Archived - Notes for an address to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages
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Ottawa, Ontario, December 2, 2013
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
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Beginning of dialog
Mr. Chair, members of the Standing Committee on Official Languages, good afternoon.
I am delighted to appear before the Committee today to discuss immersion education, an approach to learning that helps young Canadians develop a strong sense of our country's bilingual nature.
Right now across Canada, immersion education programs continue to be an unparalleled success. Thanks to these programs, more than 300,000 young Canadians have the opportunity to learn their second official language in an educational setting on a daily basis. This is due largely to the efforts and dedication of parents and educators. They survive and even thrive because of the energy and support of school boards, principals, teachers, parents and organizations like Canadian Parents for French.
Over the past four years, the federal government, for its part, has allocated an average of $86 million annually to the provinces for second-language education. Investments in immersion programs across the country have resulted in a new generation of bilingual Canadians, many of whom are now in post-secondary institutions.
The success of immersion graduates, including the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages Shelly Glover and her predecessor, the Honourable James Moore, demonstrate the value of the program.
A few years ago, I met the father of a minister of the Crown who proudly told me that he had stayed up all night—with different members of the family, including the minister, taking shifts—so that his granddaughter could be enrolled in a French immersion program.
I experienced conflicting emotions when I heard that story. On the one hand, that Canada was sufficiently egalitarian that even a minister would not have any special access to immersion for a family member, and that a family would organize itself in shifts around the clock, waiting in line outside the school board office, was inspiring. On the other hand, treating access to immersion like Rolling Stones tickets is an appalling way to distribute what should be a universal right to quality second-language instruction. The fact that this is still necessary, four decades after Dr. Wallace Lambert's wildly successful immersion experiment in Quebec, is cause for concern.
Anecdotes like these offer a window into the realities and challenges of immersion, providing a sense of what immersion programs are, what is required to sustain them and what the benefits can be to individuals, families and entire communities. What immersion is not, however, is a panacea, nor is it the only way to learn French. Neither should it drain resources away from core French instruction in Canada, as I sometimes fear it does by attracting the best teachers and the most committed students and teachers.
Despite a high level of interest in immersion programs, some challenges do need to be tackled if we want to increase the level of proficiency of young Canadians in both official languages.
I often worry that unilingual parents see French second-language programs like immersion as a system that produces perfectly bilingual graduates or as the one and only way to learn French. These expectations are both unrealistic and counterproductive.
In the global economy, learning other languages is in itself an advantage. It opens doors to a multitude of opportunities around the world. Learning French can be a stepping stone not only toward bilingualism, but also toward multilingualism.
In fact, many young people working in the international field today got their start through their exposure to their other official language. We become more adept at learning new languages when we learn a second language, and so it is easier to learn a third once you have learned two. I have always been impressed by young Canadians who have started with our two official languages and learned a third language abroad.
In Canada, immersion offers students a structured program that involves taking all or a significant proportion of their courses in their second language, while benefiting from special second-language learning supports and assistance. Immersion programs are, however, much less available in universities in Canada than they are at the elementary and high school levels.
It is disappointing to me that, year after year, many students who want to enrol in French immersion programs or courses at university are not always able to do so—often because of a lack of space in existing programs or because of funding problems that threaten the program's survival. Many students have had to give up on the idea of perfecting the language skills they acquired in elementary and high school because very few post-secondary institutions give their students the opportunity to take courses within their field in the official language of their choice.
Some post-secondary institutions, such as the University of Ottawa, the Université Sainte Anne and Glendon College at York University, offer immersion courses and programs. In fact, Glendon has recently developed a bilingual master's program in public and international affairs. There is no question that the creation of immersion programs at Simon Fraser University and at the University of British Columbia is directly related to the growing number of students from the high school immersion programs being offered in that province. The Université de Saint-Boniface actively recruits from Manitoba's immersion high schools.
The Campus Saint-Jean at the University of Alberta is another interesting example. Many students come from local immersion programs and choose to continue their education in French there. All of this did not come about by accident, nor is it solely the result of the exemplary work of the Campus and its staff. This success stems from the efforts made by Edmonton public schools since 2000 to improve the immersion programs being offered and, on the strength of this success, other language programs as well.
At the elementary and high school levels, we are still far from achieving the vision in which all Canadians have access to the necessary resources to effectively learn English and French. Registration issues, such as enrolment caps, overnight lineups and lotteries, continue to hinder access to second-language programs in many regions.
In the 1980s, there was a study that suggested a trend showing that there would be one million students in immersion by the year 2000. With funding caps in place, enrolment has plateaued at around 300,000.
It is important that immigrants be encouraged, not discouraged, to send their children to immersion. Immigrant students in immersion have told me that learning French made them feel more Canadian. Similarly, many new arrivals have expressed a stronger sense of belonging to Canada simply through their children's learning of both official languages. I have also seen examples where members of visible minority groups are actually more bilingual in English and French than unilingual Canadians who have been in Canada for generations. This is why school officials need to provide better support to allophone parents who are interested in these programs.
I feel strongly that immersion education should be part of a continuum, reinforced by summer programs and exchanges, and supported by strong incentives from universities that recognize the significance of student applicants who have persevered through a more challenging elementary and high school curriculum.
At the post-secondary level, some universities have increased their second-language learning opportunities, while others have reduced their efforts in this area. The decision to reduce efforts is caused by various factors. For example, the Government of Canada is not expressing its need for bilingual workers loudly and clearly enough to prompt post-secondary education officials to pay more attention to the benefits of second-language learning.
There are students who are ready, willing and able to learn in their second official language. To achieve a true continuum of second-language learning, the federal government must demonstrate its leadership by developing an overall strategy on this issue. There needs to be a continuum of second-language learning from elementary school to the post-secondary level and then into the workplace. I believe this continuum is an important and integral part of preparing our young people to be productive employees and citizens who can invest themselves fully in the civic life of their country.
That is why, in my 2009 study of second-language learning in Canadian universities, I recommended that the Government of Canada provide financial assistance to universities so that they can develop and carry out new initiatives to improve students' second-language learning opportunities. I believe a priority should be placed on increasing the number of exchanges and real-life opportunities for students to use their second official language and interact with people who speak that language.
As a complement to the 2009 study, we developed an on-line map of Canada to help students find out about learning opportunities in various universities across the country. The map lists second-language courses, subject-matter courses taught in the second official language, support programs, networking activities and exchange programs that are available at more than 85 Canadian universities.
In my 2011–2012 annual report, I recommended the Prime Minister take the necessary measures to double the number of young Canadians who participate each year in short- and long-term language exchanges at the high school and post-secondary levels.
Regarding the state of bilingualism outside of Quebec, data from the 2011 Census revealed a troubling decline. That is why, in my recently tabled annual report, I have recommended that the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages establish clear objectives to raise the level of bilingualism among Canadians and reverse the decline in bilingualism among Anglophones in particular. Today, I suggest that Committee members develop and recommend a plan to the Minister that could be rolled out in time for the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017.
I would also like to reiterate my recommendation that the Government of Canada provide financial assistance to universities so that they can develop and carry out new initiatives to improve students' second-language learning opportunities. To achieve a true continuum of second-language learning, the government must demonstrate its leadership by developing an overall strategy on this issue.
Finally, I recommend the government refer to the Protocol for Agreements for Minority-Language Education and Second-Language Instruction, which will strengthen and support the initiatives and investments outlined in Canada's Roadmap for Official Languages 2013-2018 so that any Canadians wanting to learn their second official language will have the tools to do so.
On this point, Mr. Chair, I will conclude my remarks. I thank you for your attention and would be pleased to answer any questions you or your colleagues may have.