Statement made on 05 June 2012 by Senator Maria Chaput
Hon. Maria Chaput:
A little while ago, my honourable colleague from New Brunswick told us about her province's successes in the area of French education, and I would like to thank her for her remarks. I must say that the VIP list she was proud to share — and rightly so — was impressive and inspiring. She showed that Canada's French-speaking community outside Quebec is doing very well and can be proud of its achievements in all areas.
Today I would like to draw from the works of two authors from my home province and share with you a bit of the history of education in French Manitoba. The first, Gabrielle Roy, opened her autobiography, Enchantment and Sorrow, with the words:
When did I first realize that I was destined to be treated like an inferior in my own country?
Gabrielle Roy was born in 1909 and grew up at a time when the ban on French education in Manitoba was at its worst.
The second author, Daniel Lavoie, born exactly 40 years later, wrote in his song Jours de plaine, that he "hears our grandfathers' words carried in the wind" and "the plaintive cries of his mother tongue," and that sometimes "he hears nothing at all because of the wind." I am sure the wind takes many forms.
Both authors felt what many generations have felt in the Manitoba where I was born: a sense of injustice and the desire to reject oppression. Unlike many provinces, Manitoba took a long time to make things right. It was only a generation ago that we achieved educational equity. Many generations have been influenced by what they experienced.
The classroom, the school, the books, and the teachers: that whole environment during our childhood shapes us forever. Society makes no mistakes. What happens at school is guided by principles and identity. What happens when a society decides to change things and impose a new environment, with other values and principles? History shows that these new elements may oppress and offend at first, but, in time, things sort themselves out.
As you know, the Franco-Manitoban community did not comply. We collectively chose to ignore the laws that prevented us from passing on our values, culture and language. We did it in broad daylight, with the complicity of our religious and political leaders. And we did so for more than 50 years. It is for that reason that I can speak to you in my mother tongue today and understand you in the other official language of this country.
You know as well as I do that, when it was founded in 1870, Manitoba was a one-of-a-kind province. One generation later, the constitutional capital of its founder, Louis Riel, had been dissipated by the winds of intolerance. In 1890, the Greenway government abolished the two cultural pillars of Catholics and francophones: the denominational school system and the province's bilingual status.
The Catholic community chose to seize the constitutional bull by the horns and immediately submitted a request for disallowance to the federal government, which refused to listen. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, together with the Liberal opposition, decided that the matter was political and had to be dealt with by the courts. That is how the Manitoba Schools Question was born and remained in the headlines for six years. It was brought before the Privy Council in London on a number of occasions, and finally had a major influence on the outcome of a federal election. The winner, Wilfrid Laurier, brought legal proceedings to a close with a political compromise, the Laurier-Greenway Compromise.
He closed the doors of the courts, but opened the door to the concept of "where numbers warrant." This complex agreement referred for the first time to the number of children in a classroom. It gave the right to education, bilingual or not, and to catechism after 3:30 p.m. It was a formula detested by the person who had to apply it daily, Msgr. Adélard Langevin, Archbishop of Saint-Boniface. But a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and the prelate got down to work.
Section 10 of the agreement would have unintended consequences. Indeed, francophone Catholics could benefit from this, but so could all immigrants who came to live in Manitoba. These minorities with a secular heritage — the Germans, Hungarians, Mennonites, Polish, Ukrainians and Ruthenians, who today are considered the cultural mosaic in Manitoba — took advantage of the situation. Public opinion, which was conveyed primarily by the Winnipeg Free Press, strongly condemned the fact that the children, and sometimes the teachers, could not speak English. People were afraid of seeing Manitoba become a Tower of Babel.
Then again, Manitoba did not have compulsory schooling. Illiteracy rates were very high, giving Manitoba the unenviable distinction of being the Canadian province that was furthest behind.
The events of 1916 remain in the collective memory of Franco-Manitobans as one of the most difficult periods in their history. When Tobias C. Norris's Liberal government came to power, it brought in a series of reforms. It gave women the right to vote, introduced a number of laws regarding social issues, and most importantly, it abolished the Laurier-Greenway Agreement. Schooling became compulsory and English the only language in schools. Social integration in Manitoban society was achieved by force.
French Canadians lost the last remaining vestige of that which had allowed them to pass on their values, identity and cultural heritage. They found themselves outnumbered in the province that they helped found. They believed that their only choice was civil disobedience.
The plan was simple: do not obey, hire teachers who are able to teach in French but speak English when the inspector comes to visit the schools, and elect commissioners and political representatives who will close their eyes. People had to work together and set up an association to coordinate everything — the Association d'éducation des Canadiens français du Manitoba, in which my grandfather participated for many years.
The Archdiocese of Saint-Boniface set the tone. Although total discretion was advised, the front page of La Liberté advertised fundraisers and the results of French competitions. We had to hide our books and speak English when the inspector arrived. Disobeying the law was normal and acceptable and I did not feel guilty about it at all.
As I grew older, however, I realized that something was not right. On one hand, I was being told to be proud of my community, but on the other, I had to be silent before the school board representative as though my language were something to be ashamed of. It was a humiliating yet stimulating paradox. This cover-up in broad daylight went on until the early 1960s.
The first ray of hope came from the Premier, Duff Roblin, later a senator for Manitoba. He implemented legislation to create large school districts. He asked a francophone, Justice Alfred Monnin, to set out the school boundaries in such a way as to take all cultural sensitivities into consideration. Then, he authorized a program in which French would be taught 50 per cent of the time. His successor, Ed Schreyer, granted the requests of a member who crossed the floor, Laurent Desjardins, who passed away just recently, to give the francophone community of Manitoba the tools for development, in education among other areas.
Bill 113 was passed and francophones were thrilled. Nevertheless, this legislation contained disturbing shortcomings. Parents who wanted their children to be educated in French had to ask the school board's permission. Bill 113 was quickly labelled the permissions bill and caused a great deal of contention in the community.
This is the fight in which I had to engage as a mother so that my children could go to school in their mother tongue. I have to admit that, as parents, we did not always succeed in maintaining the community cohesion that was our strength from 1916 to 1968. In some cases, the situation motivated parents to become members of school boards, thereby ensuring that there were French schools placed where they were needed. Sometimes, new schools had to be built. Provincial officials criticized these board members' plans and called these future French schools "white elephants." However, rest assured that these schools are still filled to overflowing; French Manitoba has yet to see any elephants.
End of story, right? Far from it. Merely having French schools scattered throughout the community does not guarantee coherent identity and culture. That is why the Bureau de l'éducation française suggested creating a network of French schools. The proposal foundered on the shores of government indifference. Administrators, parents, and advocacy groups called for a French school board, but full and complete school management by and for francophones seemed an impossible goal, given the involvement of political players.
Finally, in 1982, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms renewed our hope for our own school board. But the political players were reluctant to give in. As we all know, legal proceedings cost money. As a community, we survived thanks to AECFM funding, but we wanted to achieve more than mere survival. The federal government created the court challenges program. My honourable colleagues from Alberta, Ontario and Acadia know this program well. It enabled us to claim our constitutional rights as founding communities under section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. At long last, in 1994, the Division scolaire franco-manitobaine opened its doors.
Now, in 2012, the DSFM has 24 schools, an adult learning centre, 10 early childhood education and family centres, and a $69.5 million budget. Our schools are everywhere from Saint-Boniface to CFB Shilo to Thompson in the north. Students can take International Baccalaureate courses, receive funding for education studies and take advantage of the francisation program, an essential tool that supports our identity as a community in tandem with the program to support non-francophone parents.
My grandchildren currently go to one of those DSFM French schools and their parents think it is quite normal. My grandchildren speak French freely and without reservations. They are learning to read Gabrielle Roy's books and to sing Daniel Lavoie's songs. When the time comes, they will study at the Université de Saint-Boniface. They will take courses in the arts, sciences or professional studies, in business administration, social services or translation and, if they so choose, pursue opportunities at the University of Manitoba. They can train as teachers at the educational institute or study at the technical and professional school. The range of programs offered could only have been dreamed of in 1916. They will study alongside foreign students from around the world. What counts, however, is that they will study in French.
Just like Gabrielle Roy and Daniel Lavoie, they represent the ideal that was imagined in 1916 — an ideal based on the values we identify with and the cultures that reflect us. Since then, there have been many figures of whom we have been just as proud. The list is shorter than that of my colleague from New Brunswick, but our institutions are solid, and our youth are free from the complexes of former generations and prepared to face the future.
Canada in 2012 is not as perfect as we would like it to be, but it is certainly enriched by all of the Gabrielle Roys, Daniel Lavoies, Étienne Gabourys, Roger Léveillés and Roland Mahés, and all the other creators who have carried the torch for my culture and mother tongue.
Yes, sometimes the future seems bleak. Assimilation is ravaging our communities. Will it succeed where legislators have failed? Is it not our role as legislators to preserve this environment and ensure that the weakest among us are protected first? Their voices count as much as those of the majority that holds the key to the future.