Conversation with Graham Fraser

On September 13, 2006, the Prime Minister of Canada announced Graham Fraser’s appointment as Commissioner of Official Languages. Almost six months into the second half of his mandate, the Commissioner agreed to answer some questions from Beyond Words.

Since the Commissioner position was created, Canadian society has changed a lot. Do you think the Commissioner’s role is still needed today?

Yes, definitely. I am an agent of Parliament and, like all agents of Parliament, my role is to protect Canadian values—values that transcend partisan differences and the government of the day. Whether it is financial responsibility, the integrity of elections, transparency, privacy or official languages, these values need to be protected and promoted.

The position of Commissioner of Official Languages will continue to be important, even more so because of the changes in Canadian society. Every year, more than 200,000 newcomers arrive in this country who have not experienced Canada’s language debates first hand. It’s important to share this part of our history with them and welcome them into our communities so that we can all benefit from what they have to offer. It’s also inspiring to see how quickly immigrants and their children learn a third or even a fourth language.

People don’t feel as strongly about the language issue as they did in the past. Why do you think this is?

I think it’s understandable. People don’t feel threatened by the Official Languages Act anymore. Canada has become a more inclusive society over the past forty years, and language policy has contributed to this. Canadians are proud, rather than angry, about the fact that we have two official languages, even if they do not speak both languages themselves. Gradually, the presence of both languages has become emblematic of the country. Signs that would have been vandalized four decades ago now convey a reassuring sense of authority and federal presence. The generation of young Canadians now in their teens and twenties is more open and global-minded than previous generations—and many have used bilingualism as a step towards learning a third language.

Part of your mandate is to protect official language communities, including Anglophones in Quebec. Do you think they need protection in the same way as Francophones in the rest of Canada?

There is often a misconception about the English-speaking communities in Quebec. People tend to compare the situation of Anglophones living in Montréal with that of Francophones outside Quebec. It is not a fair comparison; there are some 600,000 English-speaking Quebeckers living in a relatively small area in the Western half of the island of Montréal. Although they do face challenges, that is a large enough group to be self-sufficient in a number of ways: economically, culturally and socially.

A fair comparison would be between the English speaking communities in, say, Sherbrooke, Quebec City or the Lower North Shore and the French-speaking communities in Halifax, Sudbury or St. Boniface. That comparison shows that the English-speaking communities face very similar problems: access to health services, an exodus of young people, higher unemployment, and so on. In a nutshell, the English language is not endangered in Quebec—but English communities are.

We know that, outside of Quebec, the Canadian public service continues to function mostly in English. Are Francophones partly to blame for not asserting their language rights?

Respecting the right to work in French in the public service outside Quebec, or in English in Quebec, is always a challenge. Everyone has a part to play.

I can understand why employees who speak the minority language would tend to use the language of the majority in a work environment. I have often been told that a source of great frustration among public servants who have invested a lot of time and effort to learn their second language is that people answer them in their own language rather than in the one they are speaking.

Managers need to create a work environment in which it is perfectly clear that the use of both official languages is not only acceptable, it’s the norm. One thing is certain, if Francophones don’t speak French at work, Anglophones won’t either. And if Francophones only speak French to each other, French will cease to be a public language, an everyday language, a working language, and will become a sort of secret code. I’ll grant you, it’s a real challenge. For the federal public service to become more French-friendly—to become a place where the two languages can coexist naturally—it is essential that the Francophones speak French.

Since the beginning of your mandate, are there any events relating to official languages that particularly disappointed you?

The biggest disappointment for me was the opening ceremony of the Vancouver Olympic Games. As I said the day after, the ceremony was designed, developed and delivered in English, with a French song at the end. Even François-Xavier Garneau’s poem was translated! As journalist Josée Boileau wrote on August 16 in Le Devoir (in French only), “French? There was French everywhere! Didn’t you see the silent homage to the Flying Canoe, the Montrealer in amongst all the break dancers, the projection of the postage stamp ‘that featured a reference to French Canada’? Not to mention to English translation of François-Xavier Garneau’s poem L’Hymne du Nord and the very wonderful and very English Hallelujah by Montrealer Leonard Cohen?” [Translation]

What was really sad was that the controversy surrounding the opening ceremony overshadowed the real success of the Games when it came to using both of Canada’s official languages. Even sponsors like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and The Bay respected the spirit of our country’s linguistic duality on their signs, in their announcements and through their service to visitors.

There were other, smaller disappointments as well: senior civil servants who speak better French than I do giving presentations in English only; or cultural events in the nation’s capital presented in English only.

On a brighter note, during the National Arts Centre’s 40th anniversary performance, it was wonderful to see acts in both languages and delightful to hear the audience laughing at jokes in French as well as English. Ottawa audiences are obviously more bilingual than we thought!

Do you feel that progress has been made or do you think that things haven’t really changed all that much?

I am seeing signs of progress. For the first time, we have an English-speaking Prime Minister from Western Canada who is a role model for respecting linguistic duality in all of his public appearances. For the first time, we have a Minister of Official Languages, James Moore, who is a bilingual Anglophone from British Columbia. And Jason Kenney, our Immigration Minister, is a Calgarian who speaks both languages.

There are times when progress is invisible. When social change occurs, no one is really conscious of the fact. Who notices that there’s no smoking at work or in restaurants anymore? That everyone buckles up when they get into the car? Forty years ago, bilingual signs were vandalized in our national parks. Nothing like that happened at the Vancouver Olympics.

Forty years ago, English was the dominant language, not only in the public service, but also on the streets of Montréal. Quebec language laws have improved the French situation in that province. We have higher expectations today than in the past.

All this is to say that there are still challenges to be overcome. We have to understand that, when a French-speaking Canadian receives a rude English-only greeting at the border—despite the presence of a sign saying that service is available in both languages— it’s not only linguistic duality that suffers, it’s the whole country. The Official Languages Act is not just a series of obligations; it’s a commitment, a promise. Every time that commitment is not kept, every time that promise is broken, it’s a failure that scores of successes may never be able to outweigh.

Published on Tuesday, September 07, 2010

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