Officially 50! A Conference Marking 50 Years of Linguistic Duality and Education in Canada - Youth component

Gatineau, Quebec -
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Good morning, and thank you for being here.

I am delighted to be here with you this morning as we kick off the youth component of our summit. We have a busy day ahead of us!

This conference marks half a century of the Official Languages Act, the evolution of linguistic duality and the advancement of education in both of Canada’s official languages. Together, we will talk about our realities, our challenges and our path forward into the future—your future.

I’d like to congratulate Canadian Parents for French for a very successful day yesterday: many thanks to all those, near and far, who contributed to that success. I’d also like to thank all of you who travelled from afar to join us this morning.

Whether teachers, young professionals, professors or researchers, we are all concerned about language issues. What value do we place on official languages in Canada? What are the consequences when language rights are not respected? What is the connection with identity? What place do we give to youth? These are issues that I deal with on a daily basis as Commissioner of Official Languages and that we, as a society, must consider.

Today, we will revisit the past, but we will also consider the future of linguistic duality and your vision as young Canadians. Later, there will be a fun trivia game to test your knowledge of history. Don’t worry, everyone can play—you don’t need an archaeology degree!

So, on the agenda we have a series of workshops on key topics such as official languages and artificial intelligence, multiculturalism, history, post-secondary education, employment opportunities and access to services in the minority language. I look forward to learning more about you and hearing what you have to say!

These discussions will cover some very hot topics:

  • Linguistic duality, multiple identities and historical memory. What is linguistic duality, or official bilingualism? What do these concepts and the languages themselves mean to you and how do they factor in to your identity? How does the history of linguistic duality and official languages relate to the history of your family, your community and Canada more broadly? How can linguistic duality be linked to the process of Aboriginal reconciliation and the preservation and promotion of Aboriginal languages? We will need to address those issues.
  • Linguistic (in)security, day-to-day language use, mental health and belonging. How can young people be encouraged to feel more secure in their day-to-day use of the minority language—at home, in public, with friends, at school and at work? As I’ve often said, the varieties of French and English in Canada are closely connected to the social reality of the communities that speak them. Our accents have no bearing on the meanings of words. Sadly, many are afraid of being judged on the quality of their language or on their accent. But no language ever achieves constant perfection.
  • Access to first- and second-language education and to services in the minority language; language and employment, and access to economic opportunity. Do younger Canadians have meaningful access to first- and second-language education and to services in the minority language where they live? These are legitimate questions I’ve talked about a number of times. Access to FSL education—another issue I care deeply about—is fraught with obstacles. It is 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.

I need to hear your views and ideas, so I’m counting on you to get the conversation going.

This morning, I’d like to take a look back on the past 50 years. I think it’s important to think about how far we’ve come and about the successes and challenges we’ve experienced since the Act was passed in 1969.

Half a century ago this year, the passing of the first Official Languages Act, which stemmed from the recommendations of the 1963 Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, forever changed the face of Canada.

Let’s take a moment to put things into perspective. The year the Act was passed—1969—was a year of historic achievements, both in Canada and abroad. Just days after the Act had made its way through the legislative process, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.

Now, although the Act did represent a giant leap for Canadian language policy in 1969, unlike the moon landing, it was rather more down to earth as a historic event. The Act was, and still is, part of a broader movement to recognize the rights of Canadians and work toward a more democratic society.

Looking back, we can see that the 1969 Act was born in a time of hope, a time when rights were being recognized. It was also born in a time of crisis. The B&B Commission was created in response to what was perhaps the greatest national unity crisis in Canada’s history. As the late Gérard Pelletier said, “Our common goal, our common work, will be to connect all members of our official communities to the French-speaking world, on the one hand, and to ensure that we are, by doing so, reuniting Canada, on the other hand.”

French-speaking Canadians from across the country, and particularly from Quebec, had grown understandably frustrated at the socio-economic inequality that separated them from English-speaking Canadians. They were also frustrated by the fact that they were still underrepresented within the federal administration and that they continued to have to deal with a government that did not serve them in their own language, as it did for their Anglophone counterparts.

Both literally and figuratively, their elected government did not speak to them. Not to mention that some English-speaking Canadians, especially in the western part of the country where several languages were spoken, considered the B&B Commission to be but an attempt to impose French on a population that didn’t want it.

It is in this context that the successes and the ongoing challenges of the Act must be viewed.

We have looked into the past, but it is also important to consider the future. Will there be visionaries and ambassadors in the federal government and in Canadian society to defend the cause and celebrate official languages for the next 50 years? It is my only hope, because in order for linguistic duality to be something that brings us together, Canada’s official languages must claim their rightful place across this country. And the very future of linguistic duality depends on the opportunity to become bilingual.

Both official languages, English and French, are at the heart of our Canadian identity. They are at 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.

Let’s talk about youth involvement now. Young people have been a force of change over the decades and played a critical role in helping to maintain and promote our country’s linguistic duality. Their experiences are an inspiration for all those who are currently engaged in promoting Canada’s two official languages. More than ever, we need the voice of young people to shape the future of linguistic duality in Canada. In the late 1930s, the bilingual Canadian Youth Congress 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.”

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.

For those who don’t know me, I come from Sainte Anne des Chênes, a very small village in Manitoba, just outside Winnipeg.

When I lived there, the village’s population was 100% French Canadian, and yet there was no French school for me to go to. 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. It was a different era.

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 person I am today. I was therefore honoured and proud to be appointed Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages.

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.

We’ve come a long way in the past 50 years. In an increasingly diverse Canada, there are more people in the country today than ever before who speak English, French or both of our official languages.

Young Canadians have led the way in bilingualism, and the continuing demand across the country for education in French, either as a first or second language, says a lot about the vitality of this language.

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.

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 results of your learning will be invaluable!

To sum up, linguistic duality is a fundamentally Canadian value. Respecting and strengthening that duality depend greatly on our ability to promote the development of strong and engaged communities. By investing in the future, in young people and in communities, we are ensuring the continuation and vitality of Canada’s official languages. Linguistic duality has triumphed at different times in Canada’s history. As José Rizal, one of the 20th century’s great linguists, said, “The youth is the hope of our future.”

Thank you for your attention. Now, it’s time for trivia!