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Notes for a Speech, Opening Ceremony of the Francophonie Summit, Cotonou, Benin, December 2, 1995

Mr. President of the Republic of Benin,
Heads of state and government,
Heads of delegation,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great honour and pleasure for me to be in Africa taking part in my first Francophone Summit as Prime Minister of Canada.

President Soglo, allow me to thank your people and your government for your warm welcome. We know that no effort has been spared to do honour to your country's rich tradition of hospitality.

I thank you on behalf of all Canadians.

I would also like to tell you of the great importance my government places on the Francophonie, its development and its empowerment. More than ever before, there is a broad consensus in Canada on the importance of sustained, forceful action by our country within the international French-speaking community.

You well know of the vitality of Francophones in Canada. You know how dedicated we are to preserving our language and our culture in a continent where only one person in 40 speaks French.

The strength and vitality of Canadian participation in the development of the Francophonie also depends on the internal actions of our governments. And in that respect, I am proud to have been a member of the government that, quite some time ago now, gave French official-language status throughout Canada with regard to federal institutions.

Today, more than ever before in our country's history, a growing number of Canadians speak French, including many whose mother tongue is another language.

During the current school year, 305,000 non-Francophone students are enrolled in French immersion courses -- another record -- and more than 2 million others are studying French as a second language.

Only ten years have passed since the first Francophone Summit, and it can be said that each of the succeeding summits responded realistically to the issues of the day. The Paris Summit in 1986 turned the dream into reality, demonstrating imagination in laying the first political foundations of the Francophonie. The Quebec City Summit in 1987 produced a singular effort for solidarity with developing countries.

The Dakar Summit in 1989 saw for the first time a genuine expansion in the themes covered, such as economic and social inequalities and environmental protection.

Two years later, in Paris, the themes of democracy, human rights and good government, which had been dealt with somewhat timidly until then, took centre stage.

At the Mauritius Summit just two years ago, the Francophonie spoke out in support of cultural exemption, a concept that was extended to GATT after being recognized in the North American free trade agreements at Canada's instigation. We should also remember that the main theme of the Mauritius Summit was "unity in diversity", a concept designed to guarantee respect for minorities.

Mr President, we can see that, slowly and surely, Summit after Summit, the Francophonie is expanding its vision of the world and of its own community, while acquiring greater consistency and increasingly relevant actions each time it meets.

I look to the future optimistically, because I am convinced that, empowered by these precious gains, we will be able to continue to make progress in ensuring the growth and vitality of the Francophonie. Just as we have been able in the past to do what was needed, we will be able to find answers today to the challenges of the future.

At this time, I believe that three of those challenges call upon, in a very urgent manner, both the international community and the community which gathers us here today in Cotonou.

The first challenge is the urgent need to reform international multilateral systems and institutions. It is a question of the economic and thus political stability of the whole world. When I chaired the G-7 Summit in Halifax in June, I had the opportunity to lead an extensive debate on this issue.

President Chirac will soon have that responsibility, in preparation for the Lyon Summit in a few months. He and I agreed in Halifax that it is essential that this reform also include a review of institutions responsible for international aid.

Whatever our economic and financial situation, we all have an interest in working to reach as broad a consensus as possible on these issues. This is an opportunity for our Summit to play a unique role. We will discuss this theme and I hope that, in our own way, we will be able to move closer to that consensus, upon which the success of this difficult undertaking depends.

We are also concerned about reform of the United Nations, which is in a crisis. As you all know, after 50 years of existence, it is now urgent that it be modernized.

The extremely serious financial crisis it is experiencing has become its most pressing problem. It is high time that member countries that do not pay their dues take steps to rectify this situation. Indeed, I had the opportunity last week to discuss that with Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

Some extent of decentralization of UN agencies is one avenue for solving these problems. Canada is prepared to host one of those agencies and to do everything necessary to ensure that the operation is a success.

Our second challenge is of equal urgency: to give the Francophonie a stronger voice and a higher profile in the face of an international context where regional and national conflicts are multiplying.

The tragic events that have shaken some countries in our community since the Mauritius Summit two years ago are an urgent call for the Francophonie to become more politically active in the world, especially among its member states.

I believe that the Francophonie can play a more active role in preventing crises and conflicts that affects its member states. And I also believe that it is time for it to give more active consideration to what means should be used to play a useful role in this regard.

Last September, Canada took the initiative of organizing a meeting in Ottawa of senior officials and diplomatic specialists from Francophonie member countries, with the goal of defining a common approach. In the wake of that meeting, my country presented to the United Nations this fall the results of a Canadian study on the establishment of a rapid reaction capability within the UN.

I would be happy to share Canada's thoughts on these issues with you, in the hope of reaching a consensus together. I am convinced that if we come to a basic agreement during this Summit, we will be able to play a more effective role to promote peace and security, as Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali called on us to do in his "Agenda for Peace".

These initiatives would naturally be conducted so as to complement the work by existing organizations, such as the UN and the OAU.

Mr President, I believe we can do a great deal to prevent conflicts that affect the innocent civilian populations of our member states. The Francophonie must continue to work hard on the major social and economic issues of our time.

It must promote openness of markets, develop the private sector, alleviate the debt burden of the poorest, and apply innovative policies to promote women and youth.

Mr President, the third and final challenge to the Francophonie that I want to talk about today goes beyond the first two challenges. Indeed, the first two challenges must not be dealt with in isolation, that is, outside the framework of the major objectives that are essential to the survival of our community as such.

I refer to the strengthening, development and influence of this language which we share, and, through it, to the promotion of the great values of humanism and solidarity that it speaks for.

In tangible terms, this means that the Francophonie must make more effective use to that end of the tools it has already acquired. Like our international television, TV-5, which broadcasts everywhere the image of a vibrant, dynamic and multifaceted French-speaking community. Like the Cultural and Technical Co-operation Agency, our unique organization of intergovernmental solidarity which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, and which is proposing more solid, more intense programming than ever before. Not to mention our tools for university co-operation, which, by stimulating our imagination and our capacity for innovation, open to our community the latest horizons of our modern world.

We must make TV-5 a truly global broadcaster and use it more effectively to sustain and expand the French language.

We must give greater attention to basic education and technical and vocational training, and use increasingly effective distance education methods to the best of our ability.

It is clear that we must also promote, through modern and adapted means, our French-language cultural industries.

These activities are all directly related to strengthening the primary fabric of the Francophonie. In addition to what we are already doing, Canada will propose over the course of this Summit new ideas and initiatives to advance the activities already well under way in each of these areas.

The French language is a vehicle with which many peoples, our peoples, have traced the path of their history. In this era of globalization, that path has become a highway, an information highway.

A highway which must be incorporated into an extremely complex system of highways, in which this language that we share must make its own way or be left by the wayside. The Francophonie must take the offensive.

The phenomenal expansion of automated communications technologies is literally transforming the physical and geographical borders of our countries into virtual borders. The very word border become obsolete when it is no more than a line drawn in the sand. The line is still moving to find a new word to define it.

Mr President, I hope that the Cotonou Summit will be remembered as the one at which the Francophonie affirmed its resolute determination to take the information highway.

The one at which, by combining our efforts, we made a genuine undertaking for all our countries to benefit from it. The one at which we chose not to miss this unique opportunity to come closer together as a community for our mutual enrichment.

But also the one at which we took the same opportunity to multiply our potential for interaction with the rest of the world by giving ourselves better access to what others may have to offer, and by offering them in return the best of what we have.

In doing so, we will first be acquiring a collective means to take together a giant step into the modem world. And we will also be doing a service to all those who, like us, want to preserve their own specific cultural identity by affirming themselves.

Mr President, these challenges are certainly considerable. The task that lies ahead may seen enormous. Nevertheless, I strongly believe that the Francophonie can give itself the means to fulfil that task for the greater benefit of the citizens of all our countries.

I am also happy that this Summit is being called on finally to ratify an idea that is dear to Canada: the appointment of a Secretary-General of all the Francophonie by the next Summit, within the scope of the Niamey convention and on the basis of the Charter of the Cultural and Technical Co-operation Agency.

Empowered by an undisputed internal legitimacy and a new vitality, the Francophonie will thus be able to achieve greater international recognition and, above all, the credibility that its past development demands.

Thank you.

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Source: Chrétien, Jean. Speech by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien at the opening ceremony of the Francophonie Summit. Ottawa : Office of the Prime Minister, 1995.


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