Archived - Notes for an address during the second annual Multidisciplinary Approaches in Language Policy and Planning Conference at the University of Calgary
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Calgary, Alberta, September 6, 2013
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
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Beginning of dialog
It is a great pleasure to be here with you at the University of Calgary once again, and to have the opportunity to address this conference.
Before I begin, I would like to express my sincere thanks to Professor Ricento for inviting me to speak. I was so impressed by the range and depth of last year's event that I really wanted to return, so this is much appreciated.
The great challenge both last year and this year has been to choose sessions: inevitably, there were two sessions occurring simultaneously that I wanted to attend. The very scope of the conference is proof that language and language planning are key policy tools in the management of social conflict and the creation of social cohesion around the world.
Canada's experience with language planning is extensive. Some of that planning has been prohibitive in nature, designed to stamp out the use of languages other than English—particularly French, but also Aboriginal languages.
In 1840, Lord Durham reported that Canada consisted of two nations warring in the breast of a single state, and argued that measures should be taken to assimilate French-speaking Canadians and do away with the use of French.
That policy lasted less than a decade, but the backlash was such that Durham's name is still a word that is conjured in Quebec nationalist circles.
The other incidents are part of the darker side of Canadian history: the Manitoba schools question and Regulation 17 in Ontario—both of which forbade the use of French as a language of instruction—and the elimination of French-language rights in the creation of the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, which laid the groundwork for language policy and planning in Canada.
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.” He added: “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.”
Jane Jenson described Royal Commissions as institutions that represent ideas. She said they have been “locales for some of the major shifts in the ways that Canadians debate representations of themselves, their present and their futures.” And she added: “They set out the terms of who we are, where we have been and what we might become.”
The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was a special case. Nelson Wiseman wrote that “In the 1960s, biculturalism served as a template for the most noteworthy Royal Commission of that decade.”
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.”
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 “the emergent orthodoxy,” in which 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.”
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.”
It is ironic that the work of the Royal Commission is being perceived, decades later, as contributing to exclusion, for the driving impulse that led to its creation, and the theme that emerges again and again in the different volumes of the final report, is the need to end discrimination and injustice and to establish a relationship of equality between English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians.
For in 1962, when Lester Pearson as Leader of the Opposition proposed the creation of the Royal Commission, and in 1963 when he created it, the always-latent tension between the English-speaking majority and the French-speaking minority was becoming aggravated.
French-Canadian nationalism, focused in Quebec, was surging. The Quebec Liberal government was re-elected on the slogan of “Maîtres chez nous” and the promise to nationalize private hydro-electric companies.
The association of Quebec university students—l'Union générale des étudiants du Québec—was in the process of forming and breaking away from the Canadian Union of Students.
A militant separatist political party was created—the Rassemblement pour l'indépendance nationale. A terrorist organization, the Front de la libération du Québec, had begun setting off bombs in Montreal. This was not without impact on the federal government.
In June 1962, the Conservatives lost their majority and became a minority government, thanks to the election of 26 Social Credit MPs from Quebec.
Throughout the fall of 1962, led by House Leader Gilles Grégoire, the 26 Créditiste MPs from Quebec raised daily questions about French-language services in Parliament and in Ottawa:
- the Orders of the Day were in English only;
- the menu of the Parliamentary Restaurant was in English only;
- MP paycheques were in English only;
- security guards were unilingual Anglophones;
- the announcements at Ottawa's Union Station were in English only;
- the service on what was then called Trans-Canada Airlines was in English only;
- and, perhaps most dramatically, none of the 17 vice-presidents of the crown corporation Canadian National Railways was French Canadian.
The list was interminable. In that context, in July 1963, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was launched with the mandate “to recommend what steps should be taken to develop the Canadian Confederation on the basis of an equal partnership between the two founding races.”
The Royal Commission co-chairs André Laurendeau and Davidson Dunton began by touring the country, discovering just how wide the gulf was between English- and French-speaking Canada.
In his journal, Laurendeau described the Commission's visit with a group in Calgary in June 1964. Exasperated by what he called “deaf resistance that never completely expresses itself,” Laurendeau vented some of his feelings to a woman after an informal meeting:
“You asked what Quebec wants but you're not satisfied with the answers we give. In reality, you don't want to know the answer. You'd like it served to you already in bite-sized pieces, but that's not possible. You simply won't agree to put in the required effort to understand a complex situation.”
Later, he met an editorial writer who lamented: “The system of values with which I have operated has completely vanished. My own children don't believe in them anymore.” Which values? “The Bible, Shakespeare, the Union Jack, the British Empire and other secondary divinities.”
Laurendeau found him narrow, unable to adapt, with absolutely no understanding of French Canadians.
The next day, in Saskatoon, Laurendeau asked the provocative question: “Suppose the French-Canadians in Quebec are wrong. What are you going to do with them—kill them?” To which one person of Doukhobour origin replied: “Perhaps we should scatter them across Canada.”
Laurendeau noted that the reaction to this was “general stupor.”' He added: “I didn't dare reply that you would have a few bombs in Saskatoon.”
Similarly, in Winnipeg, Commissioner Frank Scott, who was McGill's dean of law at the time, lost patience at a lunch with local businessmen when one said he did not believe that Franco-Manitobans were dissatisfied with their lot.
“Why should they be?” he asked. Scott answered: “At this point, I could not contain myself and I called out loudly: ‘You took away their school and language rights, didn't you? Why should they feel satisfied?' We got nowhere after this, except exchanges of argument which changed no one's opinion.
After we left the lunch, my fellow Commissioner—and later a federal cabinet minister—Jean Marchand remarked: ‘Before I joined this Commission, I was an anti-separatist.'”
What struck the commissioners most forcefully was the gap between the two language groups: the level of frustration in French-speaking Canada and the level of ignorance and incomprehension in English-speaking Canada.
This also gave them a sense of urgency, driving them to produce a preliminary report in 1965, in which they famously wrote that, without realizing it, Canada was passing through the greatest crisis in its history. “The concessions offered in the English-speaking community were seldom those demanded in the French-speaking communities. Their clocks were set at a different time.”
In the recommendations of their final reports, the commissioners felt the need to repair the injustices that had been done over the previous century and to create an even playing field.
As they wrote, “We believe that this partnership—which is essentially one between francophone and anglophone Canadians, whatever their ethnic origin—involved the underlying social and economic aspects of equality, as well as formal rights for the two languages.”
Defining the underlying social and economic aspects of equality, as well as formal rights for the two languages, was a tall order.
For, as they put it: “Official equality of language has very limited significance if it is not accompanied by equality of economic opportunity. Unless a language can flourish in the world of work, legal guarantees of its use by government services, courts, and schools, will not be able to ensure its long-term development.
Formal linguistic equality is of little importance to those living under a system that always places them in inferior social and economic conditions.
Such a partnership is not only unequal, but may in the long run imperil Confederation; the fate of the two cultures and the two dominant languages of Canada, within two distinct societies, ultimately depends on their position in the work world and the economy at large.”
So, the goal was social justice for the sake of national unity. In specific terms, this meant enabling minority-language communities not only to survive but to flourish; it meant ensuring that the federal government provided services in both languages; and it meant giving both languages equality of status within the federal government. The tool—although it was never expressed quite that way—was language planning.
For example, the Royal Commission looked at the territorial bilingualism of Belgium and Switzerland and the individual approach to bilingualism that is used in South Africa—and was most inspired by Finland.
For those of you who are not from Canada, it is worth pointing out that planning of any kind by the federal government has severe limitations that do not exist in many other countries: the role of the provinces.
Canadian federalism has meant that in many areas of social policy—including language—the federal government is limited in its ability to act unilaterally. For example, health and education—arguably key government services in ensuring the vitality of minority-language communities—are in provincial jurisdiction.
To deal with this, the Royal Commission was obliged to make two kinds of recommendations: those in areas in which the federal government had jurisdiction and those in areas in which it did—and does—not.
Thus, some of the central recommendations were fairly straightforward and within the federal government's power to legislate:
- that an Official Languages Act be adopted recognizing the equality of status of English and French;
- that the federal government ensure that services are delivered to Canadians in the official language of their choice;
- that a Commissioner of official languages be appointed to report to Parliament on the performance of federal institutions in meeting their obligations under the Official Languages Act .
Similarly, it was within the federal government's power to enact other recommendations, such as:
- the right of a federal employee or a candidate for a federal position to be interviewed in French or English;
- the right of an individual in the military or the public service to choose which official language would be used in a disciplinary procedure, and more.
The amended Official Languages Act in 1988 clearly defined the right of federal employees in designated bilingual regions to work in their language of choice—in the National Capital Region, northern and eastern Ontario, Montréal and the Eastern Townships of Quebec, and northern New Brunswick.
In other parts of Quebec, the language of work is French; in the rest of the country, the language of work is English.
More recently, within the federal government, there is a network of official languages coordinators and official languages champions—much as the commissioners had recommended.
But in the field of education—a provincial responsibility—it was more complicated. The commissioners made recommendations about the language of instruction, minority-language schools and training programs for teachers—but there was relatively little the federal government could do to enact these recommendations.
Nevertheless, through a combination of moral suasion, lobbying from parents groups and financial incentives from the federal governments, provincial programs for second-language teaching were introduced—with the support of federal funding.
In fact, it is possible to go through the recommendations of the Royal Commission, 50 years after it was launched and 46 years after the first report was tabled, and marvel at the number of recommendations that have, in fact, been implemented.
In his book Bilingual Today United Tomorrow, Matthew Hayday describes the elaborate process through which the Official Languages in Education Program was established in the 1970s.
It laid the groundwork for federal-provincial agreements on federal contributions to second-language and minority-language education. A multiculturalism policy was introduced, and subsequently a multiculturalism act was passed, as the commissioners had recommended.
Other elements of the recommendations required the introduction of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms—an amendment to the Canadian Constitution in 1982—and a series of Supreme Court decisions interpreting the education rights defined in article 23 of the Charter.
As a result, there are now French-language minority primary and secondary schools in every province and territory—every province and territory—managed by French-language school boards.
Despite these accomplishments, not all of the Royal Commission's recommendations were accepted.
The ambitious proposal to introduce bilingual districts across Canada was never implemented. Ottawa, the capital, has never become officially bilingual. Neither have Ontario and Quebec adopted official bilingual status as provinces.
In fact, the country has moved in the direction of the linguistic asymmetry to which one of the commissioners, F. R. Scott, was deeply opposed: only one bilingual province, New Brunswick; one unilingual French-speaking province, Quebec; and a whole range of different arrangements for providing French-language services elsewhere.
These vary from a clearly defined policy in Ontario, with a commissioner of French-language services acting as an ombudsman, to a situation where British Columbia refuses to accept court documents in French.
Each of the provincial policies reflects a different degree of language planning:
- clear requirements designed to protect the majority language in Quebec, which is but a tiny minority in North America;
- legal and constitutional protections for both languages and communities in New Brunswick;
- and the proactive obligation to provide French-language services in designated districts in Ontario.
The one area where the commissioners failed to agree, and failed to make a recommendation or a special report, was the Constitution. This was a great disappointment for André Laurendeau, the co-chairman.
The very idea of the Royal Commission making recommendations for constitutional change appalled Frank Scott.
That lack of consensus between English-speaking Canadians and Quebec nationalists continues to this day.
Quebec refused to sign the new constitution in 1982, and the agreement negotiated in 1987—the Meech Lake Accord—that would have met Quebec's conditions for signing the Constitution did not win enough support in the rest of the country.
In fact, the controversy over the constitutional process of 1982 was revived last year with a book by Quebec historian Frédéric Bastien, arguing that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court had improperly consulted the government on the deliberations.
In the area of language planning, the federal government introduced three successive five-year plans over the last ten years: the Action Plan for Linguistic Duality in 2003, the Roadmap for Linguistic Duality in 2008, and the Roadmap for Official Languages in 2013. Each plan is intended to coordinate federal government action in the area of language policy.
The latest five-year plan running through to 2018 “reaffirms the government's commitment to promote official languages and enhance the vitality of official-language minority communities in three priority sectors: education, immigration and communities.”
Language planning is still controversial at times in Canada. Quebec's recent attempts to strengthen the protection of the French language led to debate and criticism.
The appointment of a unilingual federal auditor general provoked anger and criticism, resulting this spring in the passage of an act requiring all agents of Parliament to be bilingual. Federal institutions—and federal ministers—are sometimes surprisingly unaware of their obligations under the Official Languages Act.
But two things, I would argue, remain clear. Language planning and language policy, like public safety, will continue to play an important role in Canadian public life.
And the foundations for Canada's language planning and policy were laid by a Royal Commission that was launched 50 years ago this summer.
Its work lives on.