Archived - Notes for an address at the symposium “Celebrating 40 years of linguistic duality in New Brunswick”
This page has been archived on the Web.
Information identified as archived is provided for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. It is not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards and has not been altered or updated since it was archived. Please contact us to request a format other than those available.
A Look at 40 years of Official Languages
Moncton, February 4, 2010
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Good morning and welcome,
I am pleased to be with you today and to be participating in the day’s discussions on linguistic duality, which are being held in an atmosphere of celebration. Over the past year, the Office of the Commissioner has, like numerous federal agencies working in the area of official languages, been looking at the 40-year existence of the Official Languages Act— that is, what we have accomplished to date and what remains to be done.
Despite the problems that remain, we have made enormous progress since the 1960s. Forty years ago, small things which we now consider so trivial were once controversial. In his memoirs, Pierre Trudeau describes the shock when Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent decided to stick a plaque on his door with the French inscription: Bureau du premier ministre. “How revolutionary!” wrote Mr. Trudeau. “But English was still the only working language: a francophone public servant wishing to send a memo to another francophone public servant had to write that memo in English.”
In the 1950s, the French language had no place in government: federal laws were written in English and poorly translated into French; until 1958, there were no simultaneous interpretation services at the House of Commons; government cheques were printed in English only; and bilingual signs in federal government buildings were rare. It was difficult and often impossible to communicate with the federal government in French.
However, in the 1960s, changes took place following the creation of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in 1963. In 1966, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson announced that the public service must ensure that all public servants, whether Francophone or Anglophone, can work together and that their languages and cultures are fully respected.
It was a very clear statement, but also a very difficult one to implement at that time, as there were very few French-language schools outside of Quebec, and no French-language school boards. Moreover, the use of French was banned in several parts of the country. It is therefore not surprising that the debate regarding Bill C-120, which would lead to the Official Languages Act, was fierce and bitter. In 1968, in the absence of any official communiques, we had speculation feed on rumour, and misunderstanding feeding on speculation. Canadians and the media seemed to believe that the new act would require all Canadians and all federal public servants to be bilingual. Worse still, people thought that Anglophones would be heavily discriminated against when seeking employment with the federal government.
While Western Canada opposed the idea of legislation that would enable Francophones, where their numbers warranted it, to obtain federal government services in their language, the Atlantic Provinces were generally in favour of the idea.
The Act that was passed in 1969 aimed to ensure that Canadians could obtain federal government services in the language of their choice, and that unilingual Francophones could receive the same level of service as that provided to unilingual Anglophones.
The first Commissioner of Official Languages, Keith Spicer, pointed out at the time that “…the success of Canada’s linguistic revolution seemed to depend first on cooling the climate of discussion on language, on transforming a debate into a dialogue.” He considered State bilingualism as an “ideal of human dignity and as one of the much-needed long-term bridges to understanding among Canadians.”
According to Mr. Trudeau, “while language is the basic instrument for preserving and developing the cultural integrity of a people, the language provisions of the British North America Act are very limited [….]” He continued by saying “I believe that we require a broader definition and more extensive guarantees in the matter of recognition of the two official languages. The right to learn and to use either of the two official languages should be recognized. Without this, we cannot assure every Canadian of an equal right to participate in the political, cultural, economic and social life of the country.”
This vision led to the 1982 creation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which would guarantee these rights for all Canadians. Section 16 of the Charter would enshrine the official languages of Canada and of New Brunswick, as well as the rights of its citizens.
An important milestone was also passed in 1988 when, following the repeated requests of Commissioner D’Iberville Fortier, the Act was amended so that it would comply with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This version included new obligations aimed at promoting the use of English and French, as well as a commitment to supporting the development of linguistic minority communities. Moreover, this new version of the Act gave federal public servants the right to work in the language of their choice in the regions designated bilingual.
Despite the significant progress made, the 1990s proved to be a difficult period, and, consequently, the commitment to reinforce linguistic duality within the federal government and to provide support to official language communities was not fulfilled. Government budget cuts would result in major setbacks: decreased support to official language communities, a reduced role for the Treasury Board, and a lack of progress in the application of Part VII of the Official Languages Act. Commissioner Victor Goldbloom concluded that these transformations had resulted in “a subtle but cumulative erosion of language rights ….”
In 2005, the Official Languages Act was finally amended in a significant way. Under Part VII, the government and federal institutions now have a legal obligation to take positive measures to support the development of linguistic minority communities and to promote the use of English and French in Canada.
Both the Charter and the amended Act provided the Supreme Court with the framework that it needed to render important decisions in the area of language rights. The Supreme Court rendered two key decisions, one in 1999 and another in 2009, that considerably strengthened the federal government’s linguistic obligations.
In 1999, the Beaulac case gave rise to a landmark decision in language rights discourse and jurisprudence: the Supreme Court of Canada redefined the nature of language obligations.
“Language rights must in all cases be interpreted purposively, in a manner consistent with the preservation and development of official language communities in Canada,” wrote Judge Michel Bastarache.
The Supreme Court rendered an even more important decision recently in the DesRochers case. In this case, the Supreme Court stated that ensuring the linguistic minority’s access to services was not sufficient for meeting the obligations under section 20 of the Charter and Part IV of the Official Languages Act (concerning the provision of services in both official languages). The Supreme Court concluded that, because Industry Canada “made efforts to reach the linguistic majority community and involve that community in program development and implementation, it had a duty to do the same for the linguistic minority community.” This case also clarified the concept of “substantive equality,” which stipulates that a federal institution must ensure that the services it provides meet the needs of the linguistic minority. This concept will no doubt be part of the discussions this afternoon on the future of official languages.
I have outlined key moments in the history of linguistic duality in Canada. However, in New Brunswick, you have been experiencing a similar situation because of your status as a bilingual province. Moreover, your language regime is the one that most closely resembles that of the federal government, and you are also celebrating the 40th anniversary of your Official Languages Act.
Over the past 40 years, your province has made great progress in terms of official languages; however, it continues to face some very important challenges.
In the context of the debate on the Official Languages Act in the House of Commons in the summer of 1969, a remarkable Conservative Member of Parliament, the late Gordon Fairweather, cited the great literary scholar Northrop Frye as follows:
The Canada to which we really do owe loyalty is the Canada that we have failed to create. I should like to suggest that our identity, like the real identity of all nations, is the one that we have failed to achieve.
For me, these words express not discouragement, but determination to be true to the vision of what Canada can achieve. While reality still falls short of the ideals we have set for ourselves, it is that sense of the unachieved ideal—the identity that we wish to assume, the standard that we are constantly trying to reach—that reflects the spirit of the Official Languages Act.
These words also suggest that the spirit of the law represents a journey as much as a destination. And, I would argue, it is an enriching and challenging journey for each and every one of us—be it for Canada or for New Brunswick.
During the day, I will very actively take part in the discussions, paying particular attention to your vision for the future of linguistic duality in Canada and New Brunswick.