Archived - Notes for an address at the annual convention of the Association québécoise pour l’enseignement en univers social and the Association for Canadian Studies
This page has been archived on the Web.
Information identified as archived is provided for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. It is not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards and has not been altered or updated since it was archived. Please contact us to request a format other than those available.
Bromont, Quebec, October 17, 2013
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
I am delighted to be here with you today in Bromont to discuss the importance of viewing our shared history from the perspective of identity and bilingualism.
Once a student and then a journalist, I have always been passionate about the teaching of history. Today, I am the Commissioner of Official Languages, and I am still interested in the subject.
In this era of globalization, where migration has become the norm and communication instantaneous, the concept of identity is of crucial importance, in my opinion.
Forty-six years ago, as our country was celebrating its 100th birthday, my father published a book on post-war Canada from 1945 to 1967. The book, which he titled The Search for Identity, concluded with quotations from the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism:
… Canada, without being fully conscious of the fact, is passing through the greatest crisis in its history…. The state of affairs established in 1867, and never since seriously challenged, is now for the first time being rejected by the French Canadians of Quebec.
Who is right and who is wrong? We do not even ask ourselves that question; we simply record the existence of a crisis which we believe to be very serious. If it should persist and gather momentum it could destroy Canada. On the other hand, if it is overcome, it will have contributed to the rebirth of a richer and more dynamic Canada.Footnote 1
My father followed those quotations with an observation about the tensions that have always existed between the various peoples in Canada: “Never in their history have Canadians demonstrated any warm affection for each other. Loyalties have always been parochial, mutual hostilities chronic.”Footnote 2
With those remarks, my father was echoing Canadian historian Arthur Lower, who had written that, at the time of Confederation, hate was considered a virtue.
But for my father, as he pointed out in his conclusion, our constant proximity to the wilderness is the aspect that has truly shaped our profound collective identity.
By ending on that note, that is, collective identity, my father gave us a reason to rise above interregional and interethnic conflicts, and to free ourselves from the ancestral hate between the English and the French to make this northern country a unifying reality.
I therefore grew up with that rather unromantic vision of Canadian identity and with that other parallel and more skeptical vision of the ability of Canada’s peoples to get along.
When I was a history student, I researched the strike by Radio-Canada producers in 1958. Later on, for my master’s thesis, I studied the history of urban planning in Toronto and Canada’s intellectual history. Those studies gave me a better understanding of the importance of the various versions of our collective experiences.
Since becoming Commissioner of Official Languages, I have striven to present the history of Canada’s linguistic duality from a different perspective than the traditional one—Anglophones and Francophones entangled in an inevitably conflictual relationship.
For me, history is closely tied to the question of collective identity. Even today, no community can escape its past.
As William Faulkner said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
However, that past does not consist solely of victories in the “True North Strong and Free,” to quote from Canada’s national anthem.
Former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson often told immigrants that Canada is not a buffet table from which you can select what you want and leave the rest. The same also holds true for Canada’s history. We have to accept it in its entirety, with all its ups and downs.
If the Patriots, LaFontaine and Baldwin, Jean Lesage, Pierre Elliott Trudeau and René Lévesque are part of our history, so are the aboriginal residential schools, the anti-Semitic riots in Toronto and Montréal in the 1930s, the internment of the Japanese in the 1940s and the October Crisis in 1970. Our identity is diverse and complex, with sombre happenings alongside some very luminous ones.
Understanding our history is not easy. It is easier to talk about a revolution than a gradual evolution. Rebels are more readily available and more likely to hold our attention than conciliators. Indeed, throughout Canadian history, it is easy enough to find narratives of language issues that lead to conflict.
Some schools of thought have interpreted history as a series of attempts to wipe out the French language:
- the Conquest;
- the putting down of the rebellion of 1837;
- Lord Durham’s recommendation in 1839 to assimilate French-speaking Canadians as quickly and efficiently as possible;
- the hanging of Louis Riel in 1885;
- the adoption of Regulation 17 by Ontario in 1912;
- the ban on all minority language instruction in Manitoba schools in 1916;
- the Conscription Crisis in 1917 and the sequel to that crisis in 1942;
- the War Measures Act in 1970; and
- what some called the Night of the Long Knives in 1981.
Yes, it is easy to identify a constant in all those events—conflict. As if Canada’s history was nothing but conflict!
The Conquest continues to shape a significant part of Quebec intellectual thought, as Christian Dufour’s 1989 book Le défi québécois makes clear.
Similarly, the Rebellion of 1837 figured in dramatic terms in Pierre Falardeau’s film 15 février 1839.
When Sir John A. Macdonald refused to commute Louis Riel’s death sentence, a Quebec newspaper wrote “Riel n’est qu’un nom : c’est l’élément canadien-français et catholique qu’on veut faire danser au bout de la corde.”Footnote 3
And Honoré Mercier, then leader of the Liberal Party in Quebec and later premier, told a massive rally in Montréal that the execution was “a blow struck at the heart of our race.”
It took a century for the Conservatives to recover from the effects of that blow.
Today, I would like to propose that we view history differently and that we put forward a more positive narrative, a narrative based on inclusiveness and respect. In so doing, I hope to open up a new discourse on the teaching of history.
When he was Canadian High Commissioner in London, Mel Cappe discovered that in the days after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, the British army informed the citizens of Québec City that their language and religion would be respected.
Michel Brunet was, as Christian Dufour points out, hardly an uncritical historian and one of the founders of a nationalist school of Quebec history. He wrote that “the generosity of the Conqueror, his benevolence, his concern for the general interest, his spirit of justice, won the hearts of the defeated.”Footnote 4
In the debate in the British House of Commons on the Quebec Act in 1774, Sir Edward Thurlow, the Attorney-General, made the government’s intentions clear.
You ought to change those laws only which relate to the new sovereign. … But with respect to all other laws, all other customs and institutions whatever, which are indifferent to the state of subjects and sovereign, justice and wisdom conspire equally to advise you to leave to the people just as they were.Footnote 5
Edmund Burke, a politician and member of the official opposition of the time, echoed the refrain, arguing that if the French in Canada received English liberty and an English constitution, they would make valuable and useful contributions to Great Britain whether they spoke French or English, and remained Catholic or not.
The first key steps toward Canadian democracy were taken, hand in hand, by Robert Baldwin and Louis Hippolyte in 1842.
As John Ralston Saul wrote, it was the first strategic act in the creation of the country: the reformers suddenly understood that Francophone and Anglophone reformers had to co-operate. We remember Lord Durham, but we forget the fact that 10 years later, his successor, Lord Elgin, read the speech from the Throne in French and English, thus marking the return of French as an official language of Parliament.
John A. Macdonald also understood the importance of bilingualism. In 1856, a decade before Confederation, he summarized the duty of a prime minister:
He must make friends with the French; without sacrificing the status of his race or language, we must respect his nationality. Treat them as a nation, and they will act as a free people generally do - generously. Call them a faction, and they become factious.Footnote 6
Macdonald’s comment proved to be prescient. Those of his successors who treated French-speaking Canadians with respect were greeted with generosity, while those who treated them as a faction were treated with factiousness.
In order to get a broader sense of the English-Canadian narrative of respect, let me skip ahead nearly 100 years.
In December 1940, during World War II, Quebec premier Adélard Godbout spoke to the Canadian Club in Toronto.
In his speech, which was reprinted in Le Devoir and praised by both L’Action nationale and The Globe and Mail, Godbout singled out a group of English Canadians who, in his words, had responded to their gesture of fraternity.
The names on the list are barely known today, including William H. Moore, Arthur Hawkes, Percival F. Morley and Lorne Pierce.
Who are these people? Why would they be singled out then? And why should I mention them now, seven decades later?
I believe they laid the foundation for a Canadian identity which includes linguistic duality—an element that has been critical to defining Canada as a country and has made tolerance and acceptance of others one of our basic values.
In 1970, Marcel Trudel and Geneviève Jain, authors of a study for the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, recommended that there be a joint work of Canadian history that would set forth not one, but several interpretations of our past.
This approach, they argued, would lead French and English Canadians to what the authors called a more objective view of the adventure they have shared, and to better mutual understanding.
They concluded by saying that the teaching of history hitherto had been far from that. More often than not, it has only tended to set one group against the other.
If Canada is more than ever before threatened with schism, we believe that we must look for the cause in the manner in which today’s citizens have learned the history of their country.
In June 1991, 20 years later, the Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future—the Spicer Commission—made a remarkably similar recommendation to solve what Keith Spicer called “our lack of knowledge.”
The provinces outside Quebec should consider a common curriculum and should explore with Quebec any further degree of coordination that respects the quite different pasts and perspectives.
For the problem remains the same: Canadians do not know their country, and are learning different versions of their past. In addition, the academic discipline of history has changed, and those changes are reflected in what is taught in high schools.
The result is very different textbooks, a series of conflicting pressures on teachers—and students who see the country in very different ways. The textbooks, although only a slice of what students learn, are revealing.
Two decades ago, as a journalist, I embarked on a comparison between the teaching of history in Quebec and Saskatchewan.
A Saskatchewan text stressed cultural interaction and the aboriginal experience; a Quebec textbook focuses on what it calls the “original society” of Quebec since the foundation of the colony. A text used in Ontario and some other provinces recounts different regional experiences across the country to describe a national past.
“History courses now come in many different forms,” pointed out Kenneth Osborne, a professor of education at the University of Manitoba who has written extensively on the evolution of history textbooks.Footnote 7
“Chronology is no longer the organizing principle as history courses emerge organized around topics (Ontario), themes (Manitoba) and issues (Alberta). Local and regional history are also receiving more emphasis, most conspicuously in the Maritime Studies course taught in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.”Footnote 8
“Political and constitutional history have not been abandoned,” Professor Osborne continued, “but they have made room for social and cultural themes: women’s history, native history, labour history, even quantitative history now appear in the classroom, and multiculturalism has become a major theme.”Footnote 9
The result was a very different kind of history.
Esther Demers, one of the co-authors of a widely used textbook in Quebec, Le Québec: héritages et projets, pointed out that the book was written to meet the criteria of the Quebec Department of Education curriculum guidelines, which call for a Quebec history course. According to Demers, it proved to be impossible to revise the book for use in New Brunswick. “It turned out there were a whole series of things they didn’t accept. For example, they didn’t like the fact that the word ‘Quebec’ was as large as the word ‘Canada’ on the map—things that had never occurred to us.”Footnote 10
New Brunswick decided to commission a text on the history of Canada and New Brunswick. Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that how we see the Canadian identity—or identities—should be so different. Canadians have always studied versions of history approved by 10 different provincial departments of education.
As part of this project, I attended a history course at a high school in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, and at a school in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. My conclusion was the same. Both history textbooks made only passing reference to the other society.
One of the very few mutual understanding exercises was organized by the Institute for Public Policy Research, which in 1999 published the bilingual book Si je me souviens bien / As I Recall: Regards sur l’histoire.
The book consists of a series of essays on the differing interpretations of events in Canadian history: the Conquest, the Rebellion of 1837, the Province of Canada, Confederation, the hanging of Louis Riel, the building of the welfare state, the definition of Canadian identity and the Quiet Revolution.
The following year, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and its French-language counterpart, Société Radio-Canada, broadcast a major program on popular history called Canada: A People’s History / Le Canada: Une histoire populaire.
In his book, producer Mark Starowicz talks about the difficulties faced by his associate, Mario Cardinal, during the project:
For many Québécois, the word ‘Canada’ is a synonym for frustration, deception, combat and humiliation. For the indépendantistes (that is to say, almost half the population and the majority of intellectuals, including journalists), the word ‘Canada’ is taboo. I have lost friends who no longer speak to me simply because I agreed to work on the series.Footnote 11
Thus, even having a shared conversation about history can sometimes be a difficult exercise.
Each generation sees its past differently. The teaching of history is therefore constantly changing, just as society is. It is not surprising to see the attention given to the national question in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. After all, it dominated public debate at the time.
What elements could lead to a rethinking of the past? There are several. For example, the end of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan could stimulate a discussion about military and diplomatic history. Tensions in Canada-US relations are another topic to be explored.
But as I see it, we often forget extremely important subjects such as the demographic transformation of Canada—a topical issue. I am referring here to the evolution of Canada as an immigrant-receiving country, the management of intercultural tension and the development of the feeling of “us.”
In a changing society, our history teachers have to understand and be able to explain the roots of inclusion that account for the fact that Quebec and Canada are societies which welcome others and do not reject or marginalize them.
The development of the feeling of “us” requires an understanding of the path taken by our society on the road to inclusion.
Society has to take up that challenge in the same way that the teachers of our history must.
But what a wonderful challenge! Thank you.
- Footnote 1
Preliminary Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, Ottawa, Queen’s Printer, 1965, Foreword, p. 5.
- Footnote 2
Blair Fraser, The Search for Identity, Doubleday and Co., 1967, p. 313.
- Footnote 3
Cited in “The Hanging of Louis Riel,” in John Meisel, Guy Richer and Arthur Silver, As I recall/Si je me souviens bien: Historical perspectives Montréal, Institute for Research on Public Policy, 1999, p. 70–71.
- Footnote 4
Michel Brunet, La présence anglaise et les Canadiens, Montréal, Beauchemin, 1958, p. 142, cited by Dufour, Le défi québécois, p. 23.
- Footnote 5
Cited by W. H. Moore in The Clash: A Study in Nationalities, Toronto, J.M. Dent & Sons, 1918, p. 49.
- Footnote 6
Donald Creighton, John A. Macdonald: The Young Politician, Toronto, Macmillan of Canada, 1952, p. 203.
- Footnote 7
The Globe and Mail, February 6, 1992.
- Footnote 8
- Footnote 9
- Footnote 10
- Footnote 11
Graham Fraser, Sorry, I Don’t Speak French, 2006, p. 289.