Joly: Canada’s bilingualism is under pressure, and reform can’t wait

Too often, parents who want to enrol their kids in French immersion can only do so through a wait list or lottery system, due in large part to an insufficient number of French teachers in their community. And too often, our federal public servants don’t feel comfortable using French either.

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Along with Indigenous languages, our country’s identity is deeply rooted in its two official languages. French and English unite us and define who we are as Canadians.

We each have our own story of growing up in a bilingual Canada. Mine is of a little girl growing up in a francophone family, encouraged to learn English by a unilingual mother who wanted her kids to have the best of what Canada and the world has to offer.

In 1969, the federal government established bilingualism in Canada through the Official Languages Act. For more than 50 years, Canadians have had more opportunities than their parents ever had to learn their second official language. My mom wanted her kids to be able to communicate in our two official languages – a wish that I know is shared by many Ottawa parents, but one that still, to this day, meets with challenges.

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Too often, parents who want to enrol their kids in French immersion can only do so through a wait list or lottery system, due in large part to an insufficient number of French teachers in their community. This shortage was again on display last fall, when many Ottawa families were told that insufficient numbers of French teachers meant that French immersion would not be available to those learning from home. Too many children are being left out, unable to share in the benefits of bilingualism. This is unacceptable.

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Supporting students who wish to learn their second official language is a responsibility shared by federal, provincial and territorial governments. Over the past five years, I have worked with provincial and territorial education ministers to invest in French immersion programs and support their success, but we know that we can do more.

That is why the federal government intends to develop both a framework to have the diplomas of Francophone teachers educated in Canada recognized across the country and a new immigration pathway to attract the best Francophone teachers educated abroad. Together, we will get rid of wait lists for French immersion.

While we work to promote bilingualism across the country, we must also consider how to do more within our own institutions. The federal government must set an example for the rest of the country and at this moment, too many employees in the federal public service don’t feel comfortable using French at work.

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To address this fundamental issue, the government plans to improve second-language training for all federal public servants and the standards for assessing language proficiency, creating a more functionally bilingual work environment for all. The federal government must also be better held accountable for fulfilling our obligations under the Official Languages Act and thus we will be strengthening the mandate of the Commissioner of Official Languages.

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Today, we are at a turning point. Our country has evolved over the past 50 years with the advancement of digital technology and international trade, favouring the use of English while the use of French declines. We need to reaffirm our commitment to what we stand for and take action to prepare us for decades to come.

That is why our government is proposing a linguistic reform that will review and strengthen our country’s Official Languages regime. We will take concrete action to promote the use of French, increase access to French learning and protect the rights and vitality of our official language minority communities.

Mélanie Joly is the federal minister of Economic Development and Official Languages and MP for Ahuntsic-Cartierville.

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