Young Canadians have played a critical historical role in helping to maintain and promote our country’s linguistic duality. Their stories are an inspiration for young people who are currently engaged in promoting Canada’s two official languages.
Protecting the rights of youth was at the heart of the Confederation compromise of 1867. Canada’s first constitution conferred the right of the largely French-speaking Catholic minorities in some provinces and of the English-speaking Protestant minority in Quebec to separate schools and made the Canadian government responsible for defending these minority rights. Over a century later, Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau invoked this precedent when minority language education rights were entrenched in the Constitution Act, 1982.
Young English- and French-speaking Canadians’ receptiveness to linguistic duality has been demonstrated by nearly a century of efforts to connect with each other, to learn about each other’s views and experiences, and to learn and use their second official language.
In the late 1930s, the bilingual Canadian Youth Congress, led by Ken Woodsworth and Laurier Régnier, brought together hundreds of Anglophone, Francophone and allophone representatives from across Canada. Together, they called on the government to denounce racial discrimination, promote strength in diversity, respect official language minority rights, celebrate historical examples of Anglophone-Francophone partnership and integrate linguistic duality into the education system. “
We want knowledge,” they declared. “
We want to know about ourselves. …We want a friendly intermingling of the French- and English-speaking youth of Canada and a mutual understanding of language and culture in our schools and in our social relationships. …We want our educational systems based on those purposes.” (Declaration of Rights of Canadian Youth, May 1936.)
The efforts of these young Canadians met with some opposition from the older generation at the time, but their vision continues to this day. Indeed, it was these young Canadians, their children and their children’s children who gave our country its Official Languages Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protect and promote Canadians’ official language rights, including education rights.
As rights advocates and as a driving force behind change, acceptance and openness, young Canadians have been at the forefront of promoting linguistic duality. When Canada adopted the Official Languages Act in 1969, young people were among its strongest supporters. Since then, hundreds of thousands of youth from across Canada have shown their enthusiasm for learning a second official language through their active participation in language immersion programs. Today, young people continue to be among the strongest supporters of Canadian bilingualism, and they are more likely than their parents and grandparents to speak both official languages.
Here are some examples of initiatives that resulted from youth’s commitment: