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Making education rights the primary focus in the promotion of official languages

Notes for a speech delivered at the symposium: A National Strategy for Achieving Education Rights, hosted by the Canadian Centre for Linguistic Rights, at the Conference of the Association des juristes d'expression française de l'Ontario

Dr. Dyane Adam – Commissioner of Official Languages

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It is a real pleasure to join you at this symposium, which is very sure to be a success. I would like to draw attention to the cooperative work that went into preparing this symposium and the AJEFO Conference, and to the ten or so organizations who contributed. These efforts are symbolic of the cooperation that will be needed in the future to ensure the full implementation of minority language rights. I must also mention the outstanding contribution of the Canadian Centre for Linguistic Rights for its coordination work and for contributing to our collective reflection on the implementation of education rights. Finally, I would like to mention that a great many jurists, parents, school trustees and administrators are here today to evaluate the fruit of their efforts and to discuss the future of section 23.

Before I get to the heart of my subject, allow me first to advertise the fact that I am launching a new publication at this symposium, Language Rights in 1999-2000.  Copies will be available at the exit.  This document summarizes and analyzes key court decisions relating to language rights in Canada between January 1999 and December 2000.  The range of the issues examined in these cases attests to the courts' active role in the implementation of linguistic duality in Canada.  Developments in case law over the last two years seem to indicate, I hope, that we are gradually moving from a theoretical equality of our two official languages to a practical and remedial equality.

I hope therefore that these recent decisions will encourage governments to more fully respect the language rights of Canadians and to more actively foster the growth and development of minority Anglophone and Francophone communities. Language rights are a mere illusion without concrete government action that facilitates the exercise of these rights.

The symposium hosted by the Canadian Centre for Linguistic Rights is intended to give an update on the current status of education rights in Francophone communities, ten years after the Supreme Court rendered its decision in the Mahé case.

The future of Francophone communities in Canada depends on their schools.  We all know that there are many pressing needs as regards French-language education. It is time to shift from discourse on rights to discourse on responsibility.  That means it is time for reflection and new directions.  It is time to define a strategy and objectives to ensure the full realization of education rights.

This symposium also celebrates ten years of tireless work by parents, educators, school trustees, members of community associations, jurists and politicians.  Each person has a duty, each person has contributed a brick to build the large structure that now houses Canada's Francophonie.  Congratulations on your courage, determination and vision.

Finally, this symposium is also a reflection of the ongoing and exceptional contribution of the Canadian Centre for Linguistic Rights to our common reflection on the scope and implementation of language rights in Canada.  These rights are, let there be no doubt, a well-known type of human rights.

We might also ponder whether a symbiotic relationship exists between language rights and the other rights entrenched in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that is to say, a lasting, essential and mutually beneficial relationship. Do these rights not in fact reinforce each other?  I will leave it to the jurists among you to answer this puzzling question. It is clear however that linguistic duality is one of the great symbolic spaces of our nation. 

The fruit of your labours

As you know, the Supreme Court decided in Mahé  -  and I quote, with special emphasis -  that section 23 of the Charter is "designed to correct, on a national scale, the progressive erosion of minority official language groups and to give effect to the concept of the 'equal partnership' of the two official language groups in the context of education."

Section 23 thus imposes positive obligations on the provinces to change their educational structures in order to ensure the implementation of education rights for official language minorities.  It is not a question of simply patching up the plaster on the facade of the education system; we must start anew, from the ground up.

The federal government must also ensure that these education rights become the principal focus in the promotion of official languages, both morally and financially.  The worst mistake with regard to linguistic duality would be to respond inadequately to these needs.  Without reducing the problem of linguistic and cultural reparation to a purely financial issue, adequate funding for French-language school systems right across Canada must clearly be the starting point for any truly effective and equitable reform.

As I see it, the Court in Mahé stated that reparation was necessary because minority French-language schools had in the past been the preferred targets of others wishing to destroy the linguistic and cultural identity of these communities.  We must therefore rebuild Canada's fundamental values, in particular by supporting the foundations of our shared history, the equality of our two major linguistic communities.

Following this decision, section 23 was the subject of further fundamental Supreme Court of Canada decisions.  In 1993, in the Reference re Public Schools Act (Manitoba), the Court underscored the great emphasis that must be placed on the provision of instruction in distinct and separate institutions.

In January 2000, in Arsenault-Cameron, the Supreme Court once again stressed the remedial nature of section 23, confirming the approach taken in the Beaulac case, according to which language rights must in all cases be interpreted purposively, in a manner consistent with the preservation and development of official language communities in Canada.  In this case, the Court defined the respective powers of parent and community representatives and of the Ministry of Education.

The Supreme Court of Canada did not however in its wisdom venture to define specific implementation methods.  It recognized that it would be pointless to impose a single, perhaps magical, solution to a multitude of different situations.  Disputes can be resolved gradually only through legal action and in some cases by cooperation and mediation.

Current status

It is thus reasonable to see the Mahé decision as something that accelerated history.  Section 23 is now recognized and codified in legislation.  The most noteworthy achievement in this regard is no doubt that new French-language school boards have been created in various parts of Canada.

These school boards, elected and representative, stand as fortresses for the communities in their struggle for equality. Communities must be able to rely on the leadership of these institutions to promote the influence of their language and culture.  Management independence and freedom in these school boards are however still the source of numerous problems, both legally and practically in several jurisdictions.

There are many questions, as I said earlier, about funding methods.  Often the planned funding is insufficient to meet the additional cost of French-language programs and the specific and pressing needs of French-language welcoming classes and daycare centres.  Moreover, some educations reforms directly affect parents' exclusive management and control powers and methods of representation.

I cannot now list all the challenges that lie ahead.  I mention them merely to illustrate the huge task that awaits parents and their school boards.

Under these circumstances, legal action will necessarily remain one of the main avenues for achieving education rights, for a few years to come. This also means that the Court Challenges Program will continue to serve as an essential engine in order to ensure progress toward equality.

Toward a national strategy

The main issue for the coming decade is therefore clear. It will be to make minority French-language schools centres of renewal, excellence and growth.

You have no doubt heard in the media that we published last March a second study on the scope of section 23.  This report is entitled Rights, Schools and Communities in Minority Contexts: 1986-2002.  Toward the Development of French Through Education, An Analysis.  Like the 1991 study, this one was prepared by Angéline Martel, professor of sociolinguistics and language teaching at the Télé-université du Québec.

Ms. Martel, who must no doubt be more familiar with the scope of the Mahé case than anyone else, did a province by province analysis of current school populations and considered ways of increasing them.  Using tables specially compiled by Statistics Canada, she calculated, by way of projections, the "target school population" from 1986 to 2002.

The target school population refers to children aged 0 to 17 years with at least one parent who is a Canadian citizen and native speaker of French. These children could accordingly attend a French-language school.

The data shows that only about one half of the target student population was in fact enrolled in French-language schools.  Moreover, if nothing is done, student enrolment will drop significantly within the next few years.

Demographics are unforgiving.  This decline is inevitable.  It will occur primarily as a result of the low birth rate among Francophones, the ageing population and the fact that French is not taught at home.

This loss of students will sooner or later result in an unavoidable decline of French-language school systems outside Quebec.  Moreover, the effects of this decline will be felt throughout the community, on its services, its institutions and its culture.  Depriving a community of the means to ensure its growth or even maintenance is like cutting its life-giving oxygen supply.

The study also examines the issue of student retention.  It confirms that students generally leave a school 1) between Grade 1 and Grade 2, 2) between Grade 8 and Grade 9 and 3) between Grade 11 and Grade 12.

In the first case, parents apparently decide to move their child to another school after an initial trial period.  This calls into question the quality of the welcome extended by the school.  In the second case, the loss of students coincides with the transition to high school.  This might suggest poor recognition of school completion certificates.  The loss of students near the end of high school seems to confirm the above assumption.

On the strength of these findings, the report proposes a national recovery plan to achieve the target student population within ten years.  In particular, it sets enrolment levels that reflect the relative demographic weight of each Francophone community.

The study therefore confirms what we already knew: that we must roll up our sleeves.  In the future, no Francophone parents should say that they did not enrol their child in French-language school because they were not aware of the issues.

The approach we propose can be summarized in a few key principles:

  • Partnerships between the school, parents and the community must form the basis of any program to increase school populations.
  • French-language education must be seen as an indivisible whole. A broad view of the learning of French and of francization is needed, extending from early childhood to adulthood.
  • A full and proven communications plan is needed.  We must explain in clear terms the numerous benefits to parents of having their children educated in an environment featuring the French language and culture.
  • Schools and school boards must be able to quickly identify any problems that arise, to concretely measure their success in attracting the target student population, and to provide first-rate education.

We must begin at the grassroots to attract new students to French-language school.  Francization, as you can appreciate, must be a community undertaking.  It is especially urgent to develop an integrated network of French-language services for early childhood by improving and harmonizing services for children from birth to the age of five.       

In order to achieve such ambitious goals, clearly we must all, within our own sphere of activity, pursue our efforts with the federal and provincial governments to obtain the support needed to establish or expand such services.  This also means developing a national francization policy.  As you know, the Commission nationale des parents francophones and the Fédération canadienne pour l'alphabétisation en français are working actively on this.

The recovery of eligible students also poses a number of challenges for teachers. Programs must be adapted and the means found not only to measure progress, but also to identify problems very early on in order to prevent them from leading to learning difficulties. Finally, we must fight ruthlessly to prevent students from dropping out.

For a good many mixed or exogamous families, providing for the learning of French and passing on of French culture is first and foremost a question of means.  The issues here pertain to teaching methods and social inclusion.

I believe that a great deal of analysis and communication is required in order to better inform parents who hesitate on the kind of school that is best for their children.  They must be convinced that a French-language school is not only a community school, but a place where they will be welcomed, experience openness, diversity and excellence.

Finally, we must also consider access to French-language postsecondary education. Management, funding, human resources, complementarity and competition among programs are just some of the subjects to be debated and resolved.  If we want the Canada of tomorrow to be not only a knowledge-based society, but also a society that fosters equality of opportunity, the doors to French-language postsecondary education must be open to all Francophones in minority communities.


In Arsenault-Cameron, the Supreme Court of Canada very clearly recognized the specific nature of education rights.

"Section 23 is premised on the fact that substantive equality requires that official language minorities be treated differently, if necessary, according to their particular circumstances and needs, in order to provide them with a standard of education equivalent to that of the official language majority."

Nearly twenty years after the Charter was passed, we have a right to question the adequacy of the remedial measures taken in the past by the federal government and the provinces in implementing section 23.  We must look squarely at the harsh realities. Then we can make a qualitative and quantitative assessment of the road that lies ahead in order to achieve real linguistic equality in education. Finally, we must demand greater effectiveness, more vitality and better funding. In short, let us demand greater responsibility and more respect for our rights.

Schools anchor in our children's hearts the values and traditions that form the basis of our identity and belonging.  Exercising education rights means building the Francophone community of tomorrow.  Let me congratulate you in advance on the significant contribution you will make here to this key element in the building of Canada's Francophonie.  This work is at the very heart of our identity and our strength as Canadians.  Thank you.