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His Excellency John Ralston Saul
Le Franηais pour l'avenir/French for the Future - Opening Speech at the 3rd Annual Conference

Vancouver, British Columbia
Thursday, April 6, 2000.

Chancellor and the entire committee, and all students, especially all student members of the organizing committee,

A few months ago, I met with some of you at Hansworth. You had come with your teachers to talk about the possibility of organizing this conference. It's typical of Vancouver that if you talk about something, a few months later it's done. Because you really did it very quickly. Amazingly fast.

Today is the first time this conference has been held on a national scale. It has already happened twice in Toronto, but this is the first time it is being held in four cities. And it's very important that this national experiment is being launched from Vancouver, the centre of the country!

Let me tell you a little story. If I seem a bit tired, it's because we got to Vancouver last night from the far north – the Arctic, Nunavut. So for days on end we've been spending long hours in small aircraft, Twin Otters, and then in a jet to get here. And while we were touring the far north – an amazing part of the country – I was looking around me. And what did I see?

The colonel commanding northern Canada is a francophone, and his aide-de-camp is a bilingual anglophone from Newfoundland who was talking with his colonel in French and English. I saw Mounties as well. They came from every province and they were all bilingual. They talked together in English and French. You never knew how they would start a sentence or how they would finish it.

And then the people from Rideau Hall on the plane were obviously all bilingual and many of them trilingual. Several are immersion graduates. For example, the press secretary who is also here with us today is a young immersion product who works in both French and English. And there were also francophones who speak English.

In this group I was seeing the first fruits of the impact you are having, that you will have, on the country. We are seeing immersion students find good jobs, speak both languages fluently, help bind the country together, but also lead very interesting lives. Why? Because they decided to master two languages, maybe three or four languages. And to cut through the barriers there may be for someone who has only one language.

By the time I left northern Canada, I had been reminded, again, that the French language in Canada is stronger than ever, and in fact is getting stronger every day. And that immersion, which 28 years ago was a very small program just starting out, now has 317 000 students just like you. Three hundred seventeen thousand immersion students! This is a huge number! And it's very important, because it's a number that can change the way Canada functions.

People can always criticize immersion. There's always something that doesn't work. But isn't it true, no matter what the field of endeavour, that there is always something that doesn't work? It's quite normal to have to look at some aspects and question them. Basically, immersion is a great success, a tremendous success. And it is part of something very interesting – something which is both a Canadian invention and almost typically Canadian.

At one time, people were saying that French was in decline in Canada, but for a quarter of a century now, even 30 years, French has been experiencing a strong revival, not just because of immersion, but also in Quebec and – we must not forget – in the francophone minority communities. The Acadians, for example: what an amazing turnaround, almost a miracle. Franco-Ontarian theatre is amazing. Despite the talk of assimilation, francophone minorities across the country are becoming increasingly confident about their potential, their role in the country. And in their relations with bilingual anglophones. Because of the bilingual anglophones, their neighbours feel less and less isolated from the anglophone population as a whole.

And I believe that, as well as being very proud of being francophone anywhere in the country, we have to take great pride in immersion. There is absolutely no need to be on the defensive. We don't need to defend immersion. We need to sing its praises. We have to talk about its success in very positive terms.

And you need to avoid falling into the old trap of saying you are learning French as a kind of patriotic duty. Learning French is not a romantic gesture. You're not learning French to save Canada. It is not an abstract gesture of that kind. To learn French is not to make a sacrifice for the country. On the contrary. You're not doing it for others, you're doing it for yourselves as citizens and individuals. You're learning French to improve your lives, change them, have a different and interesting life of the kind you want to live. You do not live your life for others. You live it for yourself, and it has to be the life you want to live.

I often talk to Canadians like you about what I call responsible individualism. Everything important we do has an individual side – in other words you – and a responsible side – in other words the role you are going to play in society.

So you are doing this for yourselves, for your life, but at the same time you are becoming part of a major current in Canadian history. You are members of a great Canadian national movement; a movement that will play – has already played – a role in politics, in society and in the social sphere, but that will also play a very important role in Canada's potential impact in the world. Because in a global society it's very important to have two languages or three languages. You are going to play an international role on behalf of Canada.

In the beginning, it was your parents who decided to register you for immersion. You probably had no option then. But after a few months you decided to stay and continue. Every day when you get up and go to school in immersion or as a francophone, it's your choice to go that route. You have to fully realize that you have chosen something.

I know very well that to be in immersion – in Vancouver, for example, in British Columbia – is more complicated than to be in an English-language school. It's more complicated because you're not doing what everyone else is doing. But, you know, if you do something different it's usually more interesting. Often, when we are 16, 17 or 18 years old, we tend to think it's better to do what everyone else is doing. But I can assure you – and you will realize this later – that it's more interesting not to do what everyone else is doing. The most interesting possibility in life is to do the things that you as an individual person want to do. As for the others, time will tell. But you always have to choose. You have to choose what interests you as an individual, and the life you find interesting. Not through selfishness. But because by fulfilling your own destiny you can, as a citizen, make the greatest contribution to your society.

The other important thing that needs to be said is that many people have not yet realized what it means to "learn French" or "live in French" in Canada. It's not just a matter of learning French. A language is like a box, a container. The important thing is what's inside. A second language is a second culture.

And the wonderful thing about being educated in an immersion setting, is that it's a life where you can fill the language container with books, ideas, scientific knowledge. It's a bilingual and bicultural life. And I would even say bicultural and bilingual, because the cultural side is absolutely vital in learning the two languages.

If you have been educated in the two languages, it's as if you are travelling along the corridor that is your life, then you enter a room, and because you have two languages, in this room that is your life there are two doors – English and French. Maybe even a third and a fourth door. And with these two doors you can experience twice as many books and ideas, business opportunities, twice as much theatre, philosophy, science. Two ways of seeing, two ways of thinking.

Some people will tell you that because there are not many francophones in British Columbia, there is no need for French here. But let's turn the argument around. If everyone in British Columbia were unilingual, British Columbians would be cut off from a national role in Canada. To play a role in Canada, a major national role, a certain percentage must have both cultures.

The assumption behind this argument – that French is not needed here – is that it is not an advantage to know both our national languages. That it's a problem, a sacrifice.

But if someone says it's a problem to know two languages, they don't have a very flattering idea of your intelligence. You are very intelligent. Learning two languages and two cultures is no problem for you. Maybe a fourth language would be a problem. Not the second. Anyone can master two languages. And if they are our country's two national languages, it's natural that you should know them both.

A third language – perhaps Spanish – because we have major relations with the Latin American countries, would be wonderful. Three languages are certainly possible; if not Spanish, Chinese or Japanese. They are very important on the West Coast. I have nephews who speak English, Mandarin and French. It's not a problem. The press secretary I mentioned earlier speaks Spanish as well. Other people will simply choose English and Chinese, or English and Spanish. Fine. When we say that immersion and French are important, this does not mean that other languages should be dropped. But about 30% of our population needs to be bilingual – speak both English and French – if the country is to function as it should.

I know that from time to time you – and I too – worry about Canada's future, because there are always debates around our two great cultures. But you are going to play a role in these cultures and these debates. You live in a very complicated country. Very complicated. Canada's great strength is that it is very complicated. The idea that it can be simple is a pessimistic one. The wonderful idea of Canada is that there are several languages, two great cultures. There are regions that are very different. Vancouver is very different from the three other cities you're going to talk with on television today. But it is part of Canada's strength that the country is very complicated. And you as citizens, with your two cultures, are part of this complicated side of Canada, this complex and very modern strength of Canada.

I said that when we are young we sometimes feel it's better to be the same as everyone else, while in fact it's more interesting to be different. One of the very important aspects of this difference is that here in Vancouver, in British Columbia, there are francophones and there are anglophones in immersion. And you anglophones, what exactly are you at the end of it all? When you leave immersion at the age of 18, are you anglophone? Are you francophone? Are you both? Or are you something else?

It's wonderful to think that when in 10 years someone says "you anglophones," you will be able to respond as I do. I always stop these people and tell them "Listen, you are saying to me ‘you anglophones.' What right have you to say that I am anglophone? I am what I want to be. Today I'm anglophone. Tomorrow I will be francophone. The day after tomorrow I may be both or a combination of the two." It's always a good idea to shake up these assumptions. And so, as I said at the beginning, we must sing the praises of the choices which your education has given you. What I say to tease these people is actually an interesting – and complicated – description of our lives; what's more, it's true.

And now I will close with two ideas. First, over the last 10 years or so, we have opened Canada's doors to the world. Free trade, globalization, and on and on. But an absolutely central part of globalization is that you have to know several languages. You always hear on radio and TV that everyone speaks English. I spend most of my time travelling abroad and I can assure you that it's not true. They don't speak English all around the globe.

Most people don't speak English. And I would even say that half the time when I am abroad I speak French instead – in Latin America, Central Europe, Germany, Italy. When I come across people who don't speak English and I don't speak their language, I find someone who speaks French. So knowing two languages or three languages is a key part of globalization.

Last, here is something obvious. The elites, the people in office – as the Mayor said – the people who didn't get a chance to be immersion students – are in a way trailing behind you. And many of them are ready to admit it. We always say that the future lies with youth. But in this particular case you really are the future, because you have an advantage the others – your predecessors – did not have the chance to acquire.

What should you do with this advantage you have? Well, I can tell you that you are not here in this world just to speak French. You're here to shake things up, to disturb the self-assured, to change our society's way of thinking. You're not here to do the same as your parents and grandparents. You're here to say: "We're going to do things differently, because we bring to the public debate two cultures and perhaps three cultures, and a more complete vision of our country, of our lives, of that complexity we represent."

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