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Fifty Years Later: The Legacy of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism
Ottawa, February 5, 2013
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
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Beginning of dialog
President Rock, Professor Clément,
Thank you very much for the introduction, and for agreeing to host this first lecture in a series of lectures, workshops and round tables that will be held across Canada to mark the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism.
First of all, what is a Royal Commission?
My late brother once had a political science professor at McGill who, in the early 1950s, described it this way: “What is a Royal Commission? I'll tell you what a Royal Commission is—$100 a day plus expenses!”
More seriously, the late Allan Blakeney described it as “the most traditional form of consultation,” adding “Indeed, a case can be made that for at least the last half-century, Royal Commissions and their reports have been a dominant force in shaping public policy in Canada.”Footnote 1 Jane Jenson described Royal Commissions as institutions that represent ideas, that have been “locales for some of the major shifts in the ways that Canadians debate representations of themselves, their present and their futures,” adding “They set out the terms of who we are, where we have been and what we might become.”Footnote 2
The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was a special case. Nelson Wiseman has written that “In the 1960s, biculturalism served as a template for the most noteworthy Royal Commission of that decade.”Footnote 3 As Richard Van Loon and Michael Whittington put it in their political science textbook The Canadian Political System, it “featured nine commissioners with a staff of hundreds, and managed, for a few brief years, to eliminate, almost completely, unemployment among Canadian social scientists.”Footnote 4
However, even in the early 1970s, there was a dissident academic view. In 1972, Donald Smiley, a political scientist with roots in Western Canada, called the reports of the Royal Commission the leading expression of what he called “the emergent orthodoxy,” which meant that residents of Western Canada “have come to feel outside the mainstream of national life by the acceptance in Ottawa… of Canada and of the Canadian experience which has little relevance to western life and traditions.”Footnote 5
Other academics, who have adopted the post-structural framework and vocabulary of hegemony and what one called “the durability of the white-settler bilingual/bicultural formulation in the present, and its contemporary mode of ordering racialized immigrant Others,” take a more critical view of Royal Commissions.
Eve Haque argues that the Commission legitimized the dominant role of English and French in Canada and marginalized immigrants and Aboriginal peoples. As she put it, “The establishment of the link between language and race in the crucible of modernity meant that, in contemporary nation-building projects—as that of the B and B Commission—language could become the basis of the Other's exclusion.”Footnote 6
What I would like to do in this lecture is to describe the social and political context that led to the creation of the Royal Commission, the tensions that marked the Commission's deliberations, and how those tensions have been reflected, half a century later, in the current debate over language policy in Canada.
The idea of a Royal Commission was first proposed in January 1962 by André Laurendeau in an editorial in Le Devoir and, in July 1963, the Royal Commission was announced.
That year and a half was a turbulent time in Quebec. In June 1962, the Conservatives lost their majority and become a minority government, thanks to the election of 26 Social Credit MPs from Quebec. In September, Premier Jean Lesage called an election that was fought over the takeover of Quebec's private hydroelectric companies, winning re-election in November. Throughout the fall, led by House Leader Gilles Grégoire, the Créditistes MPs raised the question of French language services in Parliament and in Ottawa on a daily basis: the Orders of the Day were in English only, the menu of the Parliamentary Restaurant was in English only, the MPs' paycheques were in English only, the security guards were unilingual Anglophones, the announcements at the station were in English only, the service on what was then called Trans-Canada Airlines was in English only… the list was interminable. Grégoire spoke or asked questions 134 times in the first 60 days. The federal government operated in English.
On November 19, Donald Gordon, the President of Canadian National Railways, appeared before the House of Commons Railway Committee—and Mr. Grégoire was waiting to question him about the fact that none of the 17 vice-presidents at CN were French-Canadian. The ensuing controversy resulted in student demonstrations across Quebec, the largest being led by Bernard Landry, then president of the Association générale des étudiants de l'Université de Montréal.
On December 18, 1962, Lester Pearson, then Leader of the Opposition, gave a speech calling for the creation of a Royal Commission, the speech—he said in his memoirs—of which he was the proudest.
In February 1963, the Front de libération du Québec was founded. In March three military barracks in Montréal were bombed. In April—in the second bombing that month—Wilfrid O'Neill, a night watchman, was killed.
Also in April, there was a federal election and Lester Pearson became Prime Minister with a minority government. On election night, crossing paths with Laurendeau, Pearson adviser Maurice Lamontagne said they had to talk.
This was the beginning of an extensive courtship of Laurendeau to become co-chair of the Royal Commission that Pearson had promised in December. Laurendeau's reluctance, which was reinforced by some of the people he consulted, was a reflection of his ambivalence.
Davidson Dunton was Laurendeau's co-chair, a man of grace and moderation who was then President of Carleton University. He played an important role in smoothing the tensions between the Commission and the government and in keeping the sometimes spiky personalities of the Commission working together—but I think it is fair to say that the key debates, and the principal tension on the Commission, was between Laurendeau's approach and that of Frank Scott.
Laurendeau's hesitation about accepting the offer had a number of aspects: a reluctance to leave Le Devoir, and a hesitation about compromising his nationalist views. But I also think that there was a fundamental question of trust: could he trust the country? A year before, he had written a best-selling book that was in part a memoir of his own experience 20 years earlier: La crise de la conscription.
The most well-known quote from his book can be found in the preface: “It is when two nations intensely oppose one another that the extent to which they exist can be measured.” [translation] In his book, Laurendeau explains the theory that the King government had made a pact with French-Canadians: in exchange for participating in the war, there would never be conscription. Thus, to him, the 1942 plebiscite wasn't a political ruse; it was a betrayal. “In short, French-Canadian nationalists were opposed to the very principle of the plebiscite,” [translation] he wrote. They were staunchly against the government asking the majority to erase a promise made to the minority. They rejected the validity of the response from Canadians before it was ever obtained.
“The pact they [French Canadians] were referring to was moral in nature. Parliament could legally impose conscription. What the French-Canadian minority was asking the majority to do was prevent Parliament from doing what it had the political power to do.” [translation] As a result, the internal debate Laurendeau launched in the spring of 1963 was above all a moral debate. And the key question was the existential one that he and Davidson Dunton asked at the beginning of every public hearing: “Can English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians live together, and do they want to? Under what conditions? And are they prepared to accept those conditions?” The questions struck at the core of the existence of the country.
As Commissioner, he was particularly sensitive to the needs of Quebec as a majority French-speaking society, writing in his journal in August 1965: “Bilingualism can only live if it is supported by two unilingualisms, without which bilingualism is a transitory situation which results in the unilingualism of the strongest and most numerous.”Footnote 7
F. R. Scott
When he was approached to be on the Commission, Frank Scott was Dean of Law at McGill—10 years after having been passed over because of his left-wing views. A socialist, one of the authors of the Regina Manifesto, a poet, a constitutional lawyer and a strong defender of civil rights, Scott had first got to know Laurendeau during the late 1930s, when both were trying to build bridges between French and English intellectuals in Montréal. It was as a member of the Royal Commission that F. R. Scott's views on language and bilingualism would be challenged, sharpened and, in some cases, rejected. He had always been clear in his views: as a constitutional lawyer, he took a far-reaching interpretation of section 133 of the British North America Act, arguing in 1947 that “British Columbia is already, in an important aspect, a bilingual province.”Footnote 8 Scott was named as the only representative of the English minority in Quebec. That role was a key to his identity in many ways: he knew all the Quebec members of the Commission and, with the exception of Dunton, none of the members from the rest of Canada, even though he had a national reputation.
Laurendeau and Dunton were co-chairs, but the real debate, intellectual and emotional, linguistic and national, was between Laurendeau and Scott. Both men had subtle minds, political idealism, personal charisma, and poets' sensibilities. As Laforest puts it in his essay on the two men, both were “éminences grises,” or intellectual leaders of Quebec and English-speaking Canada respectively.
Scott's view was that, although French Canada could legitimately be considered a nation, Quebec was—or should be—a bilingual society. His ideal was that the bilingual model should be extended to Canada as a whole, so that the limited rights defined in the British North America Act would be extended and the language rights that had been extinguished in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta would be restored.
It took Scott some time to come to terms with Laurendeau's view of the need for two unilingualisms—a view that had been adopted by one of the researchers, William Mackey. “In regard to this idea of promoting unilingualism, I confess that, perhaps lacking French logic, I could not see how a Commission appointed to promote bilingualism could end up by favouring the promotion of unilingualism,” Scott wrote in his journal. “Gradually it dawned on me, and I think on the others, that what Mackey meant was that unless there was a strong degree of unilingualism in the bilingual country for each language, one would eventually dominate and assimilate the other.”Footnote 9
Laurendeau's view, eloquently expressed in the blue pages of the first volume of the Royal Commission report, was that the survival of French in Canada and North America depended upon a strong, French-speaking society in Quebec and, as he wrote in his journal, two unilingualisms.
While Scott admired Laurendeau's independence of thought and opposition to Duplessis, he occasionally fulminated at the myths he felt that Laurendeau perpetuated about the English community: “Only in the economic area do the English have a privileged place. In … other activities, as well as in politics, it is a handicap to belong to the English minority.”Footnote 10
But both men were appalled by the ignorance and prejudice they encountered toward French in Canada during the Commission's visits to Western Canada. Both were also taken aback by the degree to which separatists were dominating public discussion in Quebec.
Scott did not lose his quick wit during some of those stormy hearings. At a meeting in Sherbrooke, a young man said that he cared nothing about the French-speaking minorities outside Quebec, that the only minority that mattered was the English-speaking minority in Quebec, and it should leave as soon as possible. “J'y suis, j'y reste” (I'm here, I'm staying), responded Scott.
In the discussions in the fall of 1967, he found himself in a minority: as he put it, “the only voice for a bilingual Quebec.” He ultimately dissented from the Commission's recommendations in Volume 4, arguing that, by recommending the working language in Quebec be French, it was contradicting its earlier rejection of a territorial solution to the language issue.
The final note that Scott struck was a pessimistic one: a 10-page, legal-sized document poignantly titled “The End of the Affair.” It is undated, but on the basis of the internal evidence it was written in 1970 before the October Crisis. Though the Commission's work was over, Scott wrote, the crisis in Quebec was not—and he warned that the recommendations could not solve all the problems of national unity. He closed “on a personal note:” “It is astonishing and also frightening for me to watch Quebec abandon so many of its ancient virtues and values in order to rush into the North American capitalist system with arms open for the embrace. The values of that system I learned to despise and reject in the 1930s. I had hoped that the Catholic tradition with its greater emphasis on social obligations would somehow mitigate the prevailing Protestant ethic of free enterprise.” It is a poignant sign of age that at 70 he nostalgically saw “virtues and values,” whereas at 33 he had denounced the Church for interpreting the Depression “as a sort of punishment from God upon greedy individuals.”Footnote 11
The public sessions of the Royal Commission confirmed some of the conceptual problems in its mandate.
But what emerged as the essential debate, and the source of critical tension within the Royal Commission, was the conceptual model that should be developed for Canada. André Laurendeau felt that the central problem was Quebec's fragility as a French-speaking society, and that this should be the primary consideration. Frank Scott, on the other hand, felt that Quebec was, legally, constitutionally and practically, a bilingual province—and that bilingual status should be extended to the rest of Canada. Both agreed that the status quo—which Pearson had described in his December 1962 speech as “an English-speaking Canada with a bilingual Quebec”—was unacceptable. But their ultimate visions of what the future should be were quite different.
Paradoxically, both felt that they had lost. When Volume 1 was published, Laurendeau said bleakly to a colleague: “It does nothing for Quebec.” For Scott, on the contrary, Laurendeau had been pushing for a constitutional change to give more powers to Quebec, which Scott thought to be completely inappropriate, and he felt that the commissioners and its researchers were much too sympathetic to the idea of a unilingual French-speaking Quebec. Scott would ultimately dissent from the Commission's recommendation that the language of work in Quebec be French, arguing that this was inconsistent with the earlier rejection of territorial bilingualism. “This is exactly what I knew would happen,” he wrote grimly in his journal.Footnote 12
The Legacy of the Royal Commission
It is easy to forget how controversial the Royal Commission was, and how much it was criticized: first, for its Preliminary Report, which stated that Canada was passing through the greatest crisis in its history—a crisis that few English-speaking Canadians recognized or acknowledged—and then at the expense and length of time the Commission took.
It is also easy to forget how difficult it was for the commissioners to reach a consensus. In March 1968, Laurendeau brought Scott and Paul Lacoste together to hammer out a constitutional point. They finally reached an agreement—on the fourteenth draft.Footnote 13
In retrospect, the controversies vanish, and the conflicts become smoothed over. What remains are the observations, the recommendations and the studies.
The observations were clear-sighted. I quote: “Anyone who speaks French still runs the risk of this kind of insult: ‘Speak white'; ‘Why don't you speak a white man's language?' (an insult that manages, in retrospect, to be simultaneously racist and sexist); ‘If you want to speak French, go back to your province'; or simply ‘Why don't you speak English?'”Footnote 14
That discourse of discrimination and insult has virtually disappeared in Canada—in part because it was so clearly flushed out into the open by the Royal Commission. The description of Canada going through a crisis was derided in 1965; in 1967, after the defeat of the Liberals in Quebec and General de Gaulle's “Vive le Quebec libre,” there was a general recognition that the commissioners had a point.
The famous “page bleues,” which Laurendeau wrote, coined the phrase that Quebec was a “distinct society,” and—while purporting to be simply a glossary of terms—sketched with great sensitivity, the realities of language contact, language dominance, the role of Quebec in promoting and protecting the French fact in Canada, and the realities facing linguistic minorities.
Let me quote just one example: “We shall mention later the difficulties, which may be dramatic in their intensity, faced by a bilingual person who must work in his second language—his sense of being diminished, the irritation which frequently results, and his loss of efficiency,” Laurendeau wrote. “There are situations in which this choice is unavoidable, especially when an individual is almost the only speaker of his language in a given environment. But the objective should be to impose the fewest possible sacrifices from which nobody benefits—neither the individual, nor his employers.”Footnote 15
And the recommendations?
Some are now taken for granted: that English and French be formally declared the official languages of Canada, that there be an official languages act, and a commissioner of official languages. Others have proven less durable: the designation of bilingual districts, and that New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario become officially bilingual.
But there are less obvious but even more important legacies that the Royal Commission has left us.
An official languages policy as well as a multiculturalism policy flowed from its recommendations, as it laid the framework not only for linguistic duality but also for cultural diversity as Canadian values.
It established a framework of language rights that shaped both the Official Languages Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, establishing as quasi-constitutional Canada's language regime. This, in turn, led to the creation of French-language schools and school boards across Canada – and the right to a trial in the Official Language of choice of the accused.
The result has been, in effect, a compromise between the beliefs, goals and convictions of both André Laurendeau and Frank Scott: on the one hand, a clear recognition of French predominance in Quebec, where French is the language of work and the language of public interaction, and, at the same time, a federal recognition of language rights as human rights that are guaranteed in a Charter and respected across the country.
It is a legacy to be proud of.
- Footnote 1
Allan Blakeney and Sandford Borins, Political Management in Canada, University of Toronto Press, Second Edition, Toronto, 1998, p. 187.
- Footnote 2
Jane Jenson, “Commissioning Ideas: Representation and Royal Commissions,” in Susan D. Phillips, ed., How Ottawa Spends, Ottawa, Carleton University Press, 1994, pp. 39–40.
- Footnote 3
Nelson Wiseman, In Search of Canadian Political Culture, UBC Press, Vancouver, Toronto, 2007, p. 94.
- Footnote 4
Richard Van Loon and Michael Whittington, The Canadian Political System: Environment, Structure and Process, McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., Toronto, 1987, p. 497.
- Footnote 5
Donald V. Smiley, Canada in Question: Federalism in the Seventies, McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., 1972, p. 179, quoted by Kenneth McRoberts, “Making Canada Bilingual: Illusions and Delusions of Federal Language Policy,” in David P. Sugarman and Reg Whitaker, eds., Federalism and Political Community: Essays in Honour of Donald Smiley, Broadview Press, Peterborough, 1989, p. 141.
- Footnote 6
Eve Haque, Multiculturalism Within a Bilingual Framework: Language Race and Exclusion in Canada, University of Toronto Press, Toronto 2012, p. 17.
- Footnote 7
Page reference in journal to come; cited in Sorry, I Don't Speak French, p. 67.
- Footnote 8
F. R. Scott, “Canada, Quebec, and Bilingualism,” in Essays on the Constitution: Aspects of Canadian law and politics, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1977, p. 197.
- Footnote 9
Graham Fraser, Sorry, I Don't Speak French: Confronting the Canadian Crisis That Won't Go Away, McClelland and Stewart Ltd., Toronto, p. 66.
- Footnote 10
Sorry, I Don't Speak French, p. 62.
- Footnote 11
Sorry, I Don't Speak French, pp. 76–77.
- Footnote 12
Sorry, I Don't Speak French, p. 75.
- Footnote 13
André Laurendeau, Journal tenu pendant la Commission royale d'enquête sur le bilinguisme et le biculturalisme, Outremont, VLB/Septentrion, 1990, p. 43.
- Footnote 14
Canada, A Preliminary Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, 1965, paragraph 80, p. 86.
- Footnote 15
Canada, Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, Volume 1, paragraph 32.