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Postsecondary teaching, cultural reproduction, and universality in the Canadian Francophonie

Learning to know oneself and the world.
MAY 09 2022

Postsecondary teaching, cultural reproduction, and universality in the Canadian Francophonie

Learning to know oneself and the world.


The following is an adapted version of a presentation the author gave at the Sommet des États généraux sur le postsecondaire en contexte francophone minoritaire (Summit of the National Dialogue on postsecondary education in francophone minority context in Canada) at Saint-Paul University in Ottawa on Mar. 24.

Colleges or universities almost always have a certain aura. They occupy a pivotal position in society. They are the guardians of cultural heritage, but also the transmitters of new ideas. They represent a point of passage between youth and adulthood. They are also locally rooted, yet have a universalizing horizon.

For a century and a half now, French-language postsecondary institutions have been pillars of Canada’s minority francophone communities. They have accompanied these communities through the social, economic, and political changes that have marked our society and have adapted accordingly. I believe that they must now reshape themselves once again if they are to help minority francophone communities negotiate the most recent shift in North American modernity.

Francophone postsecondary education in the industrial age

The 19th century was accompanied by a maelstrom of economic, social, and political changes. Industrialization comes to mind first, but it came with other important changes, such as the integration of schools by the state, increased legal regulation of society and the consecration of the scientific ideal, among others.

At the time, minority francophone communities in British North America took note of the fact that society was becoming more complex. They created institutions of higher learning to ensure their continued existence in modern society. Classical colleges, which offered both high school and undergraduate programs, were founded across the continent. From 1848 to 1947, the following were founded: Collège de Bytown (which became the bilingual University of Ottawa, the Collège de Saint-Boniface (1855), the Collège Saint-Joseph de Memramcook (1864), the Collège Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia and the Collège Sacré-Coeur in Caraquet (in 1889 and 1899, respectively), the Collège Sacré-Coeur in Sudbury (1913), the Collège Mathieu in Saskatchewan (1918), the Collège Saint-Jean in Alberta (which opened as a school of theology in 1911 and became a full-fledged college in 1943), the women’s classical college Notre-Dame-D’Acadie (1943), and the Collège Saint-Louis in Edmundston (1947), among others.

Read also: French-language universities in minority settings: a litmus test for Canadian diversity

These colleges were the work of religious congregations, and, like their Quebec counterparts, most were affiliated with Université Laval, the dean of universities in francophone America. They were part of the institutional framework of the French-Canadian and Acadian “Nation-Church,” to use the concept of sociologist Jean-François Laniel.

Today, some see this work as nothing more than conservatism in action. This stems from an overly easy comparison to English-language universities of the same era, which were quicker to accept women, for example, or to embrace the disciplines of business and science.

But despite their religious ties and their avowed intention to preserve a religious and national tradition, these colleges were modern projects. They were seen as a means of providing these communities with an elite that would guide them and represent them in the world. Their mandate may seem elitist to us today, but it is a fact that these communities did not have a big voice at the time. Moreover, despite their religious nature, many of these establishments gradually embraced more temporal disciplines, from commerce to science.

In short, these institutions were to help maintain these communities’ cultural distinctiveness, but also to give them the tools they needed to navigate modern society. And for decades, they have largely succeeded.

Francophone postsecondary education in the age of mass society

However, nothing is permanent (except change). In the early 1960s, writer and intellectual Hubert Aquin spoke of a “cultural fatigue” in French Canada. This fatigue was the result of a new impulse toward modernization in North American society, an impulse that it was not clear French-Canadian culture had the strength to resist, or to follow.

This new challenge was that of the mass society, which unfolded in the post-war period. This new phase of capitalism had many new characteristics, including an economy and culture based on mass consumption, which became known as the “American way of life”; mass media through which American music and television production infiltrated the imagination of people around the world; and mass universities and colleges, which aimed to democratize access to postsecondary education while shifting to more specialized programs and incorporating more research activities.

In the dynamic atmosphere of the post-war period, the first generation of French-language postsecondary institutions began to look increasingly inadequate, both within and outside Quebec. The same could be said of other French-Canadian institutions, which no longer seemed able to cope with social change.

After a moment of hesitation, of fatigue, the country’s francophone communities got their act together and mobilized to give themselves the tools to create their own mass culture. A modern mass culture that, despite its smaller size, could respond to that of the Anglosphere. One example is the Quiet Revolution, which between 1960 and 1984 modernized Quebec’s political, economic, and cultural practices. I will also point out the transformations that took place in the minority francophone communities during the same period, which are proportionately just as significant, despite the fact that these communities do not have a provincial state of their own. In all cases, there was the same desire to modernize while remaining culturally true to oneself.

Postsecondary institutions were at the heart of these parallel “quiet revolutions.” In Quebec, classical colleges were transformed into CÉGEPs, the Université du Québec network of campuses was created, and older universities were given new campuses and research centres. In other provinces, too, existing postsecondary institutions moved away from the “classical college” model and sought to diversify their offerings to meet the needs of mass society and to engage in research. The models that were adopted varied: some remained francophone and autonomous, others became part of bilingual universities or were affiliated as a francophone college within a larger English-language university. At the same time, French-language vocational and technical colleges were established. From province to province, the length of the wait varied, as did the size of the final program offering. But in all, francophone communities were able to provide themselves with the postsecondary programs they needed to be viable in the age of mass society. In the face of fatigue, they did not give up.

For 150 years, institutions of higher learning have helped minority francophone communities in Canada negotiate their evolution in the modern world on their own terms. From classical colleges to multi-faculty campuses, the bet of these institutions has always been that it is possible to create a different kind of modernity, a francophone modernity, in the heart of the North American continent.

Of course, the desire to reconcile cultural continuity and modernity is not a struggle unique to Canadian Francophonies. One could even say the will of different cultures to modernize on their own terms – by borrowing, adapting, and rejecting the contributions of the great American, British, or French societies – is one of the main characteristics of 19th and 20th century world history.

Our ambition is therefore not unique, but it is the only story we can write.

What is postsecondary education in an era of decolonizing mentalities and de-ethnicizing identities?

Our societies are now undergoing another major transformation, one that will once again test, in my opinion, the ability of francophone institutions in minority contexts to guarantee the reproduction of their communities. And once again, their success will depend in part on the adaptation of colleges and universities. We are living in the era of the decolonization of mentalities and the de-ethnicization of identities.

The transformation can be summarized as follows: over the past 75 years, many human groups that were once considered “Others” with a capital “O” have become less and less outsiders. Then, gradually, they have come to be seen as an integral part of Canadian society. In short, Canada, once as chauvinistic as most political communities, has come to define itself by its internal diversity and to value its connections with cultures from around the world. Canada has become cosmopolitan.

The seeds of these changes were planted in the post-war period, but they were gradual in nature, so that their full effects are only now being felt. Among the many changes that have marked this transformation are the granting of the vote to Asian Canadians in the 1940s and to members of Indigenous nations in the 1960s, and the abandonment of racial criteria in Canadian immigration policy during the same decade. There was also, of course, the adoption of a multiculturalism policy in the early 1970s and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. Taken together, these changes literally – albeit gradually – transformed the face of Canada.

Read also: How to protect francophone postsecondary education outside Quebec

Today, more than one in five Canadians belongs to a visible minority. Also, 22 per cent of the population is made up of immigrants, a figure that swells to 40 per cent if we include the second generation. Some of you will tell me that this affects cities more, and some regions more than others. And of course, demographically speaking, you are right. But the most fundamental change is not the number of visible minorities per square kilometre. It’s the way we think about what it means to be a society, and what it takes to be a harmonious society. Diversity of background or practice in private life is no longer seen as an obstacle.

These changes are, to me and to most people, a good thing in and of themselves. I personally would not want to go backwards. I am thrilled to see our fellow citizens who are racialized, of immigrant or Indigenous origin, as well as women and LGTBQ2, finally being able to be really heard, to become active subjects of our history. All of this has generated debate, and sometimes even controversy, and the transition is taking more time than some would like. But I think that history will remember that the beginning of the 21st century has represented a great leap in the advent of a postcolonial Canada.

What does this mean for minority francophone communities?

The fact that these transformations are good in themselves does not mean that they do not pose a challenge to linguistic minorities such as the Canadian Francophonies. One of the corollary effects of this paradigm shift is a de-ethnicization of collective identities. Again, for me and for many, this is a good thing: I prefer my community of language and culture not to be defined by genealogy, and to be open to all. But for Canadians whole mother tongue is French, as for many minority groups, ethnicity gave consistency to their communities, as well as quasi-tangible boundaries. But the days of it being self-evident who “belongs” to these communities are over. From now on, we will have to find a new way to give substance to them. Otherwise, they are at risk of being dissolved into the pluralistic Anglo-Canadian maelstrom.

What can we do at this juncture in history? The only way forward is to develop a Francophonie that is as open and inclusive as Canadian society as a whole. Many have already recognized this, and the work is already underway, particularly in our schools. However, what has received less attention is the role that our postsecondary institutions will have to play in ensuring the demolinguistic viability of Canada’s Francophonies in the post-ethnic era.

Make no mistake: postsecondary education is crucial in this regard. It is not for nothing that in Quebec, there are heated and recurring debates on the application – or not – of Bill 101 to CÉGEPs. The stakes are high. On the one hand, there is a reluctance to dictate the conduct of a student population made up of young adults, for fear of infringing on their freedom to a disproportionate degree. On the other hand, few societies offer an unlimited access to schooling in a minority language, and, from a societal point of view, it is well known that postsecondary education generally represents a pivotal and determining period in people’s lives: the passage to adulthood. During this period, we develop a relatively stable identity and networks that will accompany us throughout our lives. The sum of individual choices in favour of an English or French language education therefore has important collective implications.

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In our provinces, coercion is of course not an option. However, the issue is equally important. One way or another, to maintain our demographic health and cultural vitality, we must ensure that the percentage of the postsecondary student population studying in French is at least as high as the percentage of the total population whose first official language spoken is French.

It doesn’t matter how much of this student population is made up of mother-tongue francophones, or Francophile Anglophones, or people of immigrant backgrounds. In this day and age, it is inevitable that some francophones will study in English. However, what we can aim for is to have an offer that is attractive enough to ensure that an equivalent number of anglophones or immigrants come to study in French.

Of course, there are pitfalls and dangers. We see it in our schools, where a tide of Anglo-dominant children (who nonetheless have a charter right to French-language schools because of their family history) risks overwhelming the Francophone culture of our youth. And yet, it is the only way out. Our Francophonies will either be open and multicultural communities, or they will enter an inexorable decline.

While there are pitfalls, there is also hope. Time and time again during the proceedings of the États généraux, we have heard from people whose mother tongue is English, or who are of immigrant origin, yet who have demonstrated a deep attachment to the Canadian Francophonie, an attachment forged during their postsecondary studies. What is important, they tell us, is that our institutions are both welcoming and provide spaces where French is the natural, common language. Spaces where the entire student population can learn, relax, and play in French. Spaces where the meeting of cultures is desired, as in the rest of Canadian society, but where this meeting is done in French. Spaces where French speakers of all origins are in the majority, where they can learn about the Canadian Francophonies’ heritage, and discover francophone cultures from elsewhere in a student community like no other.

In the not-too-distant past, we have heard public figures denigrate the idea of postsecondary education “by and for” francophones, claiming that French-language institutions in a minority setting are ghettoizing, and a sign of closed-mindedness. Now, come on! Are Bishop’s and McGill universities, in Quebec, closed to the world? Of course not. Well, similarly, at Saint-Boniface, U de Moncton, Sainte-Anne, Campus Saint-Jean, Collège Boréal and Cité collégiale, among others, everyone is welcome, and universality is the aim; it just all happens to take place in French.

By becoming spaces where francophones of all backgrounds have the tools they need to simultaneously learn about themselves, about La Francophonie, and about the world, our postsecondary institutions will create post-ethnic francophone student communities. This is already happening but must be accelerated and further encouraged. In doing so, they will help francophone minority groups make the same transition in the medium term: to be open to and inclusive of others. By producing graduates from diverse backgrounds who understand that the dominance of the English language in the public sphere is just an internalized norm, they will make our minority language groups more resilient. These graduates will in turn create or participate in organizations or businesses in which French is a working language. They will, in short, ensure French’s continued presence coast to coast in the foreseeable future.

Joel Belliveau
Joel Belliveau is a historian and political scientist, researcher-in-residence at the University of Ottawa's CRCCF, professor emeritus at Laurentian University and director of the Éclair-Âges consulting boutique.
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