Open letter: When making budget decisions, think about our children’s future

Having two official languages is what sets Canada apart as an open and inclusive society. English and French make Canada greater than the sum of its parts by promoting national unity, helping to raise our profile on the international stage, and creating opportunities for our children to learn and grow by opening them up to another language and another way of thinking.

Access to second language education is key to fostering this linguistic duality. It’s an issue I care deeply about, especially in the current context.

French-as-a-second-language (FSL) has been taught in English Canadian schools for over a century. Canada’s first French immersion program also predates the Official Languages Act. The St. Lambert Bilingual Study Group, started by a group of courageous mothers in 1965, was a springboard for French immersion programs in schools. These parents shared a vision for an education system in which their children could learn a second language.

Unfortunately, in recent years, we have seen cuts to provincial budgets that have had a direct impact on bilingualism and the promotion of official languages in Canada. The Toronto District School Board’s response, which would affect FSL programs at a number of levels, is only one highly visible example of what is happening in various parts of the country.

The proposed cuts and limited access to FSL programs are worrisome and are a serious threat for parents who want to take advantage of these programs. For many students, these barriers have a profound impact on their future, as they will not be able to learn a second language in the classroom.

The future of linguistic duality in Canada is also affected. We know that learning a second official language often involves the education system, and any measure that reduces access to FSL education programs, such as lottery systems for enrollment and the complete cancellation of French immersion programs, is detrimental to bilingualism in the country. These proposals clearly run counter to the objective of the Action Plan for Official Languages aimed at increasing the national bilingualism rate to 20% by 2036.

Currently, in Canada, there are more than 1.7 million young people in various FSL programs, including nearly 450,000 in French immersion. Enrollments have continued to increase over time.

Canadians strongly support learning both official languages: eight out of ten Canadians agree that more effort is needed to ensure that young people can become bilingual and that provincial governments should offer more spaces in immersion programs (2016 Nielsen survey). What we have seen on the ground supports this data, as evidenced by the popularity of immersion programs throughout the country. Some parents are even willing to camp outside of schools so that they can enrol their children in these limited programs.

So why respond to immediate budget pressures by targeting a program that is so highly sought after and so much in demand across the country? I am calling on Ministers of Education across the country to think about the future of our young people and to implement policies that promote second-official-language learning. These play a key role in contributing to this shared vision and in fostering the development of bilingualism in Canada, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Official Languages Act.

I spent a large part of my career in school and post-secondary administration. Therefore, I am familiar with some of the difficult decisions that need to be made from time to time. But I also know that the best solutions often emerge from open dialogue with parents and learners. It is my hope that ministries of education and school boards will take the time to have this conversation.

Raymond Théberge is the Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada. In February, he released a study on the national shortage of FSL teachers.