Commissioner’s Speech at the Summit of the Atlantic Region Association of Immigrant Serving Agencies: Navigating Disruption and the Future of Settlement

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

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Thank you for your introduction and for inviting me to speak with you today.

I would like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we gather is the traditional unceded territory of the Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) and Mi’kmaq peoples.

More and more, I am seeing this coming together of different levels of government, academia and experts from various sectors to pool knowledge and help tackle the issues of our times. We’ve been talking about the constancy of change for over a decade, and, increasingly, it seems that beyond change, disruption is the new normal. We are living in volatile times—times that require us to collaborate, share our expertise and figure out the best way to forge ahead.

And so, I am delighted to participate in this important event to learn from you and to share some insights related to the current and future context for our official languages, as well as offer some information from recent research from my Office on immigration and on Canadians’ views on official bilingualism and diversity, in particular.

This is a transformational time for official languages in Canada. The Official Languages Act was adopted in 1969 and is the product of the social and political movement of that decade. It has helped us achieve many things over the past 50 years, but is in sore need of an update. I’m very pleased that the new version of the long-awaited bill to modernize the Official Languages Act has been tabled and is now a reality. It is promising that in the new bill, the Government of Canada recognizes the importance of the contribution of Francophone immigration to enhancing the vitality of Francophone minority communities, because without it they cannot thrive.

Our official languages are experienced differently throughout Canada and over time. One might therefore think that this makes the value of Canadian bilingualism rather weak and intangible for the 38 million Canadians who live together in the second largest country in the world.

Well, let me reassure you. My Office recently mandated Environics to conduct a Canada-wide survey on support for official languages. The result? 87% of Canadians support the Official Languages Act. These findings are consistent with research from 2016, which shows that public support for our country’s official languages is resilient over time and that official bilingualism continues to be a core value for Canadians. The Commissioner of Official Languages of New Brunswick conducted a separate survey and arrived at similar results: 81% of New Brunswickers, from all regions of the province, support the concept of the Official Languages Act and bilingualism.

Another very interesting finding from our national survey is the positive relationship between our official languages and diversity. Most Canadians agree that having two official languages, instead of just one, “sends the signal that Canada values linguistic diversity” and that it “has made Canada a more welcoming place for immigrants from different cultures.1" And, fortunately, today, most Canadians agree that Canada can and should promote both official languages and Indigenous languages at the same time1.

So, public opinion results bode well for the complementary respect of official languages and Indigenous languages, and for welcoming newcomers to our vast country. This is good news at a time when we all need some!

Immigration has a direct influence on the linguistic balance between English-speakers and French-speakers in Canada outside Quebec. According to the 2001 Census, the French-speaking population outside Quebec represented 4.4% of Canada’s population, and an immigration target was set nearly 20 years ago with the goal of maintaining the demographic weight of that population. Today, that original 4.4% target has still not been met. Between 2008 and 2020, the shortfall in admissions of French-speaking permanent residents to Francophone minority communities is upwards of 75,000 people. It’s significant.

Beyond admitting French-speaking immigrants into Canada, there are many factors other than immigration that can affect the demographic weight of language groups, including birth rates and aging, language use, and interregional migration. Francophone minority communities across Canada, and right here in the Atlantic provinces, are impacted by all of these factors.

We know that Eastern Canada has a higher proportion of older generations than the rest of the country2. The same is true in Francophone minority communities; in fact, the senior population in these communities in P.E.I. and Nova Scotia is especially reliant on a smaller number of working-aged people3.

Of course, there have been some interesting immigration trends related to the pandemic. For the first time since the 1940s, the population of the Maritimes grew at a faster pace than that of the Prairie provinces, due to rising immigration levels and an influx of Canadians migrating from other parts of the country4. We’ll likely not understand the real implications of these dynamics for Francophone communities in Atlantic Canada for some years, though it is definitely a topic worthy of research!

After their arrival, in order for French-speaking newcomers to the Atlantic provinces to successfully settle in French-speaking communities, they require support, whether it be for employment, education, health or other community services in French. They need to see that there is a viable future for themselves and their families in French.

Without support and strong Francophone communities in the Atlantic provinces, newcomers are likely to seek out more bilingual, urban centres, move to Quebec, or feel compelled to start a life as part of the Anglophone majority community. And it’s well known that once newcomers make the decision to live in English, it’s more often than not a one-way decision. That can have long-lasting impacts on the vitality of Francophone minority communities, especially in more rural and less populated areas.

It’s reassuring to see numerous initiatives across the country, and here in the Atlantic provinces, to specifically support immigration to Francophone minority communities, who are keen to attract, welcome and support all newcomers.

The federal government’s Welcoming Francophone Communities initiative includes the Haut-Saint-Jean region in New Brunswick, Clare in Nova Scotia, the Evangeline region in P.E.I. and Labrador City-Wabush in Newfoundland and Labrador5. These communities work to welcome and support French-speaking newcomers to help ensure that they feel at home in their new community. And they continued to innovate and provide services throughout the pandemic. We need to see more communities offering these services to help their populations grow and thrive.

I fundamentally believe that our languages enrich the regions in which they are spoken and that, in practical terms, they offer new social, cultural and economic opportunities. This is why it is critical that new immigration contribute to the vitality of Francophone minority communities as we further grow our population in the Atlantic provinces.

With low birth rates and aging communities in the Atlantic provinces, attracting diverse Francophone youth can be a way to breathe new life into the region’s rural and urban areas, and help secure their economic future. I look forward to learning more today about artificial intelligence related to immigration to better understand concerns around selection bias, as well as its potential to help official language minority communities grow and thrive.

Our official languages are a legacy of our past, but they are resolutely geared toward the future and continue to represent a political and social project that is unifying, optimistic and inclusive.

Thank you for your attention.