Empowering francophone minorities

Vibrancy through mobilization

A welcome sign at the border of New Brunswick with Nova Scotia, along highway 970.

A welcome sign at the border of New Brunswick with Nova Scotia, along highway 970.

Photo: iStock, Christa Boaz

Canada, like the rest of the world, is changing. The development of digital technologies and international commerce has promoted the use of English, forcing a decline in French in Canada, and creating concerns about its vitality. In fact, data from the most recent Canadian census reveals a downturn in the demographic weight of francophones, creating challenges for preserving and maintaining French in Canada.

However, the devaluing of French in North America dates back far earlier than globalization and the digital era. In the face of persisting threats to their identity, how can minority francophones ensure their rights are exercised and respected? This is what Michelle Landry, Canada Research Chair in Canadian Francophone Minorities and Power and associate professor in sociology at the Université de Moncton, is studying.

A language and identity under threat

The passage of the Official Languages Act in 1969 established bilingualism in Canada and made English and French the country’s official languages. Over the following decades, the provinces and territories, in turns, developed laws, policies and programs to support the use of French. However, some provinces were forced by courts to pass these measures as a result of legal proceedings brought by francophone communities. At the same time, demographic data show just how necessary it is for francophones to work harder even in Quebec, especially in Montréal, to maintain French as the language of integration, work and learning. More than 50 years after the passage of the Act, official language issues are still central to conversations around identity and society.

Michelle Landry and her team’s research focuses on the empowerment of minority francophones and explores how they have been preserving their rightful place in Canadian society since the second half of the 19th century.

“As a sociologist,” explains Landry, “I take a detailed approach to understanding how people take action. This includes looking into the interactions, funding, tactics and discursive strategies used to rally support from Canadians and government. I’m particularly interested in ‘how’ this mobilization happens.”

Amplifying voices, and access, to be heard

In her research, Landry has noted the influence public funding has on determining francophone communities’ priorities and strategies. While access to institutional channels grants some governance power, it also influences the methods used for mobilization and advocacy. As a result, groups often opt for lobbying tactics and social networking to further their language rights, instead of clamouring for them in the streets.

Landry has also seen that municipal governments have the potential to play an important role in the development and thriving of minority francophone communities. In New Brunswick, for example, several municipal governments have become aware of their power to act and are using the tools available to them. By passing local decrees and policies, such as those governing public signage, municipal governments can have a significant impact on the linguistic vitality of francophone communities.

“Having rights is one thing,” says Landry, “but making sure these rights are being enforced is another. An official language minority community is only as strong as its institutions. And to strengthen their institutions, communities must shield them against discourse calling official bilingualism into question and opposing language minority rights.”

The vitality of a francophone community depends on the vitality of its institutions and essential services in areas such as education, health, culture and justice.

“Faced with the possibility of seeing their institutions disappear,” says Landry, “francophone minority communities have no other choice but to take action to ensure their sustainability.”

This is why the Franco-Ontarian community—inspired by the successful SOS Montfort citizen movement (1997-2002) that avoided the closure of Hôpital Montfort, the only specialized hospital offering health care in French—mobilized in 2018 to counter the plan to abolish the Université de l’Ontario français and the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner.

Strengthening the sense of linguistic security

Landry’s research sheds valuable light on minority francophone communities’ challenges and the action strategies and governance mechanisms that enable them to strengthen the rightful place of language minorities in contemporary Canadian society.

“It’s essential,” she says, “to note that the outcomes of our work are not limited to francophone communities. We hope our research will also shed light on the struggles of other groups working to preserve their languages and cultures, such as Indigenous communities.”

Want to learn more?

To learn more about Michelle Landry’s work on the power of French-language minorities in Canada, follow her on Facebook or visit the Université de Moncton’s (in French) website.