This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Official Languages Act. It’s certainly a venerable milestone, and many experts, Francophones, and Francophiles are hoping it serves as a catalyst not only for injecting new strength into this pillar of our national identity, but also for extending its scope to all sectors, including post-secondary education.
“I hope everyone sees this anniversary as an opportunity to reflect on this issue, because the Act is for all Canadians. Over the years, it’s been refocused on linguistic minorities, but in essence, it’s at the heart of Canadian citizenship. The Official Languages Act recognizes that Canada’s diversity is expressed through both English and French,” says Linda Cardinal, a University of Ottawa professor and holder of the Research Chair in Canadian Francophonie and Public Policies.
The Official Languages Act was adopted in 1969 by the government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, which wanted the legislation to reflect Canada’s linguistic duality. With the OLA came equal status for English and French in all federal institutions, so that citizens could now access services in the official language of their choice. The Act also created the position of commissioner of official languages, who oversees compliance with the legislation by fielding complaints from the public, conducting studies and providing reports to Parliament.
For the country’s Francophone communities, the OLA represented a huge step forward because French-language education had withered away in several provinces over the decades. Manitoba’s Thornton Act, for instance, which remained in effect from 1916 to 1960, made instruction in French illegal, forcing schools to teach that language clandestinely. In Ontario, Regulation 17, adopted in 1912 and rescinded in 1927, had a similar effect by prohibiting the use of French as a language of instruction and communication throughout the province’s schools.
With the adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, language rights gained constitutionality, including the right to elementary and secondary education for linguistic minorities. “At that moment, Canada recognized not only a linguistic compromise, but that this compromise is part of our DNA,” says Cardinal.
The OLA was overhauled in 1988 to meet the requirements of the Charter, and it was this major reform that, among other things, gave federal employees the right to work in the language of their choice. However, the biggest impact of the reform came from a new federal commitment in the Act (Part VII): specifically, to help Canada’s English- and French-language minorities flourish, to foster their development and to work on the full recognition and use of both official languages across Canadian society.
In May 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to modernize the Official Languages Act. Since then, the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages and the House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages have worked and consulted on this issue, and each must submit its recommendations to the government.
The recommendations will prove timely in that the Minister of Tourism, Official Languages and La Francophonie, Mélanie Joly, announced an official review of the OLA in March. The findings of the review are expected in June, the objective being to strengthen the legislation “to ensure that it meets the expectations of the people of Canada; responds to the new challenges posed by social transformations and the expansion of government action sectors; and maintains its positive effect over the long term.”
In a preliminary report published in October 2018, the senate committee noted that minority communities who have appeared before the committee are already asking for major reforms to the Act. Among the report highlights is the following: “Linguistic duality, an integral part of Canada’s social contract, is a core value underlying the linguistic framework, and this framework must reflect the communities’ aspirations, circumstances and needs. This implies providing stronger supports in the sectors that affect the communities’ development — education, immigration, arts and culture or health being only a few examples.”
“The federal government is required to play a role, and it’s doing so,” says Senator Raymonde Gagné, a member of the senate committee and a former rector of Université Saint-Boniface. “Yes, education is a provincial jurisdiction, but under the Official Languages Act, the federal government is responsible for fostering the vitality and development of minority communities, and post-secondary institutions are tools that can be used to support these communities.”
This is what a number of groups are now asking of the federal government. In its brief on the modernization of the OLA, the Fédération des conseils d’éducation du Nouveau-Brunswick is calling for Part VII of the Act to be given a broader scope. Specifically, the federation wants the federal government’s responsibility for helping minority communities reach their full potential “to be founded on the right to education throughout life, that is, from early childhood to the post-secondary level.”
Senator Gagné agrees. “Modernizing the Act implies that we want to support our communities better, and that in turn means better equipping every segment of the educational system, from early childhood programs to post-secondary institutions. We need to amend the Act so that it includes, among other items, sections that sustain the entire education continuum and, as such, recognize that the role played by post-secondary education in La Francophonie’s vitality must be interpreted more broadly.”
Although education is a provincial jurisdiction, the federal government can weigh more heavily in the funding of post-secondary studies for minority settings, according to Érik Labelle Eastaugh, director of the Observatoire international de droits linguistiques at the Université de Moncton. He adds that the OLA needs modernization so that federal obligations can be clarified. “When minority communities have launched legal challenges against various decisions, the courts have interpreted Part VII of the Act very narrowly, because the language dealing with the vitality and development of minority communities is too general.”
For sociologist Marc L. Johnson, director of a project called Carrefour francophone du savoir et de l’innovation à l’Université de l’Ontario français, it’s clear that education is still the main battleground for minority Francophone communities. “Having a university established by and for Francophones stems from decades of demands from the Franco-Ontarian community,” he says.
“Yes, we have bilingual universities, but a bilingual university is not a Francophone university,” Johnson adds. “Governance isn’t conducted in French, communications don’t take place in French … and when cuts happen, French-language programs are the first victims because they naturally have a lower student enrolment.” Although the Ontario government has announced plans to withdraw its funding for the French-language university, officials of the institution still plan to register 300 students in 2020 in order to demonstrate widespread interest and potential long-term viability of the university.
“It’s important to have a French-language university in Ontario,” Johnson insists. “Most Franco-Ontarians are bilingual, because it’s hard to live in the province if you aren’t. Students can attend an English-language university, but if they do that, they shift slowly into English-only mode. Without equivalent programs in French, we’re sending them down the road to assimilation, and that’s a risk.”
Érik Labelle Eastaugh also thinks that a new clause requiring funding for post-secondary studies in minority settings would go a long way in ensuring the vibrancy of Canada’s Francophonie. “These programs are rarer because they’re offered to smaller groups and cost more as a result. That’s what we observe at the elementary and secondary levels.”
Linda Cardinal says the Ontario government’s withdrawal of funding for a French-language university has lit a fire.
“It’s awakened many to the state of La Francophonie across the country. Waves of solidarity have come from Quebec and other provinces. In Quebec, for example, people don’t understand why Ontario refuses to fund a French-language university, whereas Quebec has three English-language ones. In that context, the federal government has a role to play, and I see this as a microcosm that’s redefining the place of French across Canada.”
Cardinal also thinks the federal government could aim higher. “It should check to see if Francophones are getting their fair share of research funding. I’m not sure that’s the case right now. Granting bodies have put forward minor initiatives to promote French-language research, but we need to find out if the Official Languages Act and practices in funded research actually mesh.”