By Sen. Raymonde Gagné
and Sen. René Cormier
To mark the 50th anniversary of the Official Languages Act (OLA) and the International Day of La Francophonie, an open caucus was held at the Senate of Canada to reflect on the place of French in Canada.
Professors Stéphanie Chouinard, Michael MacMillan and Benoît Pelletier addressed the following question: What is the place of French in Canada 50 years after the OLA was first enacted?
The good news is that since the OLA was enacted, the presence of the French language within government has become considerably stronger.
The federal government passed the OLA to correct an historical injustice that partly manifested itself in the near total absence of francophones within the federal public service. In this regard, the OLA was a notable success: over 43 percent of public service positions are designated bilingual, and more than 96 percent of employees in these positions have achieved the required language proficiency.
But it’s not all good news.
Despite positive change throughout the public service over the past 50 years, the Commissioner of Official Languages still receives a significant number of complaints every year regarding the right to work in one’s language, the linguistic designation of certain positions and the equitable participation of anglophones and francophones in the government.
In 2018, the commissioner received 376 admissible complaints on these issues. The Mendelsohn-Borbey report on the state of bilingualism in the public service noted that 23 percent of francophones in the federal public service don’t feel free to speak the official language of their choice at meetings in their work unit and that 32 percent don’t feel free to write emails in the official language of their choice.
These challenges facing French-speaking public servants reflect the broader experience of francophones across the country. Despite the official status of French and support from most of the public (88 percent), French is unfortunately still seen by some Canadians as belonging to a minority from the past. This perception significantly diminishes the place of French in Canada.
Yet French is a vibrant, modern and creative language that remains a cornerstone of Canadian identity. French is not the language of a single cultural group; it’s a shared language and a way of life of various ethnic and cultural communities all across Canada.
Like English, French is an international language spoken on five continents. As such, it helps Canada welcome individuals from every part of the world. That’s why this notion that French belongs to a single cultural group must be dispelled. All Canadians need to understand that French is also a powerful vehicle for Canadian multiculturalism.
While French has a strong historical and constitutional foundation in Canada, it also has an important role to play in the country’s future. By promoting French across the land, Canada can position itself internationally as a vast country that can accommodate diverse immigrant families who have French in common.
We can’t enhance the standing of French in Canada without considering the debate in Parliament on Bill C‑91, An Act respecting Indigenous languages. As we saw with the OLA, the advancement of French – which was made possible by Part VII of the OLA – played an important role in preserving and enhancing the vitality of French in several parts of Canada. As a linguistic minority, we should join in this fight to preserve Indigenous, Métis and Inuit languages and cultures.
In an editorial published on April 18, 2019, the president of the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada, Jean Johnson, called francophones to action on this issue. As he pointed out, “The support of Indigenous peoples is a major reason that francophone communities were able to take root in Canada four centuries ago. Today, in the spirit of reconciliation, we must stand up and support them.”
Accordingly, the federal government needs to fully recognize and help revitalize Indigenous languages.
Going forward, we must remember that, over the past 50 years, bilingualism and linguistic duality made progress only when citizens pressured the various levels of government to treat our official languages with respect.
Raymonde Gagné is an independent senator from Manitoba. René Cormier is an independent senator from New Brunswick.