Since the Official Languages Act was passed in 1969, Canada has had two official languages: English, and French. In theory, it was designed to ensure easy access to all services in either language. In practice, it has meant that the divide between Francophone and Anglophones has stretched ever further, with little incentive to bridge that gap at all, either culturally or linguistically.
B.C. no friend to French
In British Columbia, it’s easy to forget that there is a second official language.
According to the last Census that released specific language data, less than 7 percent of British Columbians speak French, and if you’re counting people that speak exclusively French, that drops to less than 1500 in total.
But that number is growing, and French Immersion number programs in British Columbia are filling up at an exponential rate.
But not every one who wants to put their children into French Immersion can do so. The programs are limited, and long line-ups for child placement are common. But if French is an official language of Canada, why is it so difficult for some Canadians to have the opportunity to learn it?
According to the Canadian Charter of Rights & Freedoms, only native French speakers or children of native French speakers have a guaranteed right to French school programs. French second language speakers aren’t covered at all. And so parents wanting to place their children in French immersion must hope that their school district has a large enough population to warrant such a program, and that their school board also recognizes that the demand for such a program exists. Currently, less than half of the 59 school districts in B.C. have French Immersion programs.
Attempts at change
Glyn Lewis is trying to change that. He’s the Executive Director for the BC & Yukon branch of Canadian Parents. It’s a grassroots organization dedicated to creating and promoting second language opportunities at the community level.
Lewis feels that learning both languages is a must in today’s society.
“We’ve come to a point where it’s a recognized value,” he says. “French is part of our linguistic duality. It’s a building block of Canadian identity, and it’s part of who we are.”
Lewis recently had an opportunity to share his ideas in Ottawa in front of the Senate sub-committee on Official languages.
“One of the things we were talking about in Ottawa in our presentation to the Senate is how to broaden the definition of Francophone, to include French language speakers.”
He says that the senator’s reaction was receptive, though concerns were raised. Ultimately he views the trip as a success, and feels that the Senators were receptive to their message.
“They recognize that if there are parents camping out in Tofino or Coquitlam because they can’t get into a (French Immersion) program, it’s a shame, and something needs to change.”
Although Lewis’ goal of having the Federal government guarantee access to French language programs to everyone may be a long way off, he says that the amount of kids enrolling in French Immersion programs is increasing every year.
“French and English are our official languages, and It’s important that all kids have the opportunity to learn those languages and are able to grow and excel anywhere in Canada.”