Gra­ham Fraser

In an era when Canada’s fa­mously fuzzy na­tional iden­tity is sud­denly be­ing sharply de­fined as much by events be­yond our bor­ders as by re­al­i­ties within them, the coun­try’s re­la­tion­ship to its two of­fi­cial lan­guages seems to have ma­tured and set­tled. As rec

Policy - - In This Issue - Gra­ham Fraser

Canada 150: Happy Fête/Bonne Birth­day!

Lan­guage rights have walked a long road in the last 150 years in Canada. Dur­ing the Con­fed­er­a­tion De­bates in 1865, which rat­i­fied the ar­ti­cles agreed upon at the Que­bec Con­fer­ence of 1864 and es­tab­lished the terms of Con­fed­er­a­tion, Ge­orge Brown mar­velled at the what he saw. “…(H)ere sit to­day the de­scen­dants of the vic­tors and the van­quished in the fight of 1759, with all the dif­fer­ences of lan­guage, re­li­gion, civil law and so­cial habit, nearly as dis­tinctly marked as they were a cen­tury ago,” he said.

The be­gin­ning of the de­bates was not aus­pi­cious. When Pre­mier Eti­enne-Pas­cal Taché fin­ished read­ing the Que­bec Res­o­lu­tions in the leg­is­la­ture on Fe­bru­ary 3, 1865, he con­cluded that as there were English mem­bers who did not un­der­stand French at all, while the French mem­bers all un­der­stood English, it would be best for him to speak English, and he did.

Con­se­quently, this dy­namic of Cana­dian bilin­gual­ism, which would con­tinue for a cen­tury, was in place from the out­set—Fran­co­phones had the right to use French in the House of Com­mons and the Se­nate, but not to be un­der­stood. That prin­ci­ple pre­vailed in the House un­til 1959, when si­mul­ta­ne­ous in­ter­pre­ta­tion was in­tro­duced, and be­fore the courts un­til 1989, when the Supreme Court handed down its de­ci­sion in the Beaulac case.

Near the end of the de­bates, An­toineAimé Do­rion raised the ques­tion of the guar­an­tee that French could be used in Par­lia­ment and the Que­bec

leg­is­la­ture, point­ing to the dan­ger that this might be erad­i­cated by the English-speak­ing ma­jor­ity. John A. Mac­don­ald replied that this risk had been iden­ti­fied, and that “the use of the French lan­guage should form one of the prin­ci­ples upon which the Con­fed­er­a­tion should be es­tab­lished, and that its use, as at present, should be guar­an­teed” by what would be the BNA Act.

Ge­orgeÉ­ti­enne Cartier im­me­di­ately got to his feet to say that “it was also nec­es­sary to pro­tect the English mi­nori­ties in Lower Canada with re­spect to the use of their lan­guage, be­cause in the Lo­cal Par­lia­ment of Lower Canada the ma­jor­ity will be com­posed of French-Cana­di­ans.”

So the idea that French and English should be a key prin­ci­ple of Con­fed­er­a­tion was es­tab­lished at the out­set. But it was lim­ited at best—Sec­tion 133 of the Bri­tish North Amer­ica Act ap­plied to the fed­eral Par­lia­ment, the Que­bec Assem­bly and the fed­eral courts. As Canada ex­panded west, lan­guage rights did not fol­low—and the cen­tury fol­low­ing Con­fed­er­a­tion was marked by a se­ries of set­backs: the abo­li­tion of French-lan­guage ed­u­ca­tion in Man­i­toba and On­tario, the erad­i­ca­tion of ex­ist­ing lan­guage rights with the cre­ation of Al­berta and Saskatchewan, and sys­tem­atic re­sis­tance to the more gen­eral ap­pli­ca­tion of lan­guage rights.

Slowly, al­most by stealth, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment in­tro­duced a French-lan­guage reg­i­ment (le Royal 22e) in 1914, bilin­gual stamps (1927), bilin­gual cur­rency (1937), si­mul­ta­ne­ous in­ter­pre­ta­tion in Par­lia­ment (1959), and bilin­gual fam­ily al­lowance cheques (1962). But it took the po­lit­i­cal tur­bu­lence and the surge of Que­bec na­tion­al­ism in the early 1960s for the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to con­front the need for change.

Pol­i­tics was the driv­ing force; Prime Min­is­ter John Diefen­baker’s 1958 land­slide pro­duced a wave of 50 Tory MPs from Que­bec, many of whom spoke no English and needed in­ter­pre­ta­tion; bilin­gual fam­ily al­lowance cheques was a long­stand­ing de­mand, de­nounced as too lit­tle too late when Diefen­baker fi­nally made the change.

The 1962 elec­tion saw the ar­rival of 26 mainly unilin­gual Crédi­tistes from small-town Que­bec who raised the lan­guage is­sue ev­ery day. They dis­cov­ered a Par­lia­ment, a gov­ern­ment and a city that op­er­ated en­tirely in English, and chal­lenged ev­ery unilin­gual bar­rier they en­coun­tered.

The cli­max came with the ap­pear­ance of Don­ald Gor­don, pres­i­dent of Cana­dian Na­tional be­fore the Rail­way Com­mit­tee, where he was ques­tioned by Crédi­tiste MP Gilles Gré­goire about the fact that of 17 vice-pres­i­dents, not one was a French-Cana­dian. Gor­don’s re­ply—that French-Cana­di­ans did not have the right ed­u­ca­tion for se­nior man­age­ment at CN—and this from a man who left high school af­ter Grade 10—re­sulted in demon­stra­tions in ev­ery French-lan­guage uni­ver­sity in Que­bec, the largest one led by stu­dent leader Bernard Landry.

In De­cem­ber 1962, Lester Pear­son, then leader of the Op­po­si­tion, promised that, if he were elected prime min­is­ter, he would set up a royal com­mis­sion and in 1963, shortly af­ter the elec­tion, he did. The Royal Com­mis­sion on Bilin­gual­ism and Bi­cul­tur­al­ism be­gan an eight-year odyssey of di­ag­no­sis and pre­scrip­tion co-chaired by Davie Dun­ton and An­dré Lau­ren­deau.

Shocked by the anger they dis­cov­ered in Que­bec and the ig­no­rance and in­dif­fer­ence in the rest of the coun­try, the com­mis­sion­ers is­sued a pre­lim­i­nary re­port in 1965, declar­ing that, with­out be­ing aware of it, Canada was pass­ing through the great­est cri­sis in its his­tory. This was viewed as self-ev­i­dent in the French me­dia and wild-eyed ex­ag­ger­a­tion in the English me­dia.

But two years later, in 1967, fol­low­ing a se­ries of FLQ bomb­ings, Charles de Gaulle’s ‘Vive le Québec li­bre’ speech and René Lévesque’s de­par­ture from the Que­bec Lib­eral Party, English­s­peak­ing com­men­ta­tors re­al­ized the B&B com­mis­sion­ers were more as­tute than they had re­al­ized. The first vol­ume was greeted with wary re­spect. As Doug Fisher and Harry Crowe put it in their col­umn in the Toronto Tele­gram: “The Com­mis­sion was right. The rest of us were wrong.”

The com­mis­sion rec­om­mended that Par­lia­ment pass an Of­fi­cial Lan­guages Act that would for­mally de­clare the recog­ni­tion of English and French as Canada’s of­fi­cial lan­guages, their equal sta­tus in fed­eral in­sti­tu­tions, a guar­an­tee of ser­vice to Cana­di­ans in either of­fi­cial lan­guage, the pro­vi­sion of ed­u­ca­tion in French and in English in ev­ery prov­ince, the cre­ation of bilin­gual dis­tricts, and the es­tab­lish­ment of a Com­mis­sioner of Of­fi­cial Lan­guages as a lan­guage om­buds­man and lin­guis­tic con­science, re­port­ing to Par­lia­ment on whether the law was be­ing re­spected.

The leg­is­la­tion was passed and the Of­fi­cial Lan­guages Act be­came law un­der Prime Min­is­ter Pierre Trudeau in 1969. Keith Spicer started work as the first Com­mis­sioner of Of­fi­cial Lan­guages in 1970. This be­gan al­most five decades of an on­go­ing di­a­logue be­tween Par­lia­ment, provin­cial leg­is­la­tures, the courts and Cana­di­ans on lan­guage rights.

In 1976, the Parti Québé­cois was elected, and in 1977, the Que­bec Na­tional Assem­bly voted on the Charte de la langue française—known in

In De­cem­ber 1962, Lester Pear­son, then leader of the Op­po­si­tion, promised that, if he were elected prime min­is­ter, he would set up a royal com­mis­sion and in 1963, shortly af­ter the elec­tion, he did.

English as Bill 101—which de­clared French to be the of­fi­cial lan­guage of Que­bec, and the only lan­guage of the Assem­bly and the courts. This chal­lenge to Sec­tion 133 of the BNA Act was struck down by the Supreme Court a few years later, as was the pro­hi­bi­tion of English on com­mer­cial signs. How­ever, the Court rec­og­nized the va­lid­ity of the pur­pose of the leg­is­la­tion, and per­mit­ted the re­quire­ment that French al­ways be pre­dom­i­nant.

In 1982, fol­low­ing years of con­sti­tu­tional de­bate and the failed 1980 ref­er­en­dum on sovereignas­so­ci­a­tion in Que­bec, the Con­sti­tu­tion was brought to Canada by Pierre Trudeau from Bri­tain over Que­bec’s objections, and amended with the Char­ter of Rights and Free­doms.

The Char­ter con­sti­tu­tion­al­ized the pro­vi­sions of the Of­fi­cial Lan­guages Act, giv­ing it a cer­tainty that other laws do not have. This also set the stage for a se­ries of cru­cial Supreme Court de­ci­sions, clar­i­fy­ing what the lan­guage rights laid out in the Char­ter ac­tu­ally mean.

And they mean quite a lot. The right to ed­u­ca­tion in a mi­nor­ity lan­guage means that provin­cial gov­ern­ments are re­quired to pro­vide schools within a rea­son­able dis­tance of where par­ents live (Arse­nault-Cameron, 2000) and those schools must be run by mi­nor­ity com­mu­nity school boards (Mahé, 1990). A per­son ac­cused of a crime, re­gard­less of the se­ri­ous­ness of the crime, has a right to be tried in his or her Of­fi­cial lan­guage of choice. (Beaulac, 1999).

What was once seen as a grudg­ing con­ces­sion to Que­bec is now over­whelm­ingly sup­ported by Cana­di­ans as an in­te­gral part of Canada’s iden­tity. Bilin­gual­ism is un­der­stood as a crit­i­cal skill for po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship.

Just as the Of­fi­cial Lan­guages Act laid the ground­work for the lan­guage rights en­shrined in the Char­ter, the Char­ter re­quired a rewrit­ing of the Of­fi­cial Lan­guages Act. And in 1988, un­der Prime Min­is­ter Brian Mul­roney the Act was com­pletely re­vised, spell­ing out the rights of fed­eral pub­lic ser­vants to work in their of­fi­cial lan­guage of choice in des­ig­nated bilin­gual re­gions (one of the few places that the Royal Com­mis­sion’s rec­om­men­da­tion for bilin­gual dis­tricts sur­vived) and strength­en­ing the abil­ity of the Com­mis­sioner to in­ter­vene be­fore the courts.

In 2005, the Act was amended again, giv­ing all fed­eral in­sti­tu­tions a bind­ing obli­ga­tion to take pos­i­tive mea­sures for the growth and de­vel­op­ment of mi­nor­ity lan­guage com­mu­ni­ties. Per­haps he most im­pres­sive change over the last 50—in­deed 150—years has been the change in at­ti­tude towards Canada’s lan­guage pol­icy. What was once seen as a grudg­ing con­ces­sion to Que­bec is now over­whelm­ingly sup­ported by Cana­di­ans as an in­te­gral part of Canada’s iden­tity. Bilin­gual­ism is un­der­stood as a crit­i­cal skill for po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship. In ad­di­tion, com­ing to terms with the fact that there is a French-speak­ing so­ci­ety that is a cen­tral part of Canada has made it eas­ier for English-speak­ing Cana­di­ans to wel­come oth­ers. In that way, the growth and ac­cep­tance of Canada’s lan­guage du­al­ity has been a key el­e­ment in a coun­try that ap­pre­ci­ates and en­cour­ages cul­tural di­ver­sity. Rather than be­ing con­tra­dic­tory poli­cies, du­al­ity and di­ver­sity are linked. Both are keys to Canada’s fu­ture.

Canada photo Li­brary and Archives

Sir John A. Mac­don­ald (sit­ting, centre) and the Fa­thers of Con­fed­er­a­tion at the Char­lot­te­town Con­fer­ence in Septem­ber 1864. The next month at Que­bec, and later in Lon­don in 1866 and 1867, they ne­go­ti­ated the terms of Con­fed­er­a­tion, in­clud­ing the divi­sion of pow­ers in sec­tions 91 and 92 of the BNA Act, and Sec­tion 133, which rec­og­nized English and French as lan­guages of Par­lia­ment and the Que­bec leg­is­la­ture.

Archives Canada photo Li­brary and

An­dré Lau­ren­deau and David­son Dun­ton, co-chairs of the land­mark Royal Com­mis­sion on Bilin­gual­ism and Bi­cul­tur­al­ism, ap­pointed by Prime Min­is­ter Pear­son in 1963.

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