In Ontario, As Elsewhere, The Paradox Of Canadian Bilingualism Lives On
By Randall White
Current data from several big school boards show that Ontario schools are struggling “to keep students in French immersion,” according to Globe and Mail reporter Caroline Alphonso.
A Statistics Canada study a few years ago also showed that the “proportion of Canadians able to conduct a conversation in both English and French declined for the first time between the 2001 and 2011 censuses after 40 years of growth.” Results from the 2016 census now underway will remain a mystery for a while yet.
Over the next several years Justin Trudeau (and his talented wife Sophie Gregoire) just may start boosting bilingualism across Canada again.
Yet earlier this year media business guru Kevin O’Leary claimed he could become federal Conservative leader even though he cannot speak French. In his view “bilingualism is not necessary in Canadian politics.”
This sentiment may have something to do with the French immersion struggles recently uncovered by Ms. Alphonso.
Especially in such provinces as BC and Ontario, there are apparently still many parents keen to get their children into French immersion programs.
The problem is that many children do not want to stay in French immersion.
In the Peel District School Board less than half the students enrolled in Grade 1 are still in the program by Grade 5.
In Toronto there are “about 1,100 students in French immersion in Grade 8.” But this is less than half the number of freshly enrolled French immersion students “in kindergarten classrooms.”
Statistics of this sort may not present any seriously insuperable obstacles to good public education management. Their more troubling side arguably points to broader questions of public policy on French and English bilingualism.
Moreover, the conviction that Mr. O’Leary is altogether wrong about bilingualism in Canadian federal politics today is not just a partisan tradition of Canadian Liberals and New Democrats.
This past April Ontario conservative writer-at-large John Ibbitson, also of the Globe and Mail, explained that Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall and Kevin O’Leary “have both been touted as possible leaders for the Conservative Party.” But these are impossible dreams, he said, “because both are unilingual and Canada’s prime minister simply must be bilingual.”
Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper from Alberta quietly underlined this modern Canadian deep political truth in his farewell address to his “grande famille Conservatrice,” in Vancouver just a few weeks ago.
Speaking in French, Mr. Harper stressed the importance of his party’s growth in Quebec. In 2004 the Conservatives were shut out in the province. In 2015 they took 12 seats in a great circle around predominantly francophone Quebec City.
In Mr. Harper’s own words: “Notre parti a désormais une base solide au coeur même de la grande nation québécoise. Bravo!”
All this returns us to the impact of French immersion in Ontario schools on broader bilingualism policy.
As Ibbitson further explained, there is a paradox as well as a necessity to official bilingualism in Canada today.
On the one hand, it is only fair to the 60% of francophone Canadians who do not speak English that “senior federal politicians and public servants must speak both English and French.”
On the other hand, less than one-fifth of Canadians are actually bilingual, and they are concentrated in Quebec and the adjacent “bilingual belts” of Ontario and New Brunswick.
Requiring bilingual senior federal politicians and public servants is unfair to the great majority of Canadians who are not bilingual and live outside Quebec and the adjacent bilingual belts.
But whatever else, in Ontario and other parts of the country beyond Quebec, French immersion programs in the public education system have been one public policy approach to mitigating the paradox of bilingualism over the past half century.
French immersion at school has at least tried to provide a fresh and growing supply of bilingual adults in the rest of Canada.
Of course, French immersion programs in overwhelmingly Anglophone provinces have not really done much to accomplish this laudable objective. (And the 2011 census did show some decline in the bilingual population.)
At the same time, in the complicated real world that has unavoidably become a permanent part of any postcolonial Canadian future, any public policy that increases the number of even just theoretically bilingual individuals in Canada outside Quebec deserves some respect.
In an imperfect world, it probably also remains a good thing that there are more than 1,000 Toronto District School Board students in Grade 8 French immersion at the moment, regardless of anything else.
Kevin O’Leary really is wrong about bilingualism and the Canadian future. And bravely carrying on with French immersion programs in Ontario’s public education system is still one way of carrying on with the good fight for a united Canada that works for everyone — coast to coast to coast, including in Canada’s most populous province too.