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The significance of Canada’s French Immersion Program – for Québec (#165)

This post builds upon the prior posts on French Immersion in Canada.

Note:  The French version of this post has a longer, “beefed-up” and much more “poignantly-worded” few paragraphs in the middle, as well as additional paragraphs and videos at the end.  You can refer to the French version here:  https://quebeccultureblog.com/2015/02/02/limportance-du-programme-dimmersion-francaise-au-canada-anglophone-pour-le-quebec-166/

In the prior post I mentioned that a reader from the US sent me an email with the following USA statistics:

  • US immersion schools offer 22 languages, with the top three being
    • 45% Spanish
    • 22% French
    • 13% Mandarin Chinese

Let’s do a comparison between the US’s immersion system and that of Canada.  I’m not an expert in the field of education.  But there is a bit of a difference between the French immersion systems in Canada versus the USA.

What is French immersion?

First, for readers who are not too familiar with what Immersion programs are, they are programs designed for non-native speakers to become fluent in an alternative language by allowing them to complete their entire (or a good portion) of their kindergarten to grade 12 education within the alternative language.    French Immersion schools are not Francophone schools.  (Francophone schools, which also are found all across Canada, are for the children of at least one Francophone parent, or who have previously attended Francophone schools.  The right to attend Francophone schools across Canada is enshrined in Canada’s constitution; “des ayants droit” as these students are called in French).

In Immersion schools, the language of instruction (i.e.: the language in which the courses are taught by the teacher) is in the alternative language, and the text books are also in the alternative language.   Sometimes there are variations in the way immersion is offered.  In Canada, most immersion program courses are 100% in French all year long.  But there are some options which allow for “late start” immersion, in which Anglophones who used to be in an English language system can transfer into the immersion system in later years (say grade 6 for example).  Other variations provide for a half/half approach, i.e.: some courses taught in immersion, others in English.  There also exists a compressed approach, in which half the year and half the courses are taught in English, with the other half of the courses and half the year in French (which allows for efficiencies in mixed schools with immersion & non-immersion programs).  Nonetheless, the outcome is the same – to allow students to grow up functionally bilingual, with a strong sense of Canada’s cultural duality.  Take my own situation for example:  I grew up in Rural B.C. and mostly Rural Alberta and I’m a good example of this, my sister-in-law, who grew up in Ottawa, is a good example of this, my cousins and cousin’s children in Saskatchewan are good examples of this, my brother’s kids are now about to enter the immersion program in Edmonton and they will be good examples of this, and many others I know are also good examples of this.

What distinguishes Canada’s French immersion programs from that of the United States?

In Canada, like in the US, languages other than French are offered as possible Immersion alternatives (I know of some Chinese, Ukrainian, German, Spanish, and Icelandic immersion programs in Western Canada for example, as well as additional languages in Ontario).  But French Immersion in Canada by far outweighs any other program – to the point that there really is no parallel which can be drawn with other languages.  In yesterday’s post, I mentioned I discovered that in just four provinces alone, there are 980 individual immersion programs of various levels in French.   I’m taking an educated guess that if the remaining provinces were factored in, Canada’s overall number of various levels of French immersion programs would likely be in the neighbourhood of 1500 programs, give or take a few.

When you compare that to the United States’ overall 500 (or so) Immersion programs, that gives you an idea just how staggering in size Canada’s French Immersion “system” has become (in a proportional sense, the United States would have to have 15,000 separate immersion programs just to match the Canadian proportion).   I’d venture to say that Canada’s immersion program is likely the largest of any such “institution” in the world (once you reach these proportions, I think it’s safe to start labelling it as a national institution).

One of the major differences between Canada’s French immersion program and that of the United States (or other countries for that matter, such as Australia, the UK, Germany, or India) is the nature, intent, and desired outcome of the program.  There’s no point tip-toeing around the issue, and I might as well name the elephant in the room for what it is.  The program’s roots in Canada were political and had to do with a sense of civic duty, just as much as it has to do with possibilities for future employment and mobility.

Why is it this way?

Canada was subjected to a rough period of hard political reality in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  The reality began to set in that there were serious linguistic inequalities in Canada.  Anglophone Canadians began to realize that French was just as much a Canadian language, to be respected at-level with English in situations where this could reasonably be accomplished.  People came to the realization French was not to be relegated to being a folk-language, nor treated at par with immigrant languages (Francophone culture has been, is, and always will be just as synonymous to Canada as Anglophone culture).  In addition, the world in the 1960’s and 1970’s was changing, and it was no longer acceptable to subject one national group to the will of another. Upon realizing that something must be done, Anglophones, concerned parents, school boards, provincial governments, and the Federal government undertook an amazing feat of cooperation to try to fix this situation by launching the very first French Immersion programs (of which I was part of).  Then came the 1980 referendum, the constitutional repatriation, the Meech and Charlottetown constitutional rounds, followed by the second 1995 referendum.  It was a serious reality shock to the country, and something had to give.

Without wanting to sound negative (on the contrary, I am quite positive and optimistic about what I am writing about here), I could give you a whole list of PQ and BQ politicians, as well as other prominent individuals in Québec who greatly and passionately criticized Anglophone Canadians for the mass 1995 pre-referendum rally in Montréal.  Hundreds of thousands of Canadians flocked to Place du Canada from all over Canada to attend the rally and to profess their love for Québec.  I was in my first year of university and I and a large group of friends also tried very hard to secure plane tickets to fly to Montréal from Edmonton for the rally, but all tickets were already taken.  The criticism towards those who attended was that there were enormous crowds of Anglophones making a foolish spectacle of themselves, trying to convince everyone they encountered to vote no, and doing it in English.   Critics said it was a hollow gesture of pure hypocrisy, in part, by virtue of all the English being shouted at random Montréalers on the street.  They argued that if the mass “love in” was sincere, things should have changed since 1995.  (In hindsight, I can understand some of the criticisms, and I’m able to see both sides of the coin).

Well… things did change my friends, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to get much attention in Québec’s media.  The vast majority of the friends and people I know from Québec were not even aware of Canada’s French Immersion program’s existence outside Québec – at least until they met me.  When trying to convince Québec’s public to embrace sovereignty, hard-core Sovereignists have been saying that nothing has changed in the rest of Canada during the last 20 years, since 1995.

The way I see it, the giant Montréal “love in” was just the start of a grass-roots movement of individuals taking matters into their own hands (governments, by their very nature, anywhere in the world cannot deliver instant results… regardless if it’s a government in a united Canada or a government in a sovereign Québec).  Since the 1995 Montréal “love in”, French Immersion in Canada has ballooned into the largest such program anywhere in the world – and it continues to push the boundaries of what people could have only dreamed of in 1995.   The reasons are exactly because people care, and they want to take matters into their own hands, across in Canada.

Two posts ago, in the post entitled Learning French – don’t be afraid to take things to the next level, I mentioned the incredible numbers of students enrolled across Canada in the relatively new immersion programs.  There are approximately 320,000 students currently enrolled in the program today, and it is increasing every couple years by 10,000 to 20,000 students.  Since its inception, perhaps 1,000,000 (one million) Anglophone Canadians have at one point been in, or gone through the program, with the largest portion of the students having passed through the program between 1995 and now.  I also mentioned for every student in the program, there generally are two concerned Anglophone parents who, by expressive choice, had placed their children into the program (when you count the students and parents as a total number together, that’s a total of 3 million Anglophones right there who have taken direct action – and this does not even begin to count the entire bureaucracy of all 10 provinces, 3 territories, and the Federal government which support the movement to ensure its success).   I also mentioned that the success of the program has led to long waiting lists to get in, in part because schools cannot be built fast enough, and in part because there is a shortage of teachers (I even had teachers who came from France to teach French Immersion).

You would be hard-pressed to find any town in Canada between 7,000 to 10,000 people which does not have a French Immersion program.   Just the other day, I learned that a smaller English-language school in my hometown (Vegreville, Alberta, population 5,800), looks set to introduce a French Immersion program – a trend which is continuing across the country.   Here in Toronto the program continues to make the news owing to it being so hot and people fighting the waiting lists to get in.

When I hear hard-core sovereignists say nothing has come of Canada’s promises to change since 1995, the argument does not bother me because there is now the reassurance that there are so many of us out there whose lives have been directly involved in realigning French in Canada.   Our numbers are now in the millions – and contrary to the 1995 “love in”, those millions have now earned the right to be heard.   Actions show intent, and show there are hordes of people who care.

My only concern is that Québec’s media continues to, for the most part, skirt the issue – and continues to deny the existence of the immersion programs and their importance to to Québec, and to Canada’s cultural-linguistic duality.   It should be one of the national scoops of the century.  At the beginning of Québec’s nationalist movement around 1960, what is happening now in English Canada could not have even begun to have played itself out in the wildest dreams of most nationalists.   But guess who owns Québecor (who disseminates the majority of Québec’s news) — and even look at how other journalists in other media networks and platforms who do not seem to want to run with this story either.  It really makes you wonder if there are ulterior motives in large segments of the media (… a very touchy, extremely extremely sensitive subject… so I’ll stop now on this front regarding certain realms of the media in Québec).

Sidenote:  I wrote this particular post in French also.  For the most part it is the same, but respect to the preceding paragraph, I elaborated a little bit more in French.  It’s important that more people in Québec are aware of this topic, and I wanted to ensure that it is a little more clear in French.  If you read French, you may want to check out the longer version of the preceding paragraph (it’s not much longer in French, but it drives the point home a little more poignantly).

Another argument I hear from sovereignists is that French outside Québec has been relegated to an “ethnic language”.  What they mean by this is that, through multiculturalism, it is treated the same as any immigrant language outside Québec (Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, Arabic, you name it).   But again, everything that is happening points to the exact opposite.   Such an argument is a dead in its tracks and seeks to twist the meaning of multiculturalism for the purposes of scoring political points.   If this argument held water, there would be no French immersion program, no Francophone schools, no officially mandated Francophone regions outside Québec, no French government services, and all of what already exists would be in decline.   Yet, look what’s happening.  It truly is no longer 1995.  It is very encouraging to see that things are changing, almost annually, and to know that these changes can have a positive impact.

Yes… there are Québec-Canada political issues which have yet to be resolved.  But governance and politics are always complicated, everywhere in the world.   But the mass’s sentiments are above government, and ordinary people and their gestures mean much more than any political process.  It is people’s intentions, sentiments, and gestures from the heart which matter more than any constitutional wranglings.

Not long ago, I heard a very high profile, well-respected sovereignist (in fact, one of the elder-statespersons of the sovereignty movement) say something very interesting.  She is a person for whom I have much respect (even if our ultimate goals are not the same).  In a nutshell, she made the point that if you put all your eggs in the same basket – meaning you base your life happiness on things like the wording written on a white piece of paper (such as the constitution) — you are bound to lead a sad, disgruntled and unsatisfied life, regardless whether you live in Canada or in an independent Québec.  She saw that you have to look beyond political bickering, and you have to find comfort in the fact that there is a population around you who will be there in times of need, either financially (meaning through the taxes which we all pay to support one another), or through the fact that we live in a society in which people generally are looking to make a difference.  I agree with her sentiments.  Me, personally, I believe this massive grass-roots commitment towards bilingualism and Canada’s Francophone culture outside Québec embodies many of the points she values the most.

Millions of Anglophone Canadians outside Québec have taken up this cause of solidarity.   French has truly become a part of Canada’s soul.  Anglophones across Canada have taken up the cause in extraordinary numbers, and are using French immersion as their primary tool.  And what’s more important is that when Canada said it would change in 1995, guess what ordinary Anglophone people did… they put their money where their mouth is.

That’s the difference between Canada’s and the US’s immersion programs.



Public Systems:

Private Systems: