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Canada and the Challenge of Diversity

Notes for an address to the National Congress of the Alliance canadienne des responsables, des enseignantes et des enseignants en français langue maternelle


Dr. Dyane Adam - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for having invited me to join you on the occasion of your 7th National Congress. Meeting a group that takes the promotion of French in minority environments so much to heart is a great inspiration to me. Attending this type of event is especially important for me, as my task of monitoring the Official Languages Act focuses specifically on supporting the development of the same official language communities that you work actively to build.

Thirty-five years after its creation, there is still some misunderstanding about the role of the Commissioner of Official Languages. When I attend receptions or cocktail parties, people often take me for a walking French-English dictionary. When someone searches for a word, they ask me for the equivalent in the other official language. I am often taken for a specialist in languages, or the language police.

Naturally, the Commissioner deals indirectly with issues of language quality, but it is my role—and my privilege—to promote and defend a vision of Canada, a way of living together. It is the Canadian social contract between the two official language communities, based on respect and appreciation of the value of our differences. A vision of our country that our federal institutions must make an effort to turn into reality, but also a major component of a broader debate on the Canadian character that continues to drive Canada’s progress towards values of openness and welcoming diversity.

Teachers, translators, terminologists and language specialists are among those living out this vision. It is you who craft the vision. Without teachers, it would go nowhere.

Canada’s official languages, and the people of diverse origins who speak these languages, are the threads that make up the social fabric of my country. This representation of the Canadian social fabric is the symbol in my Office’s pin. The golden fabric in the centre stands for the point of convergence of our two linguistic communities and alludes to the wealth of their dialogue, the wealth of their diversity.

Today, I would like to discuss the challenge of positioning French in the context of global diversity, about the value of that diversity and the role the French language and the teaching of French can play in promoting a vision of humanity at the global scale. Essentially, it is about promoting respect for human diversity.

I will illustrate my remarks with the Canadian experience in multiculturalism and bilingualism, which was acknowledged in 2004 as exemplary in the report of the United Nations Development Program.1 The report stresses the need to integrate cultural diversity in a world where migration is increasing exponentially, and cites Canada in particular as a model.

Introduction: Positioning French in the Context of Global Diversity

There are two opposing trends in today’s world, both of them derived from what is commonly known as globalization. We observe both an affirmation of cultural diversity as our human heritage and a trend towards homogenization, towards standardization of cultures and languages.

We become aware of humanity’s immense cultural capital just when cultural monocropping emerges, levelling out and eroding cultural and linguistic expressions.

As Renato Ruggiero said when he was Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), “Managing a world of converging economies, peoples and civilizations, each one preserving its own identity and culture, represents the great challenge and the great promise of our age.”2

The only possible response to the potential extinction of cultures in the context of globalization is diversity.

It is the affirmation that all peoples and all cultures are valuable. It is the recognition of the unique nature of each individual and of the wealth of his or her unique cultural baggage.

Today, the French language plays a decisive role for diversity. Teaching in French may indeed be a prime factor in conserving diversity, both in Canada and in the rest of the world.

Francophones are called on to take leadership in diversity not because their motivation is higher, but quite simply because, in the current global context, they can and want to do so, and because they have the necessary international structure. In Canada, this leadership is expressed most forcefully in our schools and our school boards.

Diversity and La Francophonie: Taking the Lead Together

French: A Leader in Diversity

There are 56 member governments and states in La Francophonie. The official language of many countries, French is the mother tongue of over 110 million people and the second language for 65 million Francophiles.3 French is a language with changing accents, both the vehicle for local cultures and an international meeting point. All Francophone communities have French in common, but they appropriate, cultivate and speak it differently.

The world’s diversity expresses itself in French, and the diversity of French is the culmination of this expression.

A rarity among the world’s languages, French also serves as a bridge spanning all continents. Spoken in many regions of the North and South, taught in varying degrees in every country of the world, it presents a real alternative to English, the only other language to share all these features.4

The Value of Diversity

There are some figures I would like to share with you even though they might sound familiar to you.

Canada has 30 million inhabitants, over 9 million of whom are French speakers. Of the 9 million, 6.7 million live in Quebec. The number of French speakers living outside Quebec—almost 2 and a half million—is larger than the combined Francophone population of some 40 member states of La Francophonie. Canada, after France, is one of the countries in the world where French is most widely spoken.

A country of immigrants, Canada is also one of the world’s countries that—proportionately speaking—receives the most immigrants. From 1996 to 2001, Canada welcomed almost 100,000 French-speaking immigrants.5 In a survey conducted in 44 countries, Canadians proved to be the only group with a majority that had a positive opinion of immigrants—77%. In all other countries, the figure was under 50%.6

Many of you experience this influx of newcomers firsthand in your classrooms. As a result, you face the additional challenge of playing a part in welcoming these representatives of different cultures. For these children and their parents, the school environment is the glue that bonds them to the culture of the new society that welcomes them. Their difference stands out like a light in our lives, our schools and our communities.

In short, an appreciation of diversity leads people from every continent who speak different languages and practice a variety of religions to live together peacefully.7 On that point, let’s recall that diversity, as an established fact, can only be a stabilizing factor if there are bridges between different cultures, if a dialogue is established. Thus the importance of the work of language teaching professionals. Your contribution is at the very heart of democracy and stability for society.

Multiplicity of Cultures

Diversity is an intrinsic principle in all life. When there is only one kind of cell in an organism, that life form is at the least evolved level. Evolution manifests itself through increasing inherent complexity. The same thing happens in intellectual activity.

Just as an ecosystem needs biodiversity, our knowledge, our intellectual and artistic creations, draw substance from human diversity.

Seeking uniformity is unnatural, both in culture and in biology.

Camus said that the democrat is modest: he knows that he does not have a monopoly on the truth and that a plurality of opinions is needed to find the best possible solution to a problem.8 Likewise, supporters of diversity base themselves on the same modesty: they know that a culture with multiple sources, a plurality of identities, carries the energy for the progress of society, making it more innovative and open to the world.

Diversity and La Francophonie: Taking the Lead Together

Day-to-Day Diversity

Many countries face the same challenges when promoting diversity and the French language, particularly the issue of the shrinkage of the spheres of influence of French.

In Canada, to perpetuate our linguistic heritage, our identity, we have focused simultaneously on both:

  • Extending access to education in French, to promote the vitality of Francophone communities; and
  • Teaching French as a second language, to associate non-Francophones with the Canadian project for linguistic duality and cultural diversity.

Major progress has been made—and you were the architects of that progress.

While 20 years ago there were no French schools in half of Canadian provinces, school management structures and schools are present today in all provinces and territories. In these communities, there are some 675 French schools administered by 30 school boards, with a combined student body of close to 150,000. At the post-secondary level, Francophones in minority communities can choose from courses of study offered by over 20 post-secondary institutions or universities.

As a new step forward in the Canadian linguistic project, the government launched in 2003 an Action Plan for Official Languages.9 One major objective is to increase the proportion of students eligible for admission in Francophone minority schools. Another ambitious, but pressing objective is to double the percentage of young bilingual Canadians in the next ten years, so that one out of every two young people will master both official languages.

Last year, in partnership with Canadian Parents for French,10 the Department of Intergovernmental Affairs and the Department of Canadian Heritage, we organized a symposium11 to identify ways of reaching the objectives of the Action Plan. We invited teachers and representatives from all key sectors of society—education, business, culture, sport, and the public service, both federal and provincial, to discuss the issues and propose strategies that would lead young people to embrace linguistic duality and enrol in French courses.

Symposium participants suggested four major areas of action.

Areas of Action

1. The first area is the promotion of bilingualism.

It is important for society as a whole to give more value to language skills and be open to discovering other cultures. French must be made attractive for Francophones, Francophiles and newcomers. French must be used as a language of success, for work, in education, as a language of research and science, in innovation, on the Internet and of course, for enjoyment.

Symposium participants proposed to develop a rationale on the advantages of our diversity, encouraging student exchanges between language communities and establishing a national program for recognition of language skills.

2. The second area is the establishment of structures giving more value to and facilitating the acquisition of language skills.

It was proposed in particular:

  • To ensure continuity in the teaching of French from early childhood onwards, through primary and secondary school and at university level;
  • To establish language skills standards at all levels, for students, teachers and in the labour market; and
  • To give second language teaching the same status as other subjects.

3. The third area is concerted action of key players and a committed civil society.

French must have everyday relevance in society, not just in the classroom.

There is political leadership, and also the leadership of people involved on a day-to-day basis, teachers, community workers, that gives strength to the will for change.

We also need to benefit from public support and civil society’s commitment to defend the French language. Today, 30 years after our linguistic regime came into being, 77% of Canadians are in favour of bilingualism.12

Civil society support also expresses itself through the work of associations dedicated to promoting French. In addition to ACREF, there are organizations such as the Conseil de la vie française en Amérique,13 the Association canadienne d’éducation de langue française,14 the Canadian Association of Second Language Teachers,15 the Commission nationale des parents francophones,16 French for the Future17 and Canadian Parents for French.18

4. The fourth and last area is the enrichment and expansion of curriculums, so our schools can have appropriate teaching material, stimulating cultural content and qualified teachers.

Educators and teaching institutions have a central role in the promotion of French and in welcoming diversity. You are the best ambassadors for French and its culture to the younger generation. In the age of globalization, to ensure the vitality of our language, French teachers take on a new mission: that of giving diversity, the fabric of today’s world, pride of place.

How do we go about enhancing the position of French in our communities?

First of all, French should be taught as the language of a community of cultures.

Speaking French does not just mean understanding the language, it means becoming aware that we are part of a Francophonie that goes beyond our village, our city, our province and our country. It is a chance to immerse ourselves in the cultures, the thinking and the visions that the French language conveys.

On that basis, pedagogical material could be offered that reflects the diverse uses of French and the diversity of the cultures that speak French, a focus that a good number of your school boards have already adopted.

We can also take advantage of our shared cultural wealth to diversify teaching methods and make French more attractive, using for example literature, stories, movies or songs from the different countries of La Francophonie.

Diversity can also help us encourage the modernization of French. Words, images and expressions from other countries should be made known and adopted. This is what opens the door to diversity, and this openness enriches and renews our language. French is a rich language that can easily be modernized without losing its distinctive flavour.

Opening up to the diversity of French is also being open to the other languages spoken in Francophone spaces. It means translating into and from French, so our language will become an unavoidable meeting point, a catalyst of cultures, and a living example of the benefits of diversity.

Conclusion: French, an International Leader in Diversity?

To conclude, French is spoken and experienced through diversity.

And French presents us with a new challenge: defending a worldview that values diversity.

To overcome the paradox of a globalization that pits cultural openness against homogeneity, diversity must become a project that more and more communities share, including those in minority environments who already have a great awareness of diversity.

This shared project calls for the political will and educational action that Francophone states and French teachers started to demonstrate in the last few years, and support from the general public and civil society, support from institutions such as the one you are active members of.

As teaching professionals committed to your schools and your communities, you can extend your influence, be models for youth and have a positive influence on the image of French as a space where cultures meet.

Participating in this shared project means assuming a responsibility. It is a personal commitment at every level.

This commitment is not limited to support for French teaching. It extends to calling for our support for policies encouraging language and French teaching, and also for those that welcome and track newcomers who want to participate in the Canadian Francophonie.

Diversity in La Francophonie can renew the international expansion of French. And the multiculturalism of La Francophonie makes it an alternative to homogeneity.

Success depends on our action: let’s take the lead together!

In the words of His Excellency John Ralston Saul, "In a quarter century, we have changed the face of public education in a way that reflects the Canadian reality. Central to that has been the rise of French and the creation of a critical mass of bilingual citizens outside Quebec."19 This process of evolution, both in Canadian society and in French teaching, is far from complete.

Thank you.


1UN, World Report on Human Development 2004, Cultural Freedom in a Diversified World, United Nations Development Program, 2004, http://hdr.undp.org/en/media/hdr04_summary.pdfExternal site.

2Renato Ruggiero, WTO Press /74, June 19, 1997.

3Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, Conseil consultatif (International Organization of La Francophonie, Advisory Committee), La Francophonie dans le monde, 2002-2003, Paris, Larousse, 2003, p. 19.

4Haut Conseil de la Francophonie (High Council of La Francophonie), État de la Francophonie dans le monde, Paris, La Documentation française, 1999, p. 349.

5Statistics Canada, 2001 Census, Ottawa, 2001.

6The Pew Research Center, What the World Thinks in 2002, December 4, 2002,
see http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=165External site.

7Centre for Research and Information on Canada (CRIC), A Changing People: Being Canadian in a New Century, 2003, The CRIC Papers No. 9, pp. 5-6.

8Quoted by Alain Finkielkraut, « La catégorie de " réactionnaire " est fictive », ("‘Reactionary’ is a fictitious category"), Le Figaro, November 14, 2002.

9Government of Canada, The Next Act: New Momentum for Canada’s Linguistic Duality. Action Plan for Official Languages, Ottawa, National Library of Canada, 2003,
http://www.pco-bcp.gc.ca/aia/default.asp?Language=E&Page=ActionPlanGovernment site.

10http://www.cpf.ca/External site 

11Symposium, Vision and Challenges for the 21st Century, March 2-4, 2004, Toronto.

12CRIC, Bilingualism: Part of Our Past or Part of Our Future?, The CRIC Papers No. 13, March 2004.

13http://www.cvfa.ca/External site

14http://www.acelf.ca/External site

15http://www.caslt.org/External site

16http://www.cnpf.ca/External site

17http://www.french-future.org/External site

18http://www.cpf.ca/External site

19Extract from the speech of His Excellency John Ralston Saul, to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, London, Ontario, Wednesday, April 9, 2003.