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Twenty-five years of Manitoba's French Language Services Policy: A time to reflect on past and future achievements

Mélanie Cwikla, Executive Director
Francophone Affairs Secretariat
Government of Manitoba


The year 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the Government of Manitoba's French Language Services Policy, a policy adopted in 1989 in response to the Manitoba Language Crisis and revised ten years later following the tabling of the Chartier Report. The time is right, therefore, to take a look at the current state of the French fact in Manitoba and at relations between the government and the Francophone community.

In order to do so, it is helpful to go back to 1870, the year Manitoba entered Confederation. Manitoba's entry was negotiated by Louis Riel, a Francophone Métis who also negotiated guarantees protecting the right, provided under section 23 of The Manitoba Act, 1870, to use French before the courts and the Manitoba Legislature. At the time, Manitoba had a population of 12,000, half of which was made up of Francophones. Some twenty years later, in 1891, the population had reached 111,498, 7.3% of which was Francophone. Furthermore, in 1890, in a cost-cutting measure, the government had enacted The Official Language Act, which made English Manitoba's sole official language. French therefore lost its status as an official language in the courts and in the Legislature. Legislation was no longer translated, and the Legislature operated in English only. It wasn't until 1985 and a ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada that the status of French guaranteed in 1870 was restored. Then, in 1989, the Manitoba government adopted its French Language Services Policy for all other areas of government services.

The Policy is based on the concept of an active offer of French language services in designated bilingual areas first and foremost. Twenty-five years later, the active offer concept is still a key ingredient of the Policy, but administrative bodies are encouraged to apply it, insofar as possible, to the province as a whole. Furthermore, whereas the Policy previously served as the cornerstone of government support for the Francophone community, it has become a contributing factor in the community's development and vitality. Although French does not enjoy official language status in Manitoba, the provision of French language services has been to some extent normalized, and processes have been put in place to help the government understand the needs and aspirations of the Francophone community and ensure that it is consulted.

First, in order to support the active offer of French language services, Manitoba has established six bilingual service centres in designated bilingual areas in both Winnipeg and rural Manitoba. These centres are governed by The Bilingual Service Centres Act, legislation that ensures their longevity. They are designed to serve as a single window from which Manitobans can obtain a variety of government services in the official language of their choice, without having to request it. Manitoba currently has bilingual service centres in five designated bilingual areas.

Secondly, in May 2014, the government of Manitoba set up an advisory committee on the improvement of French language services. The committee's objective is to help senior officials better understand the needs and aspirations of the Francophone community so as to contribute to its development and vitality. It serves to establish an ongoing formal dialogue with the community. Chaired by the Clerk of the Executive Council, the committee is made up of members appointed by the Société franco-manitobaine (SFM) and deputy ministers responsible for the SFM's main areas of activity. The government has moreover adopted a principle of collaborative involvement in the areas of health, social services and justice. This collaborative involvement can take various forms, depending on the needs and the area of activity.

In the field of social services, for example, Santé en français (Manitoba) has put in place a round table of managers in social services, co-chaired by the French Language Services Coordinator for Manitoba Family Services. In the justice field, the Francophone Affairs Secretariat and Manitoba Justice have since 1996 been co-chairing a committee to improve access to justice in French. Sitting on this committee are the principal players in the French legal community. Thus, each key sector is able to build bridges with the principal government stakeholders and have a degree of influence over certain policies that affect them closely.

Since the 1980s, Manitoba has established a good working relationship with the Francophone community, a community that continues to evolve and change. Manitoba has received nearly 3,900 Francophone immigrants since 1999, and continues to set an immigration target of 7% for Francophone immigrants. The influx of Francophone newcomers from Europe, Africa and Asia is contributing to the vitality of the Francophone community, and to its diversity. The traditional bastions of the Francophone community are changing, the newcomers often settling in majority Anglophone neighbourhoods where housing is generally more affordable. In addition, young Francophones are seen to use government services differently than their parents do and to have different expectations. In response to this evolution of the Franco-Manitoban community—or Francophone communities, perhaps—the SFM will be launching a comprehensive review process (États généraux) in the fall of 2014. This process promises to be very thorough and no one can anticipate what the outcome of such an exercise will be. It is nevertheless highly likely that the various administrative bodies subject to the Government of Manitoba's French Language Services Policy will take their cue from the results of the review process to adapt their French language services plan and continue to support the development of the Francophone community.