicly, but personally too: I have grandchildren of Indigenous background.

We’ve just marked Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to honour the Survivors and lost children of residential schools, as well as their families and their communities. I recently spoke with Jamie Moses, the new Language Commissioner of the Cree Nation Government of Quebec, and learned that both of his parents went to French-language residential schools in Quebec and that he was raised mostly by his grandparents. There is a growing realization that we all need to learn more about the history of residential schools in order to help mitigate the shortcomings in the traditional teaching of our national history.

The path of reconciliation is critical to the success of our country.

This growing awareness has sparked more public support for the preservation and promotion of Indigenous languages. Yes, I am Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages and I fully support the promotion, protection and revitalization of Indigenous languages as part of the reconciliation process.

I’m convinced that the story of Canada will never be complete—and that’s a good thing! Each generation works to re-examine the past and question the present, with a view to reimagining a brighter future.

Right now, we are at a pivotal time where we’re taking a good hard look at Canadian identity (and, in Quebec, at Quebec identity, as well) and figuring out how to “vivre ensemble,” as we say in French.

In closing, I’d like to commend you for focusing this forum on diversity and education, because by talking about education, we are essentially talking about our youth, and by talking about our youth, we are talking about our future.

The English education system in Quebec has always been a fertile ground for trying new ideas and approaches in education. Your willingness to innovate will continue to be important, going forward.

And so will your research. I look forward to the research that will be coming out on bills 21, 40 and 96. QUESCREN is a well-placed hub for research in Quebec, and I’m pleased to see that there’s a growing pool of researchers who are getting more opportunities to contribute their expertise on issues relating to education, language and culture within Quebec’s English-speaking communities.

It is my great honour to serve as Commissioner of Official Languages during this challenging and exciting time, and it is my privilege to have the opportunity to help shape Canada’s language policy for the coming years and for future generations.

Thank you for your attention. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask them in the official language of your choice.

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