Keeping Bilingualism Alive: A Conversation with the Official Languages Commissioner
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, 50th Anniversary of the Official Languages Act Special Issue, 2019
By Meagan Gillmore
When educators show students the importance of both English and French, they’re exposing them to principles that are foundational to Canadian society, says Raymond Théberge, the current Commissioner of Official Languages.
“Learning or teaching a second language is providing another window on the world,” he says. “Teaching a second language, or French as a first language for that matter, is supporting this fundamental value of Canadian society. Canada is two large communities in one. When you provide second language education, you provide a bridge between both communities.”
Connecting these two distinct parts of the country isn’t always easy, however. As the Commissioner of Official Languages, Théberge is responsible for ensuring equality of English and French in the government of Canada, Parliament, federal institutions and institutions subject to the Official Languages Act; supporting the preservation and development of official language minority communities across the country; and promoting the equality of English and French in Canadian society.
His office also reviews complaints about alleged violations of the Official Languages Act, and, when necessary conducts investigations. Complaints include French audio not being available for customs and border primary inspection kiosks at airports; not having French videos available in national museums; and even the Prime Minister responding in English to French questions or responding in French to English questions at public meetings. The commissioner’s office conducts audits into bilingualism in federal services. Along with saying how to prevent these complaints from occurring again, the office prepares reports and recommendations to the government about how to promote and protect minority language communities across Canada.
This includes studying issues pertinent to promoting Canada’s official languages—including education.
Statistics show Canadians support children learning both official languages. In 2016, the Office of the Commission of Official Languages commissioned a study which found that 8 in 10 Canadians support both languages being taught to some extent in all elementary schools in the country and that more needs to be done to make young people bilingual—including increasing the number of spaces available in school French immersion programs.
Education is not in the federal government’s jurisdiction, and thus not explicitly covered by the Official Languages Act. Proper education however, is crucial for helping Canadians understand the importance of both official languages.
“I think teachers are always fundamental to building the country. Teachers are very powerful in the way they can message things, and how they provide ideas,” says Théberge.
It’s a critical time for people to be reminded of how important the two languages are. Théberge became the commissioner on January 29, 2018, the eighth person in the role. In a statement released one year after his tenure began—he stated that he was “dismayed” by decisions made by provincial governments across Canada that weaken the status of minority language communities.
There is a “questioning about official languages in terms of it being a fundamental value of Canadian society,” says Théberge, something he wasn’t expecting five decades after the Official Languages Act passed in 1969.
“I think it’s a moment in time, a passing moment,” he says, noting the solidarity he sees for minority language communities. “I think we have to address it, but I think we have an opportunity to educate society, and an opportunity to move forward.”
One way to help Canadians better appreciate both official languages is to increase the number of Canadians who speak English and French. In February 2019, the commissioner’s office released “Accessing Opportunity: A study on challenges in French-as-a-second-language education teacher supply and demand in Canada.” The study, which was conducted by Canadian Parents for French, a national volunteer organization that helps create opportunities for people to learn and use French, details the struggles to recruit and retain French as a Second Language (FSL) teachers in different regions across Canada.
According to the report, 430,000 students were enrolled in French immersion programs across Canada in 2015-2016. Yet, statistics suggest the number of English-speakers who are fluent in French will remain the same for the foreseeable future. If French immersion programs continue to grow in popularity while the rate of bilingualism remains static, there will likely be a shortage of qualified FSL teachers.
“Parents want to provide all of the opportunities to their children, and they see French immersion programs and FSL programs as the right opportunity down the road for their children, be it from a cultural perspective, be it from an employment perspective,” Théberge says, explaining the increase of enrolment in French-language programs. “(They) just see it being a positive element for their children.”
“We need to get government engaged to basically fund those places so we can create more capacity in the system. Otherwise, we’re denying quality second-language education to a lot of children.”
The report makes several recommendations. They include establishing a national roundtable with provincial and territorial partners and FSL stakeholder organizations to develop and lead long-term solutions.
“There’s no capacity in the system right now,” says Théberge. “We have to [create solutions] on a long-term basis.”
This teacher shortage isn’t new, says Nicole Thibault, national executive director of Canadian Parents for French. The organization issued its first report on the subject in 2002. A perennial challenge has been “getting the right [teachers] in the right place to teach the program,” Thibault says. Research supports this. Teacher candidates surveyed for the “Accessing Opportunity” report listed proximity to friends and family, where they currently live, and where they want to live as some of the most important factors in deciding what jobs to take. There’s “no easy answer” to this problem, she says, noting money is not enough to solve it.
Survey results indicate a preference for teaching in urban locations. If the French teacher is the only French-speaker in the community, they may feel isolated and leave, shares Thibault. On the other hand, some rural areas have a larger population of French speakers. “It’s more of an appreciated skillset,” Thibault says of how Francophone communities view learning and speaking French. This also makes it possible to recruit former French teachers to fill needed positions, so that they’re not “starting from scratch” when it comes to filling the need for French teachers or French immersion programs, explains Thibault.
Immigration plays a key role in French immersion programs, she says, noting that Canada’s international reputation as a bilingual country makes it attractive to prospective immigrants.
“We’ve done a good job internationally of selling the idea that Canada is a bilingual country,” says Thibault. “We’ve got a lot of new immigrants coming in. When they arrive, they’re ready and prepared to learn another official language as well. For many of them, they already have another language, so it’s not an issue for them to pick up another one.”
Immigration, however, also contributes to the shortage of FSL teachers. Previously, provinces lacking teachers for French immersion programs could recruit teachers from Quebec to fill those positions. Right now, many teachers in Quebec are teaching French to immigrants which means they can’t relocate to other provinces, she explains. This has led some provinces to recruit teachers internationally, explains Thibault, noting British Columbia has recruited teachers from Belgium.
The challenge of having two languages co-exist as equals has existed since before Confederation. In summarizing the findings, February’s report concludes: “The challenges in FSL education are as perennial as the challenges inherent in federalism itself, and more needs to be done, including at the national level. The persistence of these challenges makes it all the more important that we continue to draw attention to them and work toward finding innovative solutions that will help to improve access to the opportunities inherent in linguistic duality for all Canadians.”
“When we passed the Official Languages Act, it was a recognition that a very important part of the Canadian fabric was these two languages, these two linguistic communities,” says Théberge. “Over the years, it’s become engrained in Canada’s DNA in terms of that is part of who we are. Overseas, we are seen as being a bilingual country. It’s part of the trademark of Canada. It’s who we are. Immigrants understand that. It’s very fundamental to who we are.”
While bilingualism has remained central to Canada’s identity, the country has changed dramatically since the Official Languages Act passed. The population has grown, and so has the number of languages spoken in Canada. Digital technology has revolutionized the way people communicate and interact. Modernizing the Act needs to be a priority, explains Théberge, noting political parties across the spectrum agree the Act needs to be updated.
It’s up to the government to decide if additional languages should gain official language status, explains Théberge. His focus is ensuring a modernized law that is relevant, dynamic and strong. This means it needs to take into account the current landscape of Canadian society, new communications technology, and be something that can be enforced. Many groups are looking at the Act and considering how to make it an effective tool today, and in the future, Théberge shares.
Théberge says that, in his view, having two official languages does not contradict Canada’s value of multiculturalism. Instead, he says the Official Languages Act, is what allows current multiculturalism and reconciliation efforts between Indigenous Peoples and Canada to exist. Théberge shares that, in his view, having two official languages creates an environment for multiculturalism.
“Linguistic duality lies at the heart of the Canadian value of diversity,” he says. “I look at it as the foundation, and there’s a number of foundation pieces. We go from language duality, and then we go to other rights in the Charter, and then we talk about reconciliation. These are all part of the country which continues to evolve, and that’s the great thing about Canada. As a country we continue to evolve, but we can’t forget, and we should never forget what our fundamental values are and what we built this country on. There’s no contradiction. This country has evolved in respecting its core values.”
Ultimately, promoting linguistic duality requires a lot of cooperation.
Participants in the “Accessing Opportunity” study identified the need for greater collaboration both between provinces and territories and between ministries of education, faculties of education and school boards. Thibault says cooperation between provinces and territories is especially important, noting the Atlantic provinces often work together, as does British Columbia, Alberta, Northwest Territories, and the Yukon.
School administration and staff also need to support FSL teachers, she says. Teacher candidates surveyed for the study reported the most important factor for them deciding to teach French was having a supportive school administration.
Provincial governments need to commit resources to create positive work environments for teachers, says Thibault. “Changing attitudes” towards teaching remains the greatest barrier to increasing the number of FSL teachers. “We have to work on making teaching a positive and viable career in general, and then we’ll have more people who want to teach French,” she says.
That will benefit everyone, explains Théberge.
Meagan Gillmore is a freelance journalist in Toronto, ON.