Symposium at the University of Alberta: Reconciling Multiculturalism in Today’s Canada

November 12, 2021
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Good afternoon. I’d 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 in your respective territories and communities.

I’m very pleased to be part of this national dialogue on multiculturalism and to be participating in this opportunity that celebrates our diverse voices. I think that this multidisciplinary approach to tackling the social questions of our time is the key to moving forward in a way that will bring people together, rather than divide them.

Today I’d like to talk about multiculturalism as it relates to my area of expertise—official languages. I’ll share some of my life experiences as well as some reflections as we look to the future, especially in terms of how our official languages are part of a broader fundamental value of inclusion.

In my own lifetime I have witnessed first-hand some extraordinary changes in Canadian society.

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.

In fact, I remember that 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 Louis Riel and my Franco-Manitoban history. And because my parents fought for our education rights, my younger siblings were able to be educated in French in Manitoba. These were my first experiences learning about rights and diversity.

I was 16 when the Official Languages Act was passed. For me and those of my generation, it was a declaration of recognition for my mother tongue across the country and an affirmation of who we were as French Canadians and as Franco-Manitobans.

I grew up among increasing diversity, as Canada’s multiculturalism policy took wing in 1971, and I saw our collective rights and freedoms entrenched in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, just as my own children were growing up. And so I feel that I’ve lived Canada’s transition from celebrating “song and dance” diversity—where French and multiculturalism were valued mostly as folklore—to recognizing official languages rights and the rights underpinning multiculturalism as a matter of social justice, as well.

I’ve spent my life studying and defending linguistic duality, which is at the heart of Canadian diversity. And it was my great honour to accept the appointment to the position of Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada in January 2018.

As Commissioner of Official Languages, I am the agent of Parliament responsible for promoting and protecting the official languages rights of all Canadians, including Canadians of diverse backgrounds.

Official bilingualism recognizes the existence of two pan-Canadian official language groups. There are two official language majorities—French-speaking in Quebec and English-speaking elsewhere in Canada—alongside of whom live the official language minority communities, English-speaking in Quebec and French-speaking elsewhere in Canada. Along with Indigenous languages, our official languages are the foundational languages of our history.

Official bilingualism also recognizes that both official languages belong to all Canadians, regardless of their ethnic, cultural or linguistic background. English and French are the ancestral languages of millions of Canadians and, for hundreds of thousands of newcomers and their children, the languages of integration. In fact, there are nearly seven million of 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.

Understanding and better explaining the relationship between multiculturalism and official bilingualism has long been a challenge for my office, but we have always viewed the two policies as being not only complementary, but also mutually reinforcing.

The official bilingualism and multiculturalism that we enjoy today share the same origins: the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, which operated between 1963 and 1969. The commissioners believed that official bilingualism and multiculturalism could be mutually reinforcing. They explained that “a country like Canada must admit diversity within unity, show itself hospitable, and refuse to tolerate any kind of discrimination.” They added that “the presence in Canada of many people whose language and culture are distinctive by reason of their birth or ancestry represents an inestimable enrichment that Canadians can not afford to lose.” They also said that every Canadian should be encouraged to integrate into either or both of the official language communities without “the loss of an individual’s identity . . . [or] original language and culture.”Footnote 1

These recommendations became the basis for the 1969 Official Languages Act and the 1971 Multiculturalism Policy, the first of its kind in the world.

It’s important to recognize the instrumental role of Ukrainian Canadians in bringing about Canada’s multiculturalism policy in 1971. The Ukrainian-Canadian community was an important voice for recognizing Canada’s ethnocultural minorities and made a significant contribution to advancing Canadian identity as being multicultural within a bilingual framework.

In 1988, a new Official Languages Act and the Canadian Multiculturalism Act were passed within a week of each other. Both pieces of legislation affirmed the importance of preserving and enhancing “the use of languages other than English and French while strengthening the status and use of the official languages of Canada.”Footnote 2

We’ve lived through some important moments in our history recently. As you know, last month marked the 50th anniversary of Canada’s multiculturalism policy, and it is well worth taking the time to reflect on what we’ve learned along the way and how we imagine the future of multiculturalism in Canada. It’s clear that our country has evolved significantly since 1971, and our vision of multiculturalism will inevitably continue to evolve along with our social fabric.

In 2019 we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Official Languages Act. Today, one of my main areas of focus is making sure that the Act gets the critical update it requires to meet the needs of Canadians today and in the future.

We’ve also 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. There is a growing realization that we all need to learn more about the history of residential schools—and about Indigenous history more generally—in order to help mitigate the shortcomings in the traditional teaching of our national history.

And today, I’m reassured to see that there is growing awareness and more public support for the preservation and promotion of Indigenous languages. I fully support the promotion, protection and revitalization of Indigenous languages as part of the reconciliation process.

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.

We already have tremendous diversity in Canada, and we’re becoming increasingly diverse. The government has planned to welcome 1.2 million immigrants to Canada by 2023.

Celebrating our diversity, upholding our official languages and walking the path of reconciliation are complementary ambitions, and indeed, many Canadians find they are impacted by more than one of these key nation-building issues.

Belonging to different groups, embracing multiple identities—this is now a common reality for Canadians, including me. My own grandchildren are both Indigenous and live in a French linguistic minority community in Manitoba. This is Canada in 2021. Maybe it always was, and we can just see it more clearly now.

In fact, I think it’s because of the growing awareness and recognition of our diversity that we’re increasingly seeing these federal policies as synergistic rather than opposing.

The way I see it, reconciling with Indigenous peoples, recognizing two official languages and celebrating ethnocultural diversity are all part and parcel of the broader societal value of living together—“le vivre ensemble,” as we say in my native French.

Living in a country that embraces this possibility of “and,” where we have coexisting policies that prioritize inclusion and respect for rights, is important for me, both in my personal life and as Commissioner of Official Languages.

That said, it’s no secret that sometimes there’s a perception in both English- and French-speaking Canada that our official languages policy and our multiculturalism policy are at odds with each other.

We sometimes hear that official bilingualism detracts from multiculturalism because it prioritizes French over other minority languages. However:

  • Whether in a majority or minority setting, our two pan-Canadian official language groups are increasingly diverse and are already home to both official languages and many other minority languages. We are already multicultural within a bilingual framework.
  • Official bilingualism recognizes that both official languages belong to all Canadians, regardless of their ethnic, cultural or linguistic background.
  • And today, English and French are the languages of our national conversation, our parliamentary democracy, our federal government, our educational institutions, our justice system, our cultural spaces, our commerce and our international relations. In each of these instances, having two official languages allows for greater participation among diverse groups.
  • My sense is that having two official languages can allow space for other languages to flourish, more so than they would if we had only one official language. Having more than one official language provides a basis for the acceptance and respect of differences.
    • The available data suggests that some children from official language minority communities are more likely to maintain a non-official language as their mother tongue.Footnote 3
    • It’s not a question of watering down the rights of some to bolster those of others. Simply put, no one wins when rights are weakened.
    • Rolling back French-language rights would in no way give other languages more rights. In fact, the likely outcome would only be to decrease our linguistic diversity and our respect for linguistic difference.

Sometimes we also hear that multiculturalism reduces French to a minority language, stripping away its equality of status alongside English. However:

  • One of the goals of Canada’s multiculturalism policy is to help “preserve and enhance the use of languages other than English and French, while strengthening the status and use of the official languages of Canada.” Our multiculturalism and language policies were never designed to compete with each other.
  • Multiculturalism helps Canadians from diverse backgrounds to feel seen, to feel appreciated and to feel truly at home in Canada. This, in turn, encourages them to identify with the shared values that define us, including the shared value of official bilingualism.
  • Canada’s multiculturalism policy has helped to strengthen Canada’s French-speaking communities by encouraging diversity.
    • In the last half century, French-speaking Canada has become increasingly diverse, with immigration from across the international Francophonie: from Africa, Haiti, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Europe.
    • Today, in Quebec, one in ten Francophones is an immigrant. Elsewhere in Canada, it’s even higher, where one in eight Francophones is an immigrant. In Alberta, nearly one in four Franco-Albertans is an immigrant.
    • Overall, Canada is home to roughly 800,000 visible minorities who speak French as their first official language.
  • And across Canada, immigrant parents are keen for their children to learn French, which helps make French a living language in every province and territory. Statistics show that their children born in Canada, as well as children whose mother tongue is a non-official language, are just as likely to be English-French bilingual as non-immigrant youth, if not more so.Footnote 4

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

Right now, we are at a pivotal time where we’re taking a good hard look at our Canadian identity and figuring out how to reimagine diversity, inclusion, linguistic duality and reconciliation for the future in order to make a better Canada.

Despite the turbulence that this can create, we are also in a period of enormous potential. As we forge ahead, it’s important to remember that it is entirely possible—and desirable—to foster respect for our official languages while building a more inclusive society in Canada.

Our country can—indeed, it must—find ways to ensure that all Canadians can feel seen, heard, respected and at home in our shared political community, whether they are Francophone or Anglophone, Indigenous or Ethnocultural, or somewhere in between. Official bilingualism and multiculturalism cannot provide all the answers, but along with reconciliation, they are an integral part of what makes Canada possible.

It’s in leveraging our diverse expertise, in actively listening and in engaging in healthy debate that we can reimagine Canada together and broach big topics like: What is multiculturalism in Canada in 2021 and beyond? What have we learned from the past? What is the relationship between multiculturalism, indigeneity and reconciliation? What about multiculturalism and official languages? And what are the links between language and identity?

I am very much looking forward to the discussions in this conference, which are instrumental for reimagining our country for future generations.

Thank you for your attention.

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