Friday, December 14, 2007

Fridays with Bernard

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of attending the Toronto meeting of the regional policy consultations on official languages, organized by the Ministry of Canadian Heritage, and chaired by Bernard Lord. It was an interesting group assembled - organizations representing immigrant communities, the business community (particularly language workers), Franco-Ontarian groups, Canadian Parents for French, and a few university professors. About 20 individuals were at the meeting, in addition to the Heritage staffers. For the most part, they were intelligent, well-spoken people who were clearly committed to the continuation and improvement of the government's policies on official languages.

There was certainly some trepidation in the room. The current 5-year plan on official languages is set to wrap up at the end of March 2008, and the people I spoke with expressed concern that with the consultations only happening now, it is unlikely that a new plan will be in place for the start of April - unless these consultations are a sham. There are major concerns about whether funding for official languages is going to dry up while the government works up its next plan. I will say, however, that Bernard Lord appeared to be taking his job seriously. He was clearly engaged with the dossier, asked pertinent questions in response to statements from the participants, and gave no indication that he thought this was not a serious effort. Hopefully this reflects attitudes further up the chain.

I will not go into great detail on the multitude of issues discussed over the course of the day. Certain issues do stand out for me though. There was a widespread call for the federal government to show leadership on this dossier, recognizing that many sectors that touch language are actually under provincial and municipal control. Many participants called for a tri-level approach to language issues, with the federal government serving as convenor.

The recent statistics on second-language learning, and language retention among francophone minorities were of concern to many. One of the most important issues to emerge, in my opinion, was the need for Canada's governments - and this includes the provinces - to work on a new strategy for the promotion of language learning, and communication skills more broadly, as part of the skills needed for the "knowledge economy". Interventions from the business representatives were quite telling - apparently Canada is currently unable to meet the domestic demand for basic language workers such as translators and interpreters, and there is a similar shortage of bilingual and multilingual workers in the private sector. There is a demand for bilingual workers in non-governmental jobs, and this is not part of common discourse on language learning in Canada.

Other issues were new to me - there is clearly a major conflict within francophone minority communities, and in their relation with governments, over the place of immigrant francophones, or immigrants for whom French is not their mother tongue, but preferred official language. Clearly there are integration problems, and also problems in terms of how provincial governments conceive of their responsibilities to provide French-language services to those who are not "de souche" Canadian-born francophones.

I am not sure what unfolded in the other regional meetings, but I was struck (as were some other participants) by the fact that almost all of the people in the meeting were "the converted". 17 of the 20 participants in the room were francophone, and the three anglophones represented either universities or Canadian Parents for French. These consultations need to engage those who do not have quite the same vested interest in official languages, and I hope that these groups and individuals are attending the other sessions. I found the day productive, and I hope that the recommendations from these sessions lead to a reinvestment in official languages, and a more concrete set of policies to promote interpersonal contact between anglophones and francophones, and increased opportunities for second-language learning in a practical context.

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Monday, December 03, 2007

Bernard Lord and the Bilingualism Policy Review

Today in Moncton, Stephen Harper appointed former New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord to head a policy review on the Canadian government's official languages policies. It has been almost five years since the last major policy review produced a 5-year plan entitled The Next Act. Launched by Stephane Dion, it committed the government to a major reinvestment in official languages in order to increase services to official language minorities, and to promote bilingualism among the general Canadian youth population.

Something became clear to me when I read this announcement. On Friday morning, I received an invitation from the Minister of Canadian Heritage to a policy forum on official languages to be held in Toronto this coming Friday. I was wondering why I received such a late invitation to a major policy review - one that required some juggling of my fall exams and meetings. But it would seem that I'm going to get to talk language policy with Bernard Lord, which should prove to be very informative indeed.

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