Speech for the Campus Saint-Jean Congress

Edmonton, Alberta -
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Hello,

Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge that the lands on which we are gathered are part of Treaty 6 territory, a traditional meeting place and home to many Indigenous peoples, including the Cree, Saulteaux, Blackfoot, Métis and Nakota Sioux.

I’m pleased to have the opportunity to join you to discuss the major issues facing French-language post-secondary education in minority communities. For me, as a Francophone from Manitoba who has long worked in the fields of teaching, research and university administration, this is a subject that is particularly close to my heart.

As you may know, the world of education has faced a number of challenges in recent years. Cuts to some of our post-secondary institutions, including Campus Saint-Jean, and the shortage of teaching staff that institutions are having to deal with are just a few examples.

This reality is troublesome. Learning environments are an essential vehicle for transmitting language, culture, a sense of belonging and identity, all of which are essential to the vitality and development of official language minority communities. Today’s colleges and universities are training tomorrow’s community leaders.

For over a century, Campus Saint-Jean has been one of the pillars of the French‑language post-secondary education network in Western Canada. It plays a crucial role in the overall development of the Franco-Albertan community and offers a variety of French-language programs where demand for such programs is growing.

Unfortunately, the difficulties faced by post-secondary institutions in our French-speaking minority communities are the result of chronic operational and structural underfunding. That’s why we need concrete, long-term solutions that take into account the specific needs of these institutions.

At a time when the population is expressing a desire to learn both official languages and the job market is increasingly demanding bilingual personnel, it is essential to ensure that students can enjoy the same quality of learning as those attending majority language schools. We must strive for substantive equality between minority and majority schools. Both deserve excellence.

Although education is under provincial or territorial jurisdiction, the resources and funding provided by the federal government have a clear impact on these institutions and on learning opportunities in our communities.

Last month’s announcement of nearly $2 million in funding to enable the modernization of Campus Saint-Jean’s facilities and the development of a work experience program with businesses is proof of this.

In fact, I believe that the funds committed in the 2023–2028 Action Plan for Official Languages to support post-secondary education in the minority language are a step in the right direction and demonstrate that efforts in this area are continuing.

That said, Francophone post-secondary institutions in minority communities need the support of all levels of government and senior management so that they can continue to fulfill their mandate and accomplish their mission.

One of the key elements in the vitality of Francophone minority communities is the ability of young people to receive a lifelong education in their first official language. Stable funding and greater collaboration between the federal government and the provinces and territories would help ensure the sustainability of a strong continuum of education, from early childhood to post-secondary education.

This issue should be given serious thought by all levels of government.

When the most recent official languages census data was released in November 2022, we were disappointed to learn that one third of children of rights holders have never attended a French-language school in a minority community. Here in Alberta, half of the 67,000 eligible children have never attended a French-language school.

In 1990, the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in the Mahé case marked an important milestone in the development of Francophone minority communities by recognizing their right to own and manage schools.

The census data show, however, that it’s not enough to have the infrastructure in place. Parents need to know that they have the right to educate their children in the minority language and that it is even in their interest to do so, particularly in a context of increasing exogamy.

Children must also have the opportunity to continue their education in French, even after high school. How many graduates from Francophone minority communities continue their college and university studies in French? How many are lost along the way? The short answer, unfortunately, is that we don’t know. Accurate, reliable and up‑to‑date data for the various regions and for the country as a whole are still not available. It’s a question that needs to be addressed, and I hope that the publication of Statistics Canada’s post-census study toward the end of the year will provide some answers, or at least some avenues of research.

Francophone post-secondary institutions in minority communities must have the necessary funding and resources to offer services and programs that will ensure the recruitment and retention of young people within the Francophone system.

Let’s not lose sight of English-speaking students who speak French as a second language and are looking to continue their studies in French, as well as students from the international Francophonie. They too can contribute to the continued vitality of our institutions.

I was delighted to learn of the opening of the transdisciplinary PhD program at Campus Saint‑Jean. This is excellent news for students wishing to deepen their knowledge in their respective fields and contribute to the advancement of research in French.

Although it’s not new, the issue of research in French continues to preoccupy me, and I believe that it has a certain impact on the sustainability of our French‑language post‑secondary institutions.

Promoting research in French can help highlight French‑language post‑secondary institutions in minority communities. Research “by and for” the Francophonie can also shed light on issues that are important to it, including education.

French-language research must be given greater prominence, both by the federal government and by Francophone researchers themselves, at a time when English is becoming the lingua franca in research and scientific publications in Canada and elsewhere in the world.

Federal granting agencies must take appropriate measures to ensure the full influence of the French language in research across the country and the inclusion of issues specific to the Canadian Francophonie. They must be made more aware of the challenges and obstacles faced by researchers who decide to research and publish in French.

Although there’s still a lot of work to be done, I remain optimistic about the future of Canada’s Francophonie. I think we need to look back at how far we’ve come since the adoption of the Official Languages Act nearly 55 years ago. Every success counts.

The long-awaited modernization of the Act in June 2023 marked the beginning of a new chapter in the history of official languages. I’m confident that we’ll see positive changes throughout Canadian society.

I also welcome the federal government’s commitment to strengthening opportunities for English‑ and French‑speaking minorities to pursue quality formal, non-formal and informal learning in their own language throughout their lives, from early childhood through to post‑secondary education.

Education in Francophone minority communities is a key issue, and the wide‑ranging presentations scheduled for this congress will undoubtedly contribute to the collective reflection that already seems to be well underway.

When it comes to building and supporting access to learning in minority communities, there are many questions to ask: Access to what, in concrete terms, and for whom? How can we work together more effectively to ensure access to diversified, well‑established and attractive programs across the country? How can we best align post-secondary training with the workforce needs of both the job market and the communities themselves?

I have every confidence in your expertise and leadership to initiate thinking in this area and to help meet the challenges we face.

Together, we can build a future where Canadians of all ages have every opportunity to flourish by continuing their learning in the official language of their choice while enriching their province and country.

Thank you for welcoming me and enjoy the congress!