Archived - Open Letter - The Big Shift Also Speaks French

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Written by Graham Fraser, Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada

John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker argue in their book, The Big Shift, that Canada has shifted west politically, economically and demographically, and that what they call “the Laurentian elite” has been left behind.

There is no question that the demography of the country is changing. But I think that they are mistaken on some of their points.

Ibbitson and Bricker argue that the Ottawa Press Gallery, like the Laurentian elite, “is obsessed with the influence and importance of Quebec.” On the contrary, I think the English-speaking Gallery is pretty oblivious to Quebec.

Only a few English-speaking reporters and columnists are comfortable in French or knowledgeable about Quebec. Almost everybody else looks at Quebec as a mystery that they wish would go away. In fact, I would argue that a much more prevalent attitude in the Gallery—and in a large part of the political class—is “At least we don't have to feel guilty about not being bilingual because Quebec doesn't matter for this government.”

Ibbitson and Bricker argue, quite correctly, that the West is in, with a Prime Minister, Clerk of the Privy Council, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and Governor of the Bank of Canada all from Western Canada. They could have added the former Chief of the Defence Staff, not to mention the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration and the Minister of Canadian Heritage. But they neglected to mention that they are all fluently bilingual. They learned French because they were ambitious, and they wanted to understand the whole country.

The same thing applies to provincial premiers. In fact, we are now in the unique situation where a majority of Canada's premiers are bilingual. Why? They are bright and ambitious and want to understand the country as a whole. A former French ambassador told me that one of the things that impressed him most about Canada is that French is the language of ambition.

The book describes David Bricker's very diverse cadet corps. I could give the same description of French classrooms and immersion classrooms across the country. Visible minority community members are actually more bilingual in English and French than English Canadians who have been here for generations.

Immigrant students in immersion tell me that learning French makes them feel more Canadian. And the French-language schools across the country are full of students—and staff—from the Maghreb, French-speaking Africa, Vietnam and Haiti. These students and teachers are a vibrant part of French-speaking communities across the country.

Ibbitson and Bricker say that Quebec will be “protecting a language that fewer Canadians or global citizens will understand.” To begin with, there are more Canadians who speak French now than ever before. And there are four million French-speaking Canadians who do not speak English. This is anecdotal, but in observing the children of my friends and the friends of my children, I can literally name young Canadians who have studied in China and learned Chinese, taught English in Japan and learned Japanese, worked on water projects in Vietnam and learned Vietnamese, spent time in Central America and learned Spanish, and in Berlin and learned German. But they all learned the other Canadian language first.

What I sensed in the book, although it was never explicitly expressed, was a kind of relief: get with the program, we don't have to feel guilty that we never learned French, and we don't have to kiss up to Quebec anymore. Bye-bye linguistic duality, hello cultural diversity.

Well, we have nine million people in this country who speak French, four million of whom speak no English. Our French-speaking society is increasingly diverse in its reality and global in its attitude.

Consider some of the French-language films produced over the past few years: L'Ange de goudron, about an Algerian immigrant family in Montréal (2001); Un dimanche à Kigali, based on Gil Courtemanche's novel about the Rwandan genocide (2006); Incendies, adapted from Wajdi Mouawad's play about the horrors of a Middle East civil war (2010); Monsieur Lazhar, about an Algerian refugee in Montréal (2011); Rebelle, about a Congolese child soldier (2012); and Inch'alla, about an aid worker in the Middle East (2012). Three of these were Canadian nominees for Academy Awards. Consider the number of French-speaking Canadian singers who are touring Europe (Les Cowboys Fringants, Lynda Lemay) and Quebec actors who are performing in French films (Marc-Andre Grondin, Marie-Josée Croze). Consider the television industry, the publishing industry, the recording industry.

All this is not the product of a society of old white pensioners. It is the product of a dynamic, culturally vibrant, multicultural, French-speaking society whose major city and cultural hub is as energetic and creative in its own way, in both official languages (think Rawi Hage and Arcade Fire), as Toronto and Vancouver.

This is not a cultural dynamism that has anything to do with a Laurentian elite. English-speaking Canada can feel a sense of pride and ownership in this success—or it can turn away from it and ignore it.

I share Ibbitson and Bricker's enthusiasm for the changing demography in the country and the energy it represents. But those changes are occurring in French just as much as they are in English.

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