Notes for an address at the Annual Conference of the Association canadienne d’éducation de langue française

Moncton, New Brunswick -
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

Check against delivery

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

I am honoured to be here today to kick off the annual conference of the Association canadienne d’éducation de langue française (ACELF).

I’d like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we are gathered is part of the traditional unceded territory of the Wəlastəkwiyik (Maliseet) and Mi’kmaq peoples. For thousands of years, these First Nations lived, hunted, traded and travelled here. Today, they are a vital part of New Brunswick society.

Before getting into the current issues of French-language education, I’d like to recognize the dedication of all teachers, educators, administrators and school board members who give their very best every day. The theme of this year’s conference, “Unissons nos forces — Pour notre langue, notre culture, notre diversité,” inspired by the Acadians’ “Strength through unity” motto, is therefore very fitting.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’ve 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 de la francophonie manitobaine, which advocates on behalf of Manitoba’s French-speaking community.

I come from Sainte-Anne-des-Chênes, Manitoba, a very small town just outside Winnipeg. When I lived there, the town’s population was 100% French Canadian, and yet there was no French school for me to go to. My parents and many others fought for our rights, and my younger brothers had the opportunity to be educated in their mother tongue.

I’ve spent my life studying and defending linguistic duality. That passion has made me the man I am today, and so I was very honoured and proud to be appointed Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages last December.

French-language education in a minority setting has long faced major challenges, such as finding resources, preventing assimilation or fostering a sense of belonging.

Thankfully, the past decade has seen a collective enlightenment regarding the importance of French-language schools for Canada’s Francophone minority communities. We’re finally recognizing the impact that a community’s linguistic and cultural vitality has on learning the language and committing to one’s identity and community.

Case in point—the twofold mandate of French-language schools, which combines education objectives with a focus on developing students’ language and identity, is now well established. Today, we consider teachers to be cultural envoys and agents of linguistic and cultural socialization. School principals also have a crucial role as leaders of change for teaching staff.

In addition to ensuring academic success, French-language schools focus on each student’s personal and social development. They help students develop their identity, define who they are, acknowledge themselves as Francophones and develop a sense of belonging to both their language and their culture.

I know that tailoring teaching methods to the linguistic minority is a long-term endeavour, and I raise my hat to all those who are working together, whether directly or indirectly, for the cause. The culture of cooperation reminds us that schools are all about partnerships with families and communities, especially when it comes to encouraging young people to forge their Francophone identity.

I therefore support ACELF’s eight guiding principles of engaging with the Canadian Francophonie; investing in creativity and innovation; valuing diversity; fostering cooperation between families, communities and schools; developing a positive relationship with the French language; creating links within the Canadian Francophonie; encouraging activism; and aiming for long-term results.

Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms played a major part in increasing the number of French-language schools outside of Quebec during the first decade of the 2000s. However, French-language education in a minority setting has yet to benefit from the same conditions as French-language education in a majority setting.

Many of my office’s priorities are echoed in the Action Plan for Official Languages – 2018-2023: Investing in Our Future, including the funding to support early childhood development and Francophone immigration.

The 2018–2023 Action Plan proposes a $95.25 million investment in educational and community infrastructure and a $62.58 million investment in recruitment of teachers for linguistic minority community schools and of teachers for French immersion schools.

In terms of early childhood development, $20 million has been allocated for professional learning opportunities and training for educators, as well as support for entrepreneurs in opening more Francophone daycares and providing more child care services.

Let’s move on to the issue of Francophone immigration, starting with a brief overview. From the shores of the Atlantic, to the coast of British Columbia, to the far reaches of the North, Francophones have left an impressive mark on Canadian history. For centuries, they founded dynamic communities, not just in Quebec, but throughout Canada.

These descendants of pioneers—Acadians, Quebecers, Métis and other French-speaking peoples—established communities throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Immigration has thus had an immense impact on Canada’s population growth, cultural wealth and socio-economic development.

If we are to successfully attract, welcome and integrate newly arrived French speakers into our communities, our workplaces, our schools and our lives, all levels of government need to work together with Francophone minority communities.

I’d now like to turn to one of the main topics of discussion at the third Education Summit held last year in Ottawa: linguistic insecurity. Unfortunately, many Francophones living in linguistic minority communities in Canada feel that they are judged on the quality of their French or on their accent.

The French spoken in Canada has its own character and is inextricably linked to the social and cultural fabric of the Francophone communities that use it. Our accents have no bearing on the meaning of our words. Rather, like melodious notes, they enrich the musical soundtrack of Canada’s Francophonie. As I recently told the Fédération de la jeunesse canadienne-française, I am happy to report that solutions have been put forward that will help communities increase linguistic security across the country.

In the same vein, I’d like to congratulate ACELF for creating space at this conference for the young leaders of Canada’s Francophonie. They are the ones who will be ensuring the development of our Francophone and Acadian communities.

Research shows that organizations supported by ACELF play a crucial role in helping our young people overcome their linguistic insecurity. These organizations must not only ensure that students learn their language well, but also reassure them that the accents and dialects that are an intrinsic part of Canada’s French-speaking communities are a source of wealth that everyone should be proud of. They must encourage the development of Francophone spaces in our communities where young people can not only speak their language, but also live in their language.

Canada is aware of the importance of its French language and culture and is committed to expanding its international profile. Our country’s French-speaking communities give us another perspective on the world and an opportunity to shine on the international stage.

This is why I want to highlight Canada’s prominent role in the International Organisation of La Francophonie (IOF). The fact that our country has four seats on the IOF—Canada, New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec—is very significant. It means that we can put Canada’s linguistic duality on the map and distinguish ourselves internationally in terms of language, culture, the economy, new technologies and international cooperation.

The rise of Canadian society is linked to the promotion of greater visibility and use of the French language, which is spoken by more than 274 million people on five continents. The number of French speakers across the globe is constantly growing.

I’d like to conclude by reiterating that Canada’s French language and culture are an incredibly rich part of its heritage—a heritage that also belongs to its young people.

Thank you for your attention. Please be sure to take some time to visit my office’s booth in the exhibitors’ hall, meet the members of my team and learn about the tools and products we’ve developed for teachers.