Archived - Notes for an address to Grade 10 and 11 students in Newfoundland and Labrador St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador
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St. John's, November 7, 2012
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
I’m delighted to be here with you today in this beautiful region, and I would like to thank Susan Forward from the Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Education for helping organize this great event.
One of the wonderful advantages to being the Commissioner of Official Languages is that I get to travel across the country and meet with young Canadians like you—who are interested in our official languages—and I always learn something new.
I hear that you all participated in the summer exchange program organized by your province’s Department of Education. Congratulations!
I always emphasize how important it is for young Canadians to have access to real immersion opportunities. Exchange programs are an excellent way to continue learning your second official language and to discover another side of our vast country. You had an unforgettable experience, and I look forward to hearing about your adventures.
I’m curious to know what you think of linguistic duality. But before I ask you about that, perhaps I should explain a little bit about who I am and what I do.
Before I was appointed Commissioner of Official Languages in 2006, I worked as a journalist—in Toronto, Montréal, Québec City, Washington and Ottawa. Linguistic duality has always fascinated me, and six years ago, I decided to leave journalism to apply for the position of Commissioner of Official Languages.
The Official Languages Act, which has been in effect since 1969, established the position of Commissioner of Official Languages and defines my responsibilities. My mandate is to ensure that the status of each of Canada’s official languages is respected, and that federal institutions comply with the Act.
I am also Canada’s official languages ombudsman—the protector of Canadians’ language rights. Citizens can contact me when they believe their language rights have been violated by a federal institution. So to sum up, my role is part cheerleader, part nag—in other words, sometimes I get to be encouraging, and sometimes I have to ruffle a few feathers. The Official Languages Act gives me a number of ways to fulfill this dual role.
As Commissioner, I promote linguistic duality within the federal bureaucracy and also within Canadian society. This is an aspect of my work that’s very important to me.
My own awakening to the linguistic reality of Canada took place when I was just about your age. During my last year at high school, a friend invited me to a Gilles Vigneault concert at the University of Toronto. I was overwhelmed and, ever since, my desire to learn more about French in Canada has never flagged. By the way, if you don’t know who he is, Gilles Vigneault,, who is of Acadian descent, is one of Quebec’s greatest poets and singer-songwriters—he is now 84 years old and he is still writing and singing!
A year after that concert, I got a summer job on an archaeology dig at Fort Lennox, on the Richelieu River, near Montréal. The language of work was French and it was a real shock. There I was in my own country, but it was completely unfamiliar. I didn’t understand what the other students were saying. So I listened, and I asked a lot of questions. In addition to learning French, I developed a strong interest in Quebec and a passion for it that has never left me.
This curiosity and my thirst for knowledge took me on my career path as a journalist working in both official languages. You are probably just as inquisitive and eager for knowledge as I was at your age. The fact that you participated in a summer exchange program means that you already know how important speaking both official languages is for your education and for your future career. You have already taken important steps towards being the leaders of tomorrow. But don’t stop now. Keep that spark of excitement and curiosity about the world around you, and learn as much as you can in both official languages.
The world has changed a lot since your parents were your age. Language borders are increasingly blurred, and electronic communication is instantaneous. It’s hard to keep up, and one language just isn’t enough anymore to deal with all the information coming at us from the four corners of the earth.
But just like an athlete’s performance, which drops dramatically when they stop training, your language skills will also atrophy if you stop using your second language. Use it or lose it.
Your generation faces considerable challenges, but at the same time, you have unprecedented access to information and instant communication. You have tools your parents did not have. New technologies are opening all kinds of doors for you. You can explore English and French cultures with the click of a mouse.
Social media is an excellent way to practise your second official language or to stay plugged into French culture. But I’m sure you know a lot more about that than I do! Through social media, official languages can be part of your everyday life. My office recently introduced two new social media outlets—I hope you’ll follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
There is no question that knowing Canada’s two official languages leads to a better understanding of the country’s history, politics and culture. Learning a second language is a little like becoming an immigrant in your own country. You discover what it means to be less articulate, to have an accent, to not get the joke. No one who has struggled to learn another language is ever insensitive to the extraordinary challenges and barriers that immigrants face.
As you know, linguistic duality doesn’t just mean French in Quebec and English in the rest of Canada. There are many French-speaking communities outside Quebec. There are French-Canadians in New Brunswick, in Ontario, in Manitoba, in Alberta and, of course, here in Newfoundland and Labrador, to name but a few. Canada has thousands of young people like you who value French, who want to keep it alive and who want to connect with others like themselves who are in linguistic minority communities.
If there is a single quality that’s essential these days, it’s curiosity, and I encourage you to be curious, not just about your own part of the country, but also about all minority communities in Canada—French-speaking communities outside of Quebec, such as right here in Newfoundland and Labrador, and English-speaking communities in Quebec.
Knowing more than one language opens the door not only to education and jobs; it also lets you extend the influence of your community and culture as you go out into the world. I encourage you to participate in activities organized by the Fédération de la jeunesse canadienne-française, which brings together Francophone minority youth associations from nine provinces and two territories, and by young French-Canadians here in Newfoundland and Labrador. Some of these events and activities include the Festival Jeunesse de l’Acadie (FJA), the Canadian Francophone Games, the Grand rassemblement jeunesse and Franco-Jeunes. Whether you join an association, go to a play, attend a concert or participate in other activities, you don’t have to go far to discover another culture and improve your second official language.
Here in Newfoundland and Labrador, you are in a unique position—halfway between Quebec and St. Pierre and Miquelon. For those of you who are thinking about working in the service or tourist industry, continuing your studies in French will increase your chances of success.
Fewer American tourists are coming to Canada. However, French-speaking visitors from Quebec and Atlantic Canada represent a potentially large tourist market. Many tourism publications and travel articles in French-language newspapers describe Newfoundland and Labrador as a prime travel and discovery destination. Being able to serve these clients in French is a valuable tool in your toolbox.
The more tools you have, the more skilled you are and the more competitive you are, which makes you more desirable as a future employee or as a future entrepreneur. Above and beyond its practical aspect, linguistic duality represents a uniquely Canadian value.
Before I finish, I’d like you to take some time to think about something. It will soon be time for you to make some choices about your future education, so why not consider continuing to learn your two official languages at college or university? To help you find universities that offer French-language training or where the French language is prominent, my office created an on-line interactive map of Canada that lists the various second-language programs offered in post-secondary institutions across the country.
This tool, which is on our Web site, gives you access to a wealth of information, such as second-language programs or programs available in both languages, courses taught in the second language, what kind of support is available, networking opportunities and exchange programs where you can study in your second language. I hope the map will inspire you to continue your studies in both official languages.
Like I said before, your second language will disappear if you stop using it. Speaking a second language is not like riding a bicycle—you can forget how if you don’t keep doing it. Use it or lose it!
Thank you for your attention. If we still have time, I’d like to answer any questions you may have, or hear about your own experiences with linguistic duality.
Sample questions to ask participants
Do you think it’s important to be bilingual? Why?
What do you do in your daily life, outside of class, to practise your second official language?
What are the advantages of communicating and living in both official languages?