1st Session, 42nd Parliament,
Volume 150, Issue 131
Tuesday, June 13, 2017
The Honourable George J. Furey, Speaker
Study on the Challenges Associated with Access to French-Language Schools and French Immersion Programs in British Columbia
Fourth Report of Official Languages Committee and Request for Government Response Adopted
On the Order:
Resuming debate on the motion of the Honourable Senator Tardif, seconded by the Honourable Senator Joyal, P.C.:
That the fourth report of the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages, entitled Horizon 2018: Toward Stronger Support of French-language Learning in British Columbia, tabled in the Senate on May 31, 2017, be adopted and that, pursuant to rule 12-24(1), the Senate request a complete and detailed response from the government, with the Minister of Canadian Heritage being identified as minister responsible for responding to the report, in consultation with the Ministers of Public Services and Procurement, Families, Children and Social Development, Innovation, Science and Economic Development and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship.
Hon. Mobina S. B. Jaffer: Honourable senators, the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages produced a study report entitled Horizon 2018: Toward Stronger Support of French-language Learning in British Columbia, concerning the challenges that students and parents face getting into French schools and immersion programs in British Columbia.
Before I begin, I would like to thank Senator Tardif, Chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages, and all members of the committee who contributed to this study in British Columbia.
I would also like to thank the witnesses who participated in the study that resulted in this report. I thank them for shedding light on issues affecting the Francophonie in my home province of British Columbia. Their testimony was indispensable.
In their speeches, Senator Tardif and Senator Gagné presented the report in a very clear and thoughtful manner. They pointed out the recommendations set out in the report regarding Francophonie issues and encouraged the Minister of Canadian Heritage and the British Columbia Ministry of Education to work together. It is essential that the federal and provincial governments work together to ensure that French-language education and French immersion programs are available to students.
In our country, bilingualism is not just a belief; it is a right that is set out in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which reads as follows, and I quote:
The right of citizens of Canada . . . to have their children receive primary and secondary school instruction in the language of the English or French linguistic minority population of a province
(a) applies wherever in the province the number of children of citizens who have such a right is sufficient to warrant the provision to them out of public funds of minority language instruction; and
(b) includes, where the number of those children so warrants, the right to have them receive that instruction in minority language educational facilities provided out of public funds.
This right therefore entitles francophone parents in my province, where French is a minority language, to have access to education in French for their children.
Honourable senators, I look forward to working with the new Commissioner of Official Languages in order to ensure that this right is implemented and respected in British Columbia. I would like to thank the outgoing Commissioner, Graham Fraser, for the work he has done for Canadians.
Many striking statistics were mentioned in this study. For example, from 2006 to 2011, the francophone population in British Columbia grew. The number of people who use French as their first language increased by 12,400.
Despite the fact that the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages published an excellent report, conducted excellent research, made great recommendations and talked about future developments, I am still not satisfied. My frustration has to do with the lack of consideration and recognition that we have for francophone communities that are not indigenous to Canada and the limited funding allocated to French immersion programs.
First of all, the report reveals that more than 185,000 immigrants settled in my province of British Columbia between 2006 and 2011. Approximately 30 per cent of British Columbia’s francophone population are immigrants. This means that those whose first language is not necessarily French but who can understand and speak the language are increasingly identifying with the francophonie and feeling as though they are part of French-Canadian culture.
I would like to tell you about a francophone woman who was not born in Canada. Benula Larsen is originally from Mauritius. French was one of the first languages she learned, along with Creole. During high school, she became friends with some fellow students of Iranian and Quebecois roots. Together they created the Conseil jeunesse francophone de la Colombie-Britannique, which still exists today, whose mission is to promote pride in the francophonie among youth.
Ms. Larsen told me, and I quote:
The francophonie and my love for the language made me the person I am today. I am proud to be a French immersion teacher. I have been living in this province for 35 years; it is my home.
It is thanks to the French language that I integrated so well here. In spite of everything, a lot of work remains to be done to ensure that our students can access French-language education. Some immigrants are not told when they arrive in this country that French-language education is possible.
Honourable senators, there are many francophones like Ms. Larsen in my province. My dear friend Padminee Chundunsing is also originally from Mauritius. She is president of the Fédération des francophones de la Colombie-Britannique. Ms. Larsen and Ms. Chundunsing are very involved and constantly contribute to francophone culture in Western Canada.
Francophones like them make up 30 per cent of the francophone population in my province, in other words, people who identify with the French language without be Canadian by birth. This percentage of the francophone population gets little recognition.
In the report of the Standing Committee on Official Languages, recommendation 12 calls on the Minister of Canadian Heritage, the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, as well as the British Columbia department of education, to ensure that francophone immigrants are informed of the possibility of having access to education in French in British Columbia.
The second challenge has to do with the lack of access to French immersion. Between 1997 and 2014, registration at francophone schools increased by 75 per cent and by 65 per cent for immersion programs during that same time period. These statistics, taken from the report, are proof. There is no doubt that the demand and interest are there.
Despite high demand and long waiting lists for French immersion programs, the Vancouver school board is cutting the number of classes by nearly one third for the 2017-18 school year. That is significant. I understand that education may seem like a provincial matter, but to me, bilingualism is a national affair.
My two children are perfectly bilingual. They want to pass on their linguistic heritage to their children. My grandson was on a waiting list at 13 primary immersion schools. My daughter-in-law Shaleena reached out to her personal contacts to get my grandson a spot in an immersion class. Many parents do what they can and hope that their children will get accepted into an immersion school. Preventing children from getting an education in French is unacceptable. It hinders the growth and development of Canadian bilingualism in my province. Funding is not keeping pace with registration.
Recommendation 11 calls on the Minister of Canadian Heritage, in collaboration with British Columbia’s Ministry of Education, to meet growing demand by guaranteeing access to immersion programs and the funding to sustain them. Giving parents and students access to education in French and immersion programs amounts to honouring their basic language rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
As parliamentarians, politicians, and federal government representatives, it is our duty to promote education in French and English across Canada. We must offer students the French-language education they need to construct their cultural identity. These problems have surfaced every year for decades and will not fix themselves.
This official languages committee’s report is timely considering that the federal government will be renegotiating the Memorandum of Understanding on Minority-Language Education and Second-Language Instruction in 2018. This is a great time for the federal and provincial governments to show that bilingualism in British Columbia and across the country matters to them.
During negotiations for the new memorandum of understanding on education and the next multi-year official languages plan, I would like the Minister of Canadian Heritage to stand with British Columbia’s francophone communities and enhance funding for immersion education. Financial support is urgent, and accessibility is just as big an issue.
If we do not provide children with the resources they need and access to French-language education in British Columbia, we will never be a truly bilingual nation. I am a staunch advocate of minority language rights in British Columbia.
Whether for francophones or francophiles like me, I firmly believe in bilingualism. That is why I am appealing to the government to recognize the 30 per cent of francophones who were not born in Canada who never cease to contribute to my province’s rich, francophone culture. If we are really serious about bilingualism, we must provide the necessary resources to French immersion programs.
Honourable senators, English and French bilingualism is what makes our country unique. Bilingualism forms the foundation of our Canadian identity. Bilingualism is the greatest legacy we can leave for future generations. Failing to encourage French education and immersion would undermine this cultural heritage.
We are a bilingual nation, and we have a duty to promote this cultural wealth. Honourable senators, we truly need both an English-speaking Canada, a French-speaking Canada and a bilingual, united Canada.
Honourable senators, I truly believe that if we are going to be serious that our country becomes a bilingual country, stays a bilingual country, we have to be serious about the resources we provide to provinces right across the country.
The resources that are provided to children in British Columbia are really bad. That is why I am happy and proud to be in this Senate where, under the leadership of Senator Tardif, we are looking at this issue. I know that she will continuously monitor it so that the children in Newfoundland, in Quebec and in British Columbia, all speak in both our languages, French and English.
Hon. Ghislain Maltais: Honourable senators, I want to congratulate Senator Jaffer on her excellent speech, which I will certainly not repeat.
During our visit to British Columbia, our chair, Senator Tardif, showed us another side of Canada, that of a francophone minority awash in a sea of anglophones. We were introduced to some remarkable parents, children and teachers.
Mr. Speaker, I know you are an excellent fisherman. Let’s say that the French language is like a river full of salmon. It is turbulent at times, but in the end, the calm waters return. That is what we saw in British Columbia.
The main challenge facing official language minority communities, both English and French, is that education is a provincial jurisdiction. We could ask the Minister of Heritage to allocate millions of dollars to the provinces, but we would still need to make sure that the money would be spent on education and in the right place. That is the crux of the problem.
When the President of the Treasury Board, Scott Brison, appeared before the committee, we asked him whether there was any way to control accountability and whether the money really was intended for minority language communities. Unfortunately, no such legislation exists in Canada.
However, the President of the Treasury Board did promise to resolve much of the problem within the next year. At present, the federal government, regardless of political stripe, transfers money to the provinces, and the provinces distribute that money to where official language minority communities exist, but unfortunately, it seems as though the provinces may not be doing that, which is why we need to pass framework legislation.
Honourable senators, let us not forget that, when they cease to be shared, languages become dead languages, no matter how beautiful and mellifluous they may sound. I thank the people of British Columbia for welcoming us, especially Senator Jaffer’s family, who speak excellent French and who gave us a warm welcome. They are a fine example, honourable senators, of those who experience perfect bilingualism. Thank you.
The Hon. the Speaker: Are senators ready for the question?
Some Hon. Senators: Yes.
The Hon. the Speaker: Is it your pleasure, honourable senators, to adopt the motion?
Some Hon. Senators: Agreed.
(Motion agreed to)