Notes for an address at the 4th Congress of the Réseau francophone de sociolinguistique

Ottawa, Ontario -
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.

I’m delighted to be speaking to you today.

I would like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we are gathered is part of the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishnaabeg people, an Indigenous people of the Ottawa Valley. For thousands of years, they have lived, hunted, traded and travelled here. We pay our respects to the First Nation ancestors of this land and reaffirm our relationships with one another.

Whether linguists, teachers, translators or researchers, we’re all language professionals, and I’m honoured to be here with you. I think the theme of this year’s congress is very apropos, considering what’s been happening lately. “Languages of value and the value of languages.” What are the consequences when language rights are not respected? What is the connection with identity? These are issues that I deal with on a daily basis as Commissioner of Official Languages.

I have devoted many years of my life to post-secondary teaching, research and administration, notably in Winnipeg and at the Université de Moncton in New Brunswick, the largest French-language university in Canada outside Quebec.

I’ve spent my life studying and defending linguistic duality. That passion has made me the person I am today. As Commissioner of Official Languages, one of my key roles is to promote linguistic duality in Canadian society. As an agent of Parliament, my job is to promote official languages and protect Canadians’ language rights. As Commissioner, I’m also responsible for ensuring the vitality of official language minority communities and for monitoring compliance with the Official Languages Act, which turns 50 this year.

Language rights are a topic of great interest to many researchers and institutes, both here at home and abroad. This is because there are many countries that have linguistic minorities. Look at the members of the International Association of Language Commissioners, for example, which include commissioners and ombudsmen from Ireland, Wales, Belgium, Kosovo, Catalonia, and the Basque Country.

However, although a great deal of research has been conducted on this subject over the years, it’s still not enough.

I’m speaking to the young researchers in the room, who are considering a career outside of academia. Your work is essential to the future of Canadian language policy. Our country, our communities and our federal public service need your skills and knowledge.

We need to help decision makers develop a more nuanced understanding of what the vitality of linguistic minorities means, of what it’s like in their communities and of what they need as a community—things that researchers like you can measure through advanced data analyses that link language to the numerous factors that influence the vitality of communities, including youth, employment, income, occupation and education.

Increasing globalization means that more and more experts are taking a serious look at linguistic pluralism. There is a growing international awareness of the need to preserve linguistic diversity. This awareness is part of the perspective of “sustainable development,” a term used in environmental law and economics that applies and pertains equally to culture and languages.

Fundamentally, the issue of language rights is the cultural heritage of humanity. As former United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said, “language and society are inseparable because language is the main conduit of culture and history, the vital element in our vision of the world and of humanity.” [translation]

Those who know me know that I grew up in a Francophone community on the Prairies and that I’ve worked and lived all over Canada, from coast to coast to coast. I therefore consider myself lucky to have been able to live the Canadian experience in a variety of ways, each with its own unique character and challenges.

I believe that the Canadian experience is a sociolinguistic phenomenon.

Canada and the rest of the world have seen dramatic changes demographically, socially and technologically over the past 50 years. Now more than ever, we demand respect for Canada’s linguistic duality, and we all have a role to play in achieving this vision.

The growth of Canadian society depends on the ties that we establish, particularly as we promote the increased use and visibility of official languages across Canada. Together, we can play a unifying role. Because linguistic duality lies at the heart of the Canadian value of inclusion, it has helped to turn our diversity and our differences into strengths on which we must build.

Let’s turn to the Official Languages Act. We have achieved many milestones since the Act was passed in 1969. To this day, our two official languages are a fundamental characteristic of the Canadian identity. My actions and those of my office focus mainly on providing encouragement and guidance to federal institutions so that they fully meet their responsibilities in complying with the Act. I like to say that official languages are part of Canadians’ DNA because linguistic duality has always been part of our history.

For almost a century, the world has looked to Canada as a leader in linguistic duality. During the interwar period, the bilingualism of Canadian diplomats and their advocacy for minority rights earned them the respect and admiration of their fellow League of Nations members. As then Minister of Justice and Canadian diplomat Ernest Lapointe said, “To unite and build a great nation, the world must know that two languages, English and French, are spoken here, and these languages are a source of pride for anyone.” Now there’s a quote that reflects our theme today!

Although not without its share of challenges, Canada’s public service is a source of pride and the envy of our international partners. In 2017, Canada ranked at the top of a new effectiveness index. Our public service reflects our country’s linguistic duality and provides services to Canadians in the official language of their choice. The complaints I receive show that we still have some work to do, but looking back over 50 years, we’ve made remarkable progress.

Canada’s unique duality has changed over time, and many advancements have been made throughout the years. Official language minority communities are better supported, and linguistic duality is valued by the vast majority of Canadians.

In a 2016 Nielsen survey, 9 out of 10 Canadians agreed that English and French should be taught in all elementary schools in Canada, and 79% of English-speaking respondents who could speak French said that they had learned the language in elementary or high school. According to survey respondents, limited access to language instruction is the main obstacle to learning the other official language.

It was with this in mind that I released my Accessing Opportunity study last winter. The study looked at the challenges in French-as-a-second-language (FSL) teacher supply and demand in Canada. The federal government has committed $62.6 million in funding to recruit and retain teachers in Francophone minority schools and in FSL education programs. It also recently announced its intention to adopt a national strategy that will include a permanent FSL consultation table.

Access to FSL education—an issue I care deeply about—is fraught with obstacles. It’s my duty to draw attention to these obstacles and to help further develop the strategies that have resulted from discussions initiated by a group of professionals who have been studying the issue. My office commissioned Canadian Parents for French to put together a group of seasoned experts to conduct the Accessing Opportunity study.

French as a second language has been taught in 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. The 1970s and 1980s then saw a significant jump in enrolment in French immersion.

Coming back to the present, the research of Rodrigue Landry, a respected professor and researcher, tends to show that if an English-speaking Canadian wants to become bilingual, the best thing to do is to enrol in an immersion program.

In 2015–2016, 450,000 students were enrolled in French immersion programs across the country, compared to 360,000 in 2011–2012, an increase of nearly 25% in just five years—and at a time when the total student population stayed more or less the same.

After decades of exponential growth, school boards are having trouble finding enough qualified teachers. Like Mr. Landry, I think that the best way for Francophones in minority communities to become perfectly bilingual (and still keep their mother tongue) is to go to a French-language school.

Landry also said that the situation is even more encouraging for children from exogamous families in Francophone minority communities. In cases where the child speaks French to the Francophone parent and English to the Anglophone parent, while going to school and participating in activities only in French, his or her language level will be at the same level as that of a child whose parents are both Francophone.

My job is to protect the language rights of all Canadians, and equal access to justice in both official languages is an issue that I’ve been focusing on.

As you all know, Canada’s legislative framework and those of its provinces and territories guarantee, at least in principle, Canadians’ formal language rights before the courts.

Unfortunately, in seeking justice, Canadians who speak the official language of the linguistic minority all too often come up against barriers that force them to plead their case or testify in the language of the majority, despite their fundamental rights.

Advancing language rights—whether by intervening before the courts, conducting investigations, releasing studies, appearing before parliamentary committees or giving speeches at conferences—has been a priority for every commissioner of official languages for nearly 50 years now.

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 have led to positive results for a number of official language communities.

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.

Our official languages are the foundation of our society’s diversity and inclusion. They are at the heart of our identity, as evidenced by the languages of our institutions, our democracy, our schools, our universities, our public spaces and our business community.

The Official Languages Act has helped us accomplish many things over the past 50 years: more equitable representation of Canada’s two language communities within the federal government; better access to federal services in both official languages; promotion of English and French in Canadian society; and support for the development of official language minority communities. However, challenges are emerging from all sides, and the Act as we know it is no longer up to the job.

This is why we need a true modernization of the Act—so that official languages can thrive in today’s Canada today and in our country’s future. We need a modernized Act that fosters the vitality of linguistic minorities and guides federal institutions in complying with their duties to the Canadian public. The Act is part of Canadians’ collective memory and represents the very foundation of the social contract that unites us.

In 2019, the Act will be looking toward the future, and it’s clear that the 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 generations—the famous millennials and the new Gen Z. 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.

Our unity is fragile, however. Lack of vigilance has led to complacency, which has in turn led to the erosion of language rights. The less we talk about it, the more erosion will occur. But Canada needs to work on its own advancement as a nation. The recent actions of some governments are alarming, yet the greatest threat to Canada’s linguistic duality is indifference. What value do we place on official languages in Canada? This year’s theme is apt, indeed.

Linguistic duality is not just for Francophones, nor is it just for Anglophones in Quebec. It’s a valuable asset that belongs to all Canadians.

Both official languages, English and French, are at the heart of our Canadian identity. They are at the core of our history. Together with Indigenous languages, Canada’s true first languages, they are the foundation of the values of diversity and inclusion in our society. Indigenous languages are an important part of Canada’s cultural landscape. In the spirit of reconciliation and in accordance with the fundamental values that unite them, all Canadians can support their country's first languages and their country’s official languages.

Linguistic duality is a powerful symbol of openness, empathy and respect. It is also still fertile ground for research. And so, I’m passing it over to you, the researchers of tomorrow. I am confident that your thirst for knowledge and the fruits of your labours will be invaluable!

Thank you for your attention.