Pearson's dream of bilingualism, 50 years later

Lester Pearson

Fifty years ago today, Prime Minister Lester Pearson rose in the House of Commons to articulate his government’s language policy. It was a remarkable statement, delivered a year before the first volume of the report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was published and three years before the Official Languages Act was passed. If Canada’s language policy was born with Pierre Trudeau’s Official Languages Act in 1969, it was conceived with Lester Pearson’s announcement.

Pearson began by framing the issue of bilingualism in the public service in terms of attracting the most competent and qualified Canadians available in all parts of Canada, stressing what he called “the fundamental objective of promoting and strengthening national unity” by establishing the equality of rights and opportunities for both English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians.

In a diverse federal state such as Canada it is important that all citizens should have a fair and equal opportunity to participate in the national administration and to identify themselves with, and feel at home in, their own national capital,” he said.

Then Pearson moved directly to the heart of the policy. He said that “the government hopes and expects that, within a reasonable period of years,” the federal public service would reach a state of affairs in which:

(a) it will be normal practice for oral or written communications within the service to be made in either official language at the option of the person making them, in the knowledge that they will be understood by those directly concerned;

(b) communications with the public will normally be in either official language having regard to the person being served;

(c) the linguistic and cultural values of both English speaking and French speaking Canadians will be reflected through civil service recruitment and training; and

(d) a climate will be created in which public servants from both language groups will work together toward common goals, using their own language and applying their respective cultural values, but each fully understanding and appreciating those of the other.”Footnote 1

That was 50 years ago today. And anyone parsing that statement can see the framework—and the spirit—of the Official Languages Act and, later, parts of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

At times, I think that the language policies of the federal government would be better understood if, instead of talking either admiringly or dismissively of “Trudeau’s dream” or referring to Part IV and Part V of the Official Languages Act, which remain abstract and technical even for public servants, people asked themselves the questions that Pearson’s speech still evokes.

Do English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians feel equally at home in Ottawa? Do public servants communicate with the public in the official language of their client’s choice? Is it normal practice for public servants to speak and write in the official language of their choice, knowing that they will be understood? Are linguistic and cultural values of both official language groups reflected in public service recruitment and training? Is there a climate that encourages English- and French-speaking public servants to work together, using their own language and applying their own cultural values, but fully understanding and appreciating those of the other?

There is no question that huge progress has been made over the past half century in the area of language policy. But my office continues to get complaints from citizens who have not been served in the official language of their choice. Public servants usually use the majority language in meetings and in their written work. The culture of the federal public service is often the culture of the majority, with lip service paid to the culture of the minority. And the manager or executive who actively encourages public servants to use the official language of their choice in meetings, briefing notes and performance evaluations is too often the exception rather than the rule.

As Canadians prepare to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Confederation, we should remember that the ideals that Lester Pearson articulated so clearly a half century ago today are still a challenge to achieve. But in striving to meet the goals that Pearson set, we are building a stronger, fairer and more inclusive country.

Graham Fraser is the Commissioner of Official Languages


Footnote 1

House of Commons Debates, 27th Parliament, 1st Session, Volume 4, Ottawa, April 6, 1966, p. 3915. On-line version accessed March 24, 2016.

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