Archived - Notes for an address at the networking and partnership retreat of the Community Health and Social Services Network (CHSSN)
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Québec City, February 11, 2013
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
I’d like to welcome you all to the networking and partnership retreat of the Community Health and Social Services Network. I thank Jennifer Johnson for inviting me.
People are the lifeblood of every organization and at the heart of every community’s vitality—they give a community its vigour, strength and ability to develop to its full capacity. Since 2000, the Community Health and Social Services Network (CHSSN) has greatly contributed to the vitality of Quebec’s English-speaking communities. By supporting and carrying out projects that meet their most urgent health and social service needs, the CHSSN has had a marked impact on the quality of life of Quebec Anglophones. One example is the partnership with McGill University to provide language training to health-care professionals throughout the province. Another is the efforts of the Coasters Association of the Lower North Shore and the Centre de santé et de services sociaux de la Basse-Côte-Nord to open a day centre offering English-language services to seniors.
It is always a pleasure for me to address Quebec’s English-speaking community and discuss your vitality and role in the province. I lived in Quebec for a decade—three years in Montréal and seven years in Québec City—and I’ve spent weekends and holidays in the province. The English-speaking community is the minority-language community that I know best; it was here that my interest in language developed and deepened.
Coming back here gives me an opportunity to renew acquaintances and friendships, some of which date back to the 1970s and 1980s.
The community has definitely changed since then. For one thing, it has aged. It is often when they reach retirement age that people notice how important it is that services be available in both official languages. I’ve noticed that, as we age, we care more about receiving health care and financial services in our preferred language. After paying into health insurance for 40 or 50 years, we get to a point where we have to use those public services more often. We start drawing on the pension plan rather than contributing to it. The right to services in our language of choice becomes an intensely personal and sometimes daily question.
The older generation of Quebec’s English-speaking communities face specific challenges—they lived and worked in Quebec at a time when it was not necessary to speak French to function. Now, as they are no longer in the workforce, they are vulnerable and need health and social services at a time when these services are not always available in English. Yes, the shortage of health-care workers makes it difficult to hire bilingual staff, but Quebec’s English minority is entitled to receive services in the official language of their choice.
As I understand it, the quality of care is generally not an issue in the province. It is the availability of the care that is problematic. Most of the English-speaking community lives in Montréal, and this is where most of the Anglophone organizations have their head offices. Therefore, it’s easier to obtain services in English in Montréal than out in the regions.
For example, obtaining information and documents about specialized health services in English—support groups, mental health services and assistance for caregivers—can become a frustrating obstacle. Language misunderstandings can have serious consequences on people’s health.
English’s presence as the international lingua franca is putting pressure on French as a language of business, research and international communication—and many in Quebec resent that shift. But that has nothing to do with the English-speaking minority in Quebec!
The present politico-linguistic environment in Quebec is different than it was in the ’80s and ’90s. People are not feeling as threatened by the others’ desire to live in their language. We need to focus on the respect that exists between English- and French-speaking Quebecers. You can see it on the streets and at public events, especially in Montréal. People do not want confrontation; they want harmony and understanding.
Many Francophones in Quebec are bilingual. They recognize the importance of speaking English in today’s world. And Anglophones, many of whom are also bilingual, recognize the importance of French in Quebec. Quebecers of all backgrounds are pleased that their province is the most bilingual in Canada.
I don’t think that the old idea that learning English is a slippery slope toward assimilation has much traction anymore in Quebec. That reaction stemmed from a profound misunderstanding.
In fact, Quebec’s English-speaking community is portrayed as “in style” and “tendance” for 2013, according to a recent article in the Huffington Post. The popularity of Quebec Anglophone chefs David McMillan, Derek Dammann and Marc Cohen; the up-and-coming Anglo districts such as Griffintown and Pointe-St-Charles; Quebec Anglo artists such as Leonard Cohen, the McGarrigle family, Arcade Fire and Sugar Sammy; Josh Freed, discovered by Francophone readers through his blog on L’Actualité: Quebec Anglos are now hip and sought after.
We have seen some contradictory signals from the Parti Québécois since their election. On the one hand, Pauline Marois, during her acceptance speech, declared French indispensable to the future of the province. She addressed Quebec Anglophones in English, promising to protect them and to forge a shared future together. And for the first time in its history, Quebec now has a minister of Anglo-Franco relations.
Since his appointment, Jean-François Lisée has gone to great lengths to meet with, consult and listen to Anglophone leaders and visit members of English-speaking community organizations—including school boards and the Quebec Community Groups Network. He has carefully sent conciliatory messages to Quebec Anglophones, all the while remaining steadfast about the PQ’s plan to make French the language of the workplace in Quebec. To mixed reaction from both Francophone and Anglophone media, he announced last month a $20,000 grant to promote the song “Notre Home” in schools throughout the province, in an effort to bridge the communities.
The media—especially the Anglophone media—have pointed out the contradictions between the PQ government’s words and actions. This seduction operation is largely seen as suspicious coming from a government advocating for sovereignty. At the office of the Quebec Community Groups Network, Lisée spoke on behalf of the PQ government to Quebec’s English-speaking community: “You’re here to stay; we want you to be here to stay. Let’s work on everything.”
On the other hand, we saw the Ministry of Health remove the Lachine hospital from the McGill University Health Centre. That indicated a different attitude and a different approach to institutions that we’ve traditionally seen as part of the health network in Quebec.
We’ve also seen Bill 14’s proposed changes to bilingual municipalities, greater restrictions on small businesses, and limitations on access to English-language education for military families temporarily based in Quebec. These signals make Bill 14 appear to the English-speaking community as anti-English rather than pro-French.
The English-language school system also faces difficulties, as enrolments are declining at the same time as Quebec bureaucracy seems to be deaf to the system’s importance to the Anglophone community’s vitality.
I see Jean-François Lisée’s ministerial responsibilities for the English-speaking minority as an attempt to create dialogue rather than to deceive. Any initiative to build bridges between communities can only help work toward an inclusive society with two dynamic languages and cultures. Progress is being made, but to the best of my knowledge the provincial government has made no matching bureaucratic adjustments. No one in the provincial public service has a coordinating responsibility for the institutional needs of the English-speaking community in Quebec—unlike in Ontario, Nova Scotia and some other provinces, which have not just a minister with this as part of a portfolio, but also an office or a secretariat with that responsibility.
The Quebec government needs to respect the fact that English and French are Canadian languages, not foreign languages. That is why I reacted as strongly as I did when the Quebec minister of education said last fall that English is a foreign language. English is not a foreign language in Canada; French is not a foreign language in Canada. They are Canadian languages in all regions of the country. But language policy and national unity are definitely linked—this is why governments and institutions must do what the law says they should do, starting with the provision of services.
In recent years, we have seen the importance of establishing and maintaining institutions for community development. Organizations such as yours need to promptly receive the funding that the federal government has committed to contributing. I am aware of your concerns regarding the new political reality of Quebec and the imminent lapse of the Roadmap for Canada’s Linguistic Dualityin March, whose renewal still hasn’t been approved by Treasury Board.
I understand the stress and the uncertainty of this situation—a situation you already went through in 2009–2010, when the promised government funding came close to arriving too late for your organization. Because of that, the McGill University-CHSSN project was saved only by last-minute discussions. And you also came close to having to take drastic economic measures that would have limited your capacity to help English-speaking Quebecers benefit from Health Canada’s action plan.
At this point, I am in a better position to listen to your concerns than to pronounce on them. There are still a number of unknowns—but also a number of indications that the government takes the Roadmap seriously. James Moore, Tony Clement and other ministers conducted consultations last summer. As yet, the government has made no announcements on the future of the Roadmap. Obviously, this is of great concern to me as well as to minority-language communities. I expect the next phase of the Roadmap to help communities build and maintain the capacity of institutions—the way the first Roadmap made great strides in health care for English-speaking Quebecers.
There is no question that the French language has to be promoted in Quebec, but the rights of the English-speaking minority must be respected, too. There is a big difference between the rise of English—an international language of communication used by industries, businesses, researchers and tourists—and the needs of Quebec’s English-speaking communities.
Gérald Godin, a former Quebec minister of cultural communities and immigration, who passed away in 1994, understood this distinction well. Thirty years ago, he stated that Quebec’s Anglophone community was very much a minority and posed no threat to French. The threat, he said, came from elsewhere. Three decades later, globalization shows how right he was.
I knew Gérald Godin, and I remember the role he played in reaching out to cultural communities. He saw the government’s commitment to multiculturalism and ethnic diversity as a chance to articulate deeper goals for Quebec society. He thought that what Quebec was missing was a social project that was stimulating for the mind and that referred to non-materialistic values, such as fraternity, generosity to others, openness and solidarityFootnote 1. He understood the importance of the English minority and the importance of your community institutions. He realized that they did not threaten the French majority, the vitality of the French language and Quebec as a predominantly French-speaking society.
We need to talk about language in a way that embraces Quebec’s linguistic diversity and plurality, while supporting the objective of a shared language.
Quebec author Pierre Nepveu raised this issue in Le Devoir last September. I agree with what he said: we need to talk about diversity—the wonderful diversity of French-speaking Montréal, with its Caribbean, African, Asian and Middle Eastern accents and intonations. We need to talk about bilingual Anglophones, who speak French on the street, in the stores and in government offices. We need to show the multifaceted reality of our linguistic duality. Revisiting the positive aspects of your community’s role in Quebec’s history would shed new light on social perceptions and move the province forward as a society. Quebec needs a positive narrative to relate to its Anglophones—these stories must be told.
For Quebec’s English-speakers, building strategic relationships within the health and social services system is a question of the well-being of the community, but also of practicality—and if you look closely, you see that ingenuity plays an important role in people’s access to services in English. I have seen many examples of how individuals’ actions have changed the lives of their communities.
For example, last summer, after my wife fell and injured herself, she was taken to the Centre hospitalier universitaire in Sherbrooke. She received excellent care and, while she was there, she was visited by Ruth Elkas, a retired nurse who does rounds in the hospital to make sure that non-French-speaking patients get the service they need and understand the services they are getting.
As another example, Sheila Eskenazi, a real estate agent in the Laurentians and President of the Laurentian Club of Canada, noticed that the local hospital provided no recorded telephone messages in English. She volunteered to record them. Now, if you call that hospital, the automatic phone answering service has an English option. Sheila Eskenazi’s voice guides you through the system.
People do not usually set out with the goal of improving relations between the majority and minority communities. They set out to solve a problem and make their communities more practical, in the best way they can. They are useful, and helpful. Better community relations are by-products of their actions.
And that is the key. Anglophones and Francophones alike now agree: better community relations are achieved by working together towards a common goal and for the public good. I will meet with Minister Lisée while I’m here in Québec City this week. This is the message I’ll convey to him.
- Footnote 1
Graham Fraser, “Godin leads the push for a Quebec open to diversity,” The Gazette, September 1, 1981.