Notes for an address at the Conference of Official Languages Champions

Ottawa, Ontario, June 1, 2017
Ghislaine Saikaley - Interim Commissioner of Official Languages

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Ladies and gentlemen, hello.

I am delighted to be here today at this annual conference of official languages champions, which is taking place during this very special year of celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation.

Since 1867, linguistic duality has contributed to shaping Canada’s image. English and French are an integral part of Canada’s history and of its identity.

Canada’s official languages belong to all Canadians, regardless of their linguistic heritage or whether they are bilingual, unilingual or multilingual.

It was with this in mind that the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages created a timeline called Official Languages in Canada: 150 Years of History, so people can discover—or rediscover—the milestones that have marked the history of linguistic duality throughout Canada. You can find this timeline on our web site.

While my intention isn’t to give you a history lesson today in this great museum—a museum with so many memories and artifacts of our military past—allow me to mention some key historical events related to official languages in Canada.

150 years ago, one of the approaches proposed in the negotiations preceding Confederation was optional bilingualism in the activities of the future Parliament of Canada.

French-Canadian members adamantly opposed this option at the time, and their protests culminated in the passage of a resolution providing for the mandatory use of English and French in certain specific areas of parliamentary activity.

That resolution became section 133 of the Constitution Act, 1867. The purpose of this section is to grant “equal access for Anglophones and Francophones to the law in their language” and to guarantee “equal participation in the debates and proceedings of Parliament.”

Since the beginning of Confederation, newcomers have been calling for equal status and demanding equal recognition of their religious and educational rights. This allowed official language minority communities to find their footing in a new country filled with promise.

For example, in 1868, Morrin College became the first English-language institute of higher education in Québec City and, in 1871, the Collège de Saint-Boniface became one of the first official institutions of Manitoba.

Of course, life has not always been easy for official language minority communities. For example, in 1871, New Brunswick passed the Common Schools Act, which effectively removed public funding from separate Catholic schools.

The province’s French-Catholic Acadian minority strongly opposed the changes, and on January 27, 1875, a demonstration at Caraquet ended in the death of an Acadian protester and an Anglophone militiaman.

In 1881, the first Acadian national convention was held in Memramcook, New Brunswick. At the second convention, held in Miscouche in 1884, Acadians asserted their distinctness from French Canadians by adopting symbols, including a holiday and a flag, to embody their unique identity.

Meanwhile, the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba passed the first provincial school legislation in 1871, which led to a complete separation of the Catholic and Protestant school systems.

Each section was responsible for its own school system. This included selecting the books and equipment, determining the sort of religious education that was to be provided, and examining and licensing teachers.

Because the population of the province was approximately half Catholic and half Protestant, each section received the same amount of financial support from the provincial government. There was no law requiring children to attend school, and it was common for children to get no more than half a dozen years of education. But in 1890, a bill to abolish denominational education was passed.

In 1896, the Prime Minister of Canada, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, and the Premier of Manitoba, Thomas Greenway, came to a compromise in settling the thorny issue of denominational schools in the province.

Despite his good intentions, Sir Laurierwas unable to mitigate ongoing educational conflicts in the 1910s and 1920s, particularly in Ontario. In 1912, the adoption of Regulation 17, which prohibited instruction in French in schools in the province, gave rise to strong protests.

On January 4, 1916, two teachers and 19 mothers took over their school, the Guigues Elementary School in Ottawa. Police surrounded the building, but the women stood guard with their famous hatpins. They occupied the school for weeks and continued to teach the children in French.

Then 30 police officers armed with clubs broke down the door and tried to take back the school. But the women fought back with rolling pins, cast-iron skillets and hatpins, and drove the police officers away.

The actions of the Guigues guardians inspired people across Ontario to fight for French-language education. Other women would continue the battle, including Florence Quesnel in Green Valley, Anne-Marie Lemelin in Welland and Jeanne Lajoie in Pembroke.

With the support of the Association canadienne-française d’éducation de l’Ontario and the Le Droit newspaper, founded in 1913, Franco-Ontarians prevailed in 1927. This spirit of partnership has always been present in official language minority communities. Examples of this are the founding of the Société du parler français in Saskatchewan in 1912 and the creation of the Association canadienne-française de l’Alberta in 1925.

Bilingualism achieved victories at the federal level at various points in Canadian history.

In 1927, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Confederation, Canada Post issued, for the first time, a series of bilingual stamps. Moreover, all the events organized by Ottawa during the Diamond Jubilee were fully bilingual.

One of the federal organizers’ objectives was to affirm the status of English and French as the country’s official languages. Speeches and songs, publications, the national broadcast of the celebrations, parade floats, contests—everything was presented in English and French. Linguistic duality was also a key theme of the historical narrative presented by federal organizers.

These advances in Canadian bilingualism would not have been possible without the leadership of the federal public service. Leadership is an essential element in the initiatives taken by federal institutions to ensure that their employees can respond to the citizens they serve in French and English, and work in the official language of their choice wherever the Act prescribes it.

This same leadership emerged in the 1960s when the federal government set up an inquiry commission to investigate and report on the state of bilingualism.

The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism’s mandate was to “inquire into and report on the existing state of bilingualism and biculturalism in Canada.” In a way, this was the start of our country’s bilingual adventure.

The Royal Commission, chaired by André Laurendeau and Davidson Dunton, was mandated “to recommend what steps should be taken to develop the Canadian Confederation on the basis of an equal partnership between the two founding races, taking into account the contribution made by the other ethnic groups to the cultural enrichment of Canada and the measures that should be taken to safeguard that contribution.”

The Laurendeau-Dunton Commission ran for seven years and marked a turning point in Canadian history.

In the wake of the Laurendeau-Dunton Commission, Canada’s provinces took steps to promote bilingualism.

For example, in 1964, Alberta allowed at least one hour of French instruction a day. In 1967, Manitoba passed Bill 59, which permitted French-language instruction in schools 50% of the time.

In 1968, Saskatchewan amended the Education Actto allow French-language education, which had been banned in 1892.

In 1969, in New Brunswick, under the leadership of Premier Louis Robichaud, the provincial government passed the Official Languages Act, making New Brunswick Canada’s first and only officially bilingual province.

Lastly, in 1969 as well, in response to a recommendation made by the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s government passed the Official Languages Act of Canada.

The Official Languages Act recognizes the equality of status of both English and French in all federal institutions.

Its primary goal is to ensure that Canadians have access to federal services in the official language of their choice.

The Act also provides for the creation of the position of Commissioner of Official Languages, whose role is to oversee the application of the Act, investigate complaints from the public and report to Parliament.

In a way, Parts V and VI of the Act have undone the harm wrought by the Civil Service Act of 1918 on hiring practices in the federal public service, which ended up reducing the use of French in the government.

This shows that it is never too late to remedy past wrongs when it comes to bilingualism in Canada. In that respect, I feel now would be a good time, as we approach the 50th anniversary of the Official Languages Act in 2019, to use this opportunity to raise Canadians’ awareness of the Act and, in general, to conduct a review of the federal language policy, given how much Canadian society has changed since the last revision of the Act in 1988.

This evolving context, including demographic and identity shifts, means that it is time to think about amending the Official Languages Act.

In the meantime, I encourage you to take part in the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Confederation in the National Capital Region and elsewhere in the country.

From coast to coast to coast, we have good reason to celebrate our achievements, our legacy and our diversity, including this linguistic duality, which is an important part of Canadian identity.

Thank you.

Date modified:

2017-11-08