ARCHIVED - Ottawa, September 10, 2009

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Notes for an address at the Annual General Meeting of the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada

Graham Fraser – Commissioner of Official Languages

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Dear friends,

We do not often have the opportunity to celebrate a 40-year milestone that is such an important part of all of our lives. It is therefore timely that we take part in various exciting events this week as part of the 40th anniversary of the Official Languages Act, and assess our progress in making Canada an ideal place for linguistic duality.

To this effect, my office has collaborated with the Association for Canadian Studies to organise the symposium on the Act that was held yesterday and today. I hope that some of you were able to participate. I also hope that you were able to visit our exhibition of political cartoons on the theme of 40 years of language policy in Canada that is currently underway at Library and Archives Canada. These drawings are meant to make visitors smile, but also reflect on the evolution of language policies. Of course, reactions vary from one person to another. For many of you, these drawings might be bittersweet since they remind you of the objectives Canadians had originally set: what the country could and should have been by 2009. Today, these objectives have still not yet been achieved in their entirety.

Nonetheless, these drawings will have allowed us to witness the evolution that has taken place since 1969. As Acadians like to remind themselves, we are no longer in Mayor Jones’ era!

The country’s capital has also changed. As the official languages bill was being debated in Parliament, a young Francophone arriving in Ottawa would have found an unwelcoming city with little or no opportunities for development to match his or her ambitions. Although the City of Ottawa had a strong Francophone minority, City Hall had nevertheless banned French signage. In the federal government, Francophones were barely visible in positions of power and were still overrepresented in support positions in the public service and the service sector. Despite a Francophone prime minister and two very important Cabinet ministers—Trudeau, Marchand and Pelletier, known as the “Three Wise Men”—there were still very few Francophone deputy ministers or senior officials.

In the past 40 years, Canada has partly reconciled with the Francophone side of its identity. Today, over 150 languages are spoken here, some of which go back hundreds of years and even precede the very origins of the country. But it is also a country whose bilingual and bijural character is derived from the law, as well as a strong political, social and institutional consensus. It goes without saying that a person who aspires to hold a senior management position in the federal public service or to become a senior politician should be prepared to communicate directly with citizens in the official language of their choice. Although this is not an absolute necessity for private sector heads, bilingualism is certainly an important asset. The fact that demand for French immersion studies surpasses the 300,000 spots available is a clear indication that Canadian parents understand the great deal of promise the future holds for bilingual people and they want their children to share in it.

Most Canadians also know that they can communicate with their government and receive public services in the official language of their choice. Obviously, you also know that, in reality, there are a number of problems with the system. The 382 complaints received last year concerning service to the public attest to these shortcomings.

In the eyes of the FCFA, which has unwaveringly and staunchly protected the rights of Francophone and Acadian communities since 1975, we have come a long way and should be proud of that. Nevertheless, like you, I recognize that there is still a long way to go before we will be able to say that things are perfect.

You are all aware of our annual report on the failures and shortcomings, but also the best practices, of institutions subject to the Official Languages Act. Issues are still more numerous and more serious than we would like to see, and most of the time, they tend to come at the expense of Francophones. So, we appear to have reached a plateau following the relatively rapid progress achieved in the first few decades after the introduction of the Act. Many of you have told me that what is needed is a serious reflection on official languages policy in order to break the current plateau and tackle certain problems that have persisted for 40 years. It is hard to disagree with this fact. The country has changed, as has the relationship between the government and its citizens. I hope the 40th anniversary of the Official Languages Act will provide an opportunity for the actors involved to dare to be innovative and take things a step further.

When I was appointed Commissioner, I said that I would use all the tools at my disposal. For example, sometimes it is necessary to appear before the courts, as in the DesRochers case. This recent, important ruling clearly underscored the need for the government to seek out greater involvement of the official language communities in the development and delivery of programs and services. It now serves as a tool for communities and a reference for institutions. From now on, they will have to ensure that their language obligations are met and that there is greater involvement on the part of these communities. The DesRochers case is often referred to as a victory for the country’s Francophones. I think that it is also an indication that the interaction between the courts, citizens and members of Parliament is beginning to paint a clearer picture of the federal government’s obligations to official language communities and of the nature of the communities themselves.

Such rulings are important in shedding light on the language issues in Canada. It is not easy to always have to claim our rights, and some grow weary of the constant battle. Sometimes, we get into a vicious circle where we no longer exercise the rights for which we fought so hard, a difficult reality for minority communities. This is why I proudly recognize the efforts of the Assemblée de la francophonie de l’Ontario for its Dis « Services en français »! campaign, which clearly demonstrates a positive way to encourage Francophones in Ottawa, Sudbury and Toronto to use the services that are available to them. But such efforts are not limited to these cities. Moncton, Winnipeg and Eastern Ontario have made giant strides in increasing the offer of services in French, which is certainly very good news. This is a trend that I hope will continue to spread in the years to come, to all parts of the country where Francophones live.

However, I am concerned when I see young Francophones frequently choose to pursue their university studies in English. I do not believe that this is because they have less of an attachment to the Francophone or Acadian communities than the previous generation, but rather because the opportunities for obtaining a French education in Canadian universities are too limited. You cannot help but take joy in seeing young people pursuing a higher education in fields where they show talent and motivation. Unfortunately though, this is not always possible in French. Canada has 18 French-language post-secondary institutions (14 in Quebec and four others scattered across the country) and six bilingual institutions. However, these are not distributed equally across Canada. Often, our youth are not able to move to the other side of the province or the country to study in their chosen field in the language of their choice.

Despite the challenges that we still face 40 years later, more Canadians than ever are supporting our language policy. The landscape is enriched, as well, by the arrival of newcomers who become part of our Francophone communities—some coming from other Francophone countries, others learning French as a second language. The contribution that immigration has to offer to our minority communities is important for their economic, social and cultural future.

The country that we now have to build will require a lot of creativity and the effort must come from the heart; it is a place where generosity and understanding serve as founding principles. It is not necessary for every person to be bilingual, but, rather, that there be a space where everyone is included and respected. I am united with you in the constant pursuit of this ideal that we all share.

Thank you.