Notes for an address at the Minority Community Vitality Through Education Forum

Montréal, Quebec -
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

I’m delighted to be back in Montréal and to be speaking to you this morning at the first forum organized by the new Inter-Level Education Table. I applaud your commitment to hold biennial community-building forums such as this one. Good research—evidence-based research—is vital to the development of good policy and to community development.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging that Concordia University is located on unceded Indigenous lands. Montréal is the place where the Great Peace of 1701 was signed between the French Crown and 39 indigenous nations. Today, the two Mohawk communities of Kanesatake and Kahnawake are located nearby. The city itself is home to an increasingly diverse population of Indigenous and other peoples. We respect the continued connections with the past, present and future in our ongoing relationships with Indigenous and other peoples within the Montréal community.

I’d like to thank the Quebec English-Speaking Communities Research Network and its coordinator, Lorraine O’Donnell, for inviting me here today. I’d also like to welcome members of the new Inter-Level Educational Table, some of whom I already know and respect, including Marie-Josée Berger of Bishop’s University, Paul Zanazanian of McGill University, Sylvia Martin-Laforge of the Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN); Richard Bourhis of the Université du Québec à Montréal and Martin Durand of Canadian Heritage.

For those of you who don’t know me, I come from Sainte-Anne-des-Chênes, a very small village in Manitoba. When I lived there, the village’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 this right, and as a result of their efforts my brothers had the opportunity to be educated in their mother tongue.

I’ve spent my life studying and defending linguistic duality. Some might say that it’s been a lifelong battle, but I consider it to be my lifelong passion.

That passion has made me the man I am today. I was therefore honoured and proud to be appointed Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages last December.

I have devoted many years of my life to post-secondary teaching, research and administration, including most recently 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, a researcher and administrator at the Université de Saint-Boniface and the Centre d’études franco-canadiennes de l’Ouest in Winnipeg, and director general of the Société franco-manitobaine, which advocates on behalf of the French-speaking community in Manitoba.

As I’ve said before, I am the Commissioner of both official languages, not just one, and I will defend the rights of Quebec’s English-speaking communities with as much energy and resolve as that with which I defend the rights of French-speaking communities outside of Quebec and as that with which I defend the rights of all Canadians.

To do this, I have been and will be travelling back and forth across Canada to engage with researchers, young Canadians, public servants, community leaders and important stakeholders like you.

As I mentioned this past June at QCGN’s annual general meeting, I lived in Montréal—in NDG, actually—in the late 1970s and early 1980s when I was a PhD student in linguistics at McGill. I know all about the age-old stereotype of Anglophones in Quebec being a rich, pampered minority, but nothing could be further from the truth. As someone who grew up outside of Quebec, I can tell you that the perception exists beyond Quebec’s borders: many Canadians don’t even know there is an English-speaking minority in Quebec!

The fact is that this province’s English-speaking minority has a rich historical past that has helped to shape not only modern Quebec, but also modern Canada itself. Whether they are in the Montréal region, on the Lower North Shore, in the Eastern Townships, in the Pontiac or in the Gaspé, your communities are evolving and are an important part of both Quebec and Canadian society.

I know English-speaking Quebecers are sometimes hesitant to identify with Quebec’s collective “nous.” In 2011, Drs. Zanazanian and O’Donnell organized a seminar here at Concordia called “What place should Anglophones have in Quebec’s collective narrative?” It addressed the issue of revisiting Quebec’s historical experience by including Anglophones in the collective narrative without ignoring the weight of past events, while also permitting its diverse society to move forward into the future.

The seminar was regarded as a sign of progress and an indication that Quebec might be ready to move forward toward rediscovering neglected parts of its history through the experiences and stories of its English-speaking communities, especially their positive impact on the development of both Quebec and Canada.

Collective narratives continually reinvent themselves through the telling of new stories. Canada needs to see and hear the stories—on movie screens, on television, on the radio and on-line—of Anglophones growing up in a majority French-speaking province, whether in an urban, suburban or rural environment. This is how a new, more nuanced reflection on the past can make its way into the collective consciousness.

Generally speaking, English-speaking Quebec has been represented in homogeneous, simplistic, and oppositional terms, possibly mirroring a generalized Francophone historical consciousness rife with memories of negative historical experiences with the Anglophone “other.”

On a related note, Quebec’s “two solitudes” often speak at cross purposes when considering their respective fates in the province. Francophones are more concerned about the fate of their own language relative to the spread of English, and Anglophones are more concerned about the decline of their community development relative to the Francophone majority.

What we need is a narrative that includes the positive role that official language minority communities, both English and French, have played in the history of Canada’s linguistic duality. As English-speaking Quebecers, you have so much to be proud of in terms of your collective history; your many contributions to Quebec’s cultural, social, political and economic development, and your critical role in making this country of Canada possible.

Indeed, throughout our history, it has often been the official language minority communities who have done the most to foster mutual understanding and cross-cultural co-operation between English-and French-speaking Canadians, and to encourage the two linguistic majorities to recognize the rights of the minorities in their midst.

Franco-Ontarian politician and minority rights advocate Aurélien Bélanger put it well a century ago when he spoke about the role of the official language minority communities: “[We] are, so to speak, the link, the missing link, in the evolution . . . which must come if there is ever going to be a Canadian nationality worthy of the name.”

It was in this spirit that Charles Howard, an English-speaking-Quebecer and the Member of Parliament for Sherbrooke, stood up in the House of Commons in 1927 to support Henri Bourassa’s call for a bilingual federal public service. It was high time, argued the Townshipper, for the government to recognize what were, in his words, “the two official languages of Canada.”

Perceptions are influenced by history. But the reverse is also true. History—or rather, our understanding of the past—is influenced by perceptions.

When the government of Quebec introduced a new history curriculum in 2016 that was more markedly nationalist in tone than the previous one, English-speaking community leaders advocated for unhappy educators who were caught between their new pedagogical demands and curriculum omissions that had a bearing on what Quebec students were being taught to think about Anglophones and other minorities. Some changes have since been made to the curriculum, and more are being sought.

I can certainly identify with those curriculum frustrations. When I was young, the school I went to in rural Manitoba had a social-studies book called My British Heritage, even though none of my or my French classmates’ family or ancestors had come from the United Kingdom.

Historically, French-language schools outside of Quebec have been important cornerstones of Francophone community vitality. This has taken on even more significance since the adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 and the subsequent expansion of French-language schools across Canada, along with recognition of community management and control of educational instruction and facilities.

Quebec’s English-speaking community has not had the same experience. English-language schools have been well-established in communities throughout its history, so there has been no need to strengthen the ties between the community and its educational institutions. So, what now? What about your collective community, which is a much younger minority in spirit and self-awareness than the French-speaking minority communities outside of Quebec?

In my view, the increasingly accepted view that schools and school boards have a certain responsibility in terms of broader community vitality is a sign of growing political maturity and policy sophistication.

The past 35 years’ experience of French-language schools outside of Quebec may offer some helpful insights—in terms or community vitality—for the future of English-language schools in Quebec.

As most of you know, thanks to the 1982 Charter, hundreds of thousands of young French-speaking Canadians outside of Quebec have had the opportunity to go to school in their language, something that was difficult to do in the past and, despite the progress that’s been made, continues to be an issue in some regions even today.

Cases taken to court by official language minority communities play an essential role in defining and defending language rights in Canada. Over the years, court cases involving education rights—such as Mahe, Arsenault-Cameron, Doucet-Boudreau, Solski and Rose-des-Vents—have helped define the scope of the rights of the communities concerned.

For example, let’s look at the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1990 decision in the Mahe case. The Court recognized the right of parents belonging to the linguistic minority to manage their own educational institutions where numbers warrant. This decision was an important milestone in the development of French-language minority communities because it clarified the scope of their right to have their own schools and to manage them.

Another example is the Doucet-Boudreau case, in which the Supreme Court of Canada retained its jurisdiction to monitor the Nova Scotia government’s progress in building a French-language school.

More recently, in the case involving the French-language school in Saint-Paul-de-Kent, the Court of Queen’s Bench of New Brunswick denied the decision of the former Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development to close the school, ruling that the right to do so rests with the school board. What happens next remains to be seen, as the provincial government announced that it will appeal the decision.

Closer to home, in Quebec, we’re seeing how the relationship between schools and communities is changing. In addition to the recent changes to the history curriculum, there was also the tabling of Bill 86 by the then Liberal government in December 2015, which proposed to eliminate school board elections in their current form. Education advocates reached out to the communities for help in protesting against the bill, and QCGN was instrumental in helping to mobilize community and media opposition to Bill 86. In May of 2016, the Government of Quebec withdrew the bill.

Fast-forward to today, more than two years later. The Liberals were defeated in the October 1 election and have been replaced by François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ). And the new majority CAQ government has publicly said that it wants to abolish school boards altogether and replace them with service centres, controlled by parents.

I trust, however, that this is an issue that will once again see education advocates working together with the communities in the shared interest of community vitality in its broadest sense. In the interests of fairness and prudence, I will wait until the new government releases more detailed information before commenting further.

Of course, there’s also the issue of teachers, the need for a recruitment strategy for qualified teachers and, in the case of Quebec’s English-speaking communities, the need for qualified French second-language (FSL) teachers.

Some English-language schools in Quebec have strong enrolment; however, others are facing enrolment challenges.

One of those challenges is ensuring access to strong FSL education in Quebec’s English school system. Because French is a required subject, enrolment in FSL programs in Quebec’s English-language schools is the highest in the country, at 100%, as is enrolment in French immersion, at 32%. However, Quebec is the only province that has seen an overall decline in French immersion enrolment rates over the past five years, dropping from 36% in 2011–2012 to 32% in 2015–2016. Reports and survey data suggest that parents want their children to graduate with strong language skills in French in order to improve their career opportunities and to encourage them to remain in Quebec. Parents are also concerned that FSL programs in English-language schools are not meeting the demand, and so some are choosing to enroll their children in French-language schools. This may result in children who attended French-language schools in Quebec losing their constitutional right to send their own children to English-language minority schools. This is a problem for the English education sector.

FSL teachers are still in high demand in both the English and French school boards of Quebec, which sometimes compete for the same pool of teachers. This is because some French school boards must provide FSL classes to enable immigrant and refugee children to reach a required level of French language proficiency. English and French school boards also provide French language training to immigrant and refugee adults to help them integrate into Quebec society and the workforce. Additional competition for FSL teachers also comes from other educational institutions, such as universities, CEGEPs and community organizations that offer FSL classes to meet the increasing demand.

Research recently conducted for my office suggests that, at least in some English school boards in Quebec, a political stigma can be attached to teaching in English school boards. And FSL teaching candidates aren’t always aware that English school boards don’t require them to be fluent in English, which is a real issue because some might be dissuaded from even applying to teach FSL in English school boards. In some cases, English school boards have had to hire native French speakers who are not necessarily fully certified as second language teachers, because of a shortage of FSL teachers and the misperception that being able to speak French is all that’s required to teach French.

There is a need for all levels of government, faculties of education and school boards to work together in order to ensure that sound strategies are developed for addressing the FSL teacher shortage, including here in Quebec.

English-language schools in Quebec and French-language schools outside of Quebec are not language monoliths. Francophone children account for 25% of enrolment in Quebec’s English-language schools. That has helped keep some English schools open in parts of Quebec outside of Montréal, but it has also complicated the challenge of identity construction in those schools.

In the coming months and through 2019 and beyond, I’m looking forward to visiting the different regions of Quebec—and getting into the schools, too. There are English-speaking communities and schools that I am eager to learn more about in the Outaouais, Abitibi and Montérégie regions; in the Laurentians and the Eastern Townships; in the Lower St. Lawrence region; in Québec City, the Gaspé and the Magdalen Islands; and on the North Shore and the Lower North Shore.

My job as an agent of Parliament is to promote official languages and to protect the language rights of Canadians. To that end, I’ll be focusing on the following three priorities in the coming years.

First, I’ll be encouraging federal institutions to develop an improved understanding of the factors for success in terms of official languages so that they can break down the barriers that are preventing the objectives of the Official Languages Act from being met.

Second, I want to make sure that the new Action Plan for Official Languages 2018–2023: Investing in Our Future achieves its expected outcomes. As I’ve said before, I still have concerns about roles and responsibilities, which are not clear in the Action Plan. The governance structure still needs to be clarified, and accountability measures need to be defined.

And third, I’ll be calling for the government to effect a meaningful modernization of the Official Languages Act so that it reflects both Canada’s legacy and its future. My office launched its review of the modernization of the Act in the summer of 2017 and has increased its efforts in recent months to ensure ongoing discussions with key stakeholders. When the Act turns 50 in 2019, I’m confident that it will have been updated to reflect the myriad changes that have occurred in Canadian society.

In 2019, the Act will be looking toward the future, and it’s clear that that future belongs to our youth. The last major overhaul of the Act took place long before the Internet, social media and the birth of today’s younger generation―the famous millennials. Now more than ever, young people are demanding respect for Canada’s linguistic duality.

They imagine a country where it will be normal to live in English and French; they believe that the federal government needs to lead the way in making this idea a reality; and they have a genuine desire to learn about each other’s cultures. The tide has turned, and Canada needs to continue to be a leader and a beacon of progress in terms of linguistic duality and support for official language communities.

I’ll leave you on that note and thank you for your attention. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask them in the official language of your choice.