Statement by the Commissioner of Official Languages on the World Acadian Congress 2014
Gatherings like the World Acadian Congress show the importance of community solidarity. Everyone taking part in this major gathering is immediately struck by how beautiful and how strong Acadia is.
Every time I’ve travelled to Acadia, I’ve become re-immersed in the vitality of Acadian culture and its rich history. I also think about just how far the Acadian community has come, from the Great Upheaval to the Atlantic provinces’ key role in shaping Canada’s Confederation to the rise of Acadian culture on the world stage. Your history is not only one of expulsion and exile, but also repatriation and renewal.
Throughout my career as a journalist—and as Commissioner of Official Languages—I have been interested in French-Canadian issues, whether they be related to language, culture or policy. I am particularly fascinated by the question of identity, especially when it comes to official language minority communities.
It is clear that the faces of communities are changing. The arrival of newcomers and the exodus of part of the population are issues that are affecting not only Acadia, but also northern Ontario and Manitoba, for example. Gérard Bouchard, in his book Genèse des nations et cultures du Nouveau Monde, talks about a paradoxical mix of rupture wrapped in constancy.Footnote 1 Perhaps what defines Canadian culture is that there is not one culture, but a multitude of Canadian cultures.
We live in an increasingly urban society that is moving farther and farther away from rural regions, preferring to live in major centres. This is a challenge that Francophone and Acadian communities are wrestling with. But is it possible to conceive of a totally urban Acadia? Communities are not confined any more to a geographically defined area. In this digital age, they also exist in social media, in spaces that are not delineated by clear-cut borders. The World Acadian Congress is no exception to this trend, as we can see with the Multimedia Pavilion, which is the technological nerve centre of this event.
Communities are changing, moving and rejuvenating. They exist outside their historical boundaries. As an optimist, I see that as a sign of vitality. Communities that do not change and rejuvenate end up dying out. This is certainly not the case for the Acadian community.
Despite the growing influence of English, young people and newcomers need to understand their cultural heritage and identity, and they need to continue to make French an important part of their lives. They also need to remain open to the majority community, because it has Francophiles like me who support our official language minority communities and their arts and culture.
Acadian artists—be they singers, poets, painters, sculptors, filmmakers or writers—have always been the driving force behind Acadian culture. But it was not until 1979 that the history and culture of the Acadian people burst onto the world stage. That was the year that Antonine Maillet won the prestigious Goncourt prize for her novel Pélagie-la-Charrette, the incredible tale of an epic journey that perfectly captures the Acadian paradox. Not only does it relate the drama and tragedy that marked the Acadian people, it also reveals their great beauty and resilience. Through her works, Antonine Maillet has helped to bring Acadian culture to the world and send out the message that the Acadians are still here and are staying here, wherever “here” may be.
Acadians are not defined by geography. And the Acadian identity is strong enough to continue to thrive in spite of the territorial diversity of the community. Acadians in Maine, Quebec and Atlantic Canada, Louisiana Cajuns and all the other communities in the Acadian diaspora have their own customs and traditions.
And now newcomers are bringing their own customs and traditions to the diaspora. While they are still Maghrebis, Cameroonians, Belgians or Malagasy, they are also Acadian. These communities are now home to many different faces, dialects, cultures and traditions. But they all have one thing in common—language. In Acadia, the French language is the point of contact that brings native Acadians and newcomers together within society.
The Acadian community is both a local community and broader society. That paradox is part of its reality and identity—being deeply rooted in a fixed place with a history forever marked by dispersion and separation.
Living that identity paradox is quite a challenge.
How can you be close-knit and yet welcome others in? How do you share a culture that has been shaped by historical struggle and often marked by rejection or discrimination by the majority?
There are several factors that come into play when trying to resolve the contradiction between being a minority identity and being a welcoming community. You have to make sure that your history is taught properly and that community organizations are up and running and sufficiently funded. You also have to nurture a strong sense of belonging within the community. When you have that, your community can successfully welcome and integrate its newcomers.
Over the years, decades and—for Acadia—centuries, this philosophy has evolved considerably. I think it has evolved so much that official language communities have a far greater understanding of the concept of identity than Canadian society in general, because of the many challenges they have had to overcome to ensure their vitality. Even in Canada’s only bilingual province, living in French is a conscious choice that people make every day.
When you look at how far Acadian society has come in terms of education, employment, entrepreneurship and income, you can clearly see just how much progress has been made and just how strong the Acadian identity continues to be.
Despite changes in government, New Brunswick’s language policy has managed to become not just the policy of the government that introduced it 45 years ago, but rather the policy that has been endorsed—and strengthened—by every successive government. The governments of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have also passed legislation on services in French that acknowledges the importance of their respective Acadian and Francophone communities. Since the adoption of these language policies, Acadian society has made tremendous strides.
Recent data show that immigration over the past few decades has tipped the language balance in favour of the English-speaking majority. Katherine d’Entremont, my New Brunswick counterpart, has said that federal and provincial governments have a duty to ensure that their immigration policies, programs and practices do not put one community at a disadvantage as compared to the other. Commissioner d’Entremont, Ontario French Language Services Commissioner François Boileau and I have recently declared our intention to work on this issue, which we believe is a priority for every Francophone and Acadian community.
Anniversaries and celebrations, like the World Acadian Congress, contribute greatly to strengthening our collective identity as Canadians. Every anniversary is an opportunity to tell our national stories to all Canadians, regardless of whether they have heard them before. In 2017 we will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of Confederation. This will be a perfect time to reflect on what we have achieved so far and to take an active role in shaping the future of Acadia and of the Canadian Francophonie.
Linguistic duality is an integral part of Canada’s history and identity, and it needs to be a part of all of the celebrations across the country. It is very interesting to note that the Fathers of Confederation and those who inspired them considered the issue of language and receptiveness to the other linguistic community as one of the fundamental principles of respect that characterize the Canadian identity.
Since then, that understanding has been woven into our history and should be reflected in every aspect of Canada’s historical celebrations.
Even though the Acadian community received scant mention in the debates surrounding Confederation, New Brunswick’s linguistic duality was entrenched not only in the Official Languages Act, but also in the 1982 Constitution Act. More to the point, subsection 16.1(1) of the Charter, which confirms the asymmetry of Canadian federalism, states that “the English linguistic community and the French linguistic community in New Brunswick have equality of status and equal rights and privileges, including the right to distinct educational institutions and such distinct cultural institutions as are necessary for the preservation and promotion of those communities.”
Nowhere else is there such a clear, unequivocal statement concerning the English and French linguistic communities in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba—or anywhere else in Canada.
Acadians: An authentic people
Many Acadian artists have made a name for themselves around the globe, including Lisa Leblanc, Les Hay Babies and Radio Radio. It is so wonderful to see these Acadian artists at prestigious international festivals.
When we think of these artists’ renown alongside Antonine Maillet’s success, there is clearly nothing fortuitous about it. One of the paradoxes of a culture that is becoming increasingly globalized is the constant quest for authenticity. This means that while people tend to gravitate toward things that are globally accessible, the world is always looking for something local, regional, different, original, authentic. And that goes hand in hand with the idea that when you strengthen an original local culture, you are not moving away from globalization. On the contrary, you are becoming more a part of it. You will not make a place for yourself on the world stage by trying to imitate the international stars who are already there, but rather by striving to be original, innovative and authentic. Even if a more “international” French might be needed to communicate throughout the world’s Francophonie, can a regional and popular brand of French be considered the French of the Académie française? Of course not. But if you were to ask young Acadians to speak the French of the Académie française, it would be completely unauthentic. They need to talk about their experiences and their history in their language. This does not exclude them from the culture of globalization, though—far from it.
The fact that more and more people belong to multiple social groups and several cultures at the same time is one of the keys to understanding the concept of identity in modern society. According to this school of thought, it is not contradictory to say that official languages and cultural diversity can coexist and even draw on each other.
This is what we are seeing in Acadia, and this is what the Acadian people—wherever they come from—carry with them wherever they go.
I wish you all an enjoyable Congress.
- Footnote 1
Gérard Bouchard, Genèse des nations et cultures du Nouveau Monde, Montréal, Les Éditions du Boréal, 2001, p. 314.