ARCHIVED - Ottawa, November 21, 2008

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 Notes for an address at the national conference of the
Canadian Association of Immersion Teachers

Graham Fraser – Commissioner of Official Languages

Check against delivery

Mr. Karsenti, Ms. Logie, Ms. Larivière, ladies and gentlemen,

I want to start off by thanking you for having me here today. I commend the Canadian Association of Immersion Teachers for their continued hard work, which has led to the current popularity of immersion programs.

Right now, across Canada, immersion programs continue to be an unparalleled success. Thanks to these programs, many young Canadians have the opportunity to learn their second official language, and this is largely due to your commitment, to your work and to the contribution of your members.

Each one of you plays an important role in our youth’s immersion learning process, whether as a teacher, a principal, a school counsellor or in some other capacity. Together, you can continue to breathe new life into the immersion programs so that our youth can identify with them. In your reflections, I encourage you to consider the following questions:

  1. How can we improve and build on the success of immersion programs?
  2. How can we encourage students to continue their education in these programs?
  3. And finally, how can we ensure that immersion programs continue to be relevant?

I’m not claiming to have all the answers, but I hope to give you some insight into the Canadian experience.

1. Current situation

First off, I would like to recognize your association’s contribution to the Canadian immersion community. The support you grant teachers, the opportunities for training that you provide and the research you conduct are essential and continue to be of great relevance. Your members are spokespersons for the French language to over 300,000 young people across the country.

Among other things, I would like to recognize the exemplary practices taking place in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, where ties have been forged with Francophone communities. Strong links have also been established between teachers and the French-language school boards in these provinces. Such partnerships are an asset in your work, and I encourage you to continue to find opportunities for similar ones.

Despite there being a high level of interest in immersion programs, some challenges need to be tackled if we want to increase the level of proficiency in both official languages in the near future.

At a conference organized by the Official Languages and Bilingualism Institute at the University of Ottawa last June, I touched on the role of diversity and multilingualism in our society. In light of current Canadian trends, both of these issues also have an impact on your work, as student learning styles change and will continue to evolve in step with our population.

2. The truth about immersion programs

I often worry that unilingual parents see the various French second-language programs as a system that produces perfectly bilingual graduates, and as the one and only way to learn French. These expectations are both unrealistic and counter-productive.

In immersion programs, the emphasis is on speaking skills, sometimes to the detriment of writing skills. In core and intensive French programs, students have many opportunities to practise grammar and verb tenses, but may continue to struggle when speaking the language. Still, there are many learning opportunities and success stories. I will talk more about this later.

As ambassadors of the French language in the English majority communities, you have one of the most difficult jobs in education. You must make the most of the little time you have with students so that they leave with as much knowledge as possible.

As so many of you have gathered here today, I am convinced of your commitment to continued immersion program improvement, which will help you better meet the needs of your students.

In this time of increased immersion program popularity, I am counting on your determination and your continued roles as ambassadors and defenders of the French language. As front-line professionals, you are the ones who are best suited to advocate for increased support—not only from all levels of government, but also from both the majority and minority language communities.

Finally, and most importantly, I encourage you to expose your students to the learning opportunities available in post-secondary education. Many post-secondary institutions, such as the University of Ottawa, Université Sainte-Anne and Glendon College at York University, now offer immersion courses and programs. Eight hundred students are presently enrolled in the University of Ottawa’s immersion program. These students take courses in their second language and receive additional support in the form of tutoring. I am told the program is a great success. The director of the program, Marc Gobeil, is here with us today and I’m sure he would be happy to provide you with more information.

Your extra investment continues to pay off, in that students feel motivated to pursue higher education in their second official language.

Faculté Saint-Jean at the University of Alberta is an interesting example: many students come from immersion programs and choose to continue their education in French there.

All this did not come about by accident, nor did it solely result from the exemplary work of the Faculty and its dean, Marc Amal. This success stems from the efforts made by Edmonton Public Schools over the last eight years to improve the immersion programs being offered, and, on the strength of this success, of other language programs as well.

There is no question that the creation of immersion programs at Simon Fraser University and at the University of British Columbia is directly related to the growing number of students from the immersion programs being offered in the province.

The Office of the Commissioner is presently undertaking a study on French-language learning opportunities at the post-secondary level. This study could serve as a tool to help you target post-secondary institutions that offer not only French programs, but also exchanges, learning support, inter-institutional coordination and the organization of social activities.

We decided to undertake this study because it is so important to identify the many options available to students. This study will also help raise users’ awareness of the different majority and minority communities across the country.

3. Partnerships with official language minority communities

While they may vary in size, there are Francophone minority communities in all provinces and territories. While speaking with immersion students, I often found that these young people were not always aware that French-speaking communities existed outside of Quebec—despite the fact that these communities can play a vital role in their learning process. These communities can also be a source of support for you, the teachers.

As you all play a key role in immersion education, I encourage you to look to these communities for the tools and support you need in order to build on existing programs, and to give immersion programs more relevance and exposure.

Why not take part in debates? Watch movies? Go to shows, plays or touring performances? Recently, at the National Arts Centre here in Ottawa, I was very pleased to see a group of students, clearly from an immersion program, enjoy a French-language performance of Samuel Beckett’s play Happy Days.

I continue to express the need for Canadians to better understand their own country. To do so, it is important for them to have a greater knowledge and a better understanding of our majority-and minority-language communities. To accomplish this, Canadians must understand the language as well as the culture.

Earlier this year, I took part in a French for the Future conference in London, Ontario, which brought together youth from immersion and French-language programs. While preparing to speak to participating students, and to their parents and teachers, I learned that London has a thriving Francophone population with its own community centre and radio station. I found out that several big names in French-Canadian music, among others, had been to the city. But I was saddened by the fact that few immersion students were taking advantage of the services being offered and the cultural activities taking place.

Our two communities live side by side, often intertwined in the same city. The days of the two solitudes should be behind us. Today, we must show that we are united and that we share a common objective: bilingualism, or at the very least, an understanding of the other group’s language and culture.

All across the country, Francophiles have shown their appreciation for the French culture by participating in cultural events in large numbers. Francophone communities are not private clubs that are open to “true” Francophones only. They are communities open to all those who love the French language. More and more, Francophiles are playing influential roles in these communities. The most well-known example is probably that of Tory Colvin, who was president of the Fédération des associations de juristes d’expression française de common law. Justice Colvin is now a judge at the Ontario Court of Justice. Anglophones who have learned French also play a key role in the Association des juristes d’expression française across the country.

In addition, Minister James Moore, who is 32 years old, is the first of his cohort of immersion students to become a minister.

4. Diversity

We are also seeing changes in our communities’ demographics in terms of diversity. Immigrants have also carved a place for themselves within the Francophone community.

Of course, diversity affects both language communities in Canada, and can pose a challenge—but also an opportunity—for immersion teachers. Newcomers in Canada often already have one or two other languages under their belts before setting foot in the country, which means that English and French tend to become their third and fourth languages.

It is therefore our responsibility to ensure that the programs we offer meet their particular needs. We must ensure that these children and their parents understand the importance of English and French in our schools.

We must clearly show that there is a mutually beneficial relationship between diversity and linguistic duality, and that these two concepts are not contradictory. By the same token, knowledge of both official languages can be used as a gateway to multilingualism, which would be very beneficial for Canada.


It has never been Canada’s goal to make all its citizens bilingual, nor is there a need to do so. But in this global economy, the opportunity to learn other languages is in itself an advantage. It opens doors to a multitude of opportunities around the world. In Canada, learning French can be a stepping stone not only towards bilingualism, but also towards multilingualism.

Whatever path your students take once they leave your classrooms, you can be proud in the knowledge that they will at least have the basics they need to appreciate the French language and culture. And for this, they have you to thank.

Thank you.