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Notes for a speech at the International Symposium on Language Planning in Capitals and Urban Environments
Ottawa, March 25, 2010
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Vice-President Melo, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Congratulations to the University of Ottawa’s Official Languages and Bilingualism Institute and Governance Centre, to the Department of Canadian Heritage and to members of my Office for organizing this international symposium on language planning in capitals and urban environments. I would also like to thank the City of Ottawa for their support, as well as the representatives from Moncton, Helsinki, Biel-Bienne, Brussels and Barcelona for being here today.
When I was in Vancouver, I met Pascal Couchepin, the Grand Témoin de l’Organisation internationale de la Francophonie—and former President of the Swiss Federation. He told me that there is a Swiss proverb that says: “On s’entend bien parce qu’on ne se comprend pas” (We get along because we don’t understand each other). Clearly, for the bilingual city of Biel-Bienne, that expression does not apply.
This is a first, and it is certainly very timely in the context of a global environment now more interested in the many languages that are mixing and sometimes clashing in our cities.
Languages are increasingly seen as resources in the highly connected global economy. Translators and interpreters, for example, are in high demand, and like so many others in the communications field they are asked to complete their work at Google speeds.
In his seminal work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan wrote that “[i]t is more difficult to provide uniqueness and diversity than it is to impose the uniform patterns of mass education; but it is such uniqueness and diversity that can be fostered under electric conditions as never before.”Footnote 1
His words, written 45 years ago, seem particularly relevant and prophetic today. The Internet is the ultimate new extension of our connected world, and it is playing no small part in language evolution, urban development and the two combined.
In a way, the Internet is creating virtual cities based on common interests and languages. It is, in McLuhan’s words, fostering uniqueness and diversity.
The traditional physical city, on the other hand, brings people with diverse interests and languages together, requiring them to find ways to interact and communicate. It fosters community spirit.
Over 40 years ago, Canada chose to counter that homogenizing effect by protecting and fostering English and French, through the Official Languages Act. Its impetus was of course a certain feeling of powerlessness among Francophones and concerns that the French language would be assimilated into the largely homogenous English-language environment of North America.
The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism—or Laurendeau-Dunton Commission—was the federal government’s response to the rise of nationalism in Quebec and the concerns of French-speaking minorities, and it helped inspire the language regime under which the federal government continues to operate today. Canada adopted two official languages not to require that everyone become bilingual, but rather to allow English- and French-speaking Canadians, whether unilingual or bilingual, to communicate with their federal government in the language of their choice. The Official Languages Act is designed to ensure respect by the Government of Canada for English and French and to foster their full recognition and use.Footnote 2
However, the Canadian federation involves two levels of government—federal and provincial—with distinct powers which may or may not overlap. Among the provinces, Quebec is officially unilingual French and Ontario has a French-language services act, but is not officially bilingual. For its part, New Brunswick is the only province that chose to become officially bilingual.
At the city level, our third municipal form of government falls under provincial not federal jurisdiction. So we have in Canada the very challenging situation of an officially bilingual country with an unofficially unilingual English capital city—with certain services offered in both languages—and its very close neighbour, the officially unilingual French City of Gatineau.
Although separated by the Ottawa River, which also forms the border between Ontario and Quebec, Ottawa and Gatineau are part of the National Capital Region, which falls under the National Capital Commission, a federal body. But the national capital region is not a federal district, like Washington, D.C.; both cities are under the authority of their respective provinces.
No wonder language planning is a messy job in Canada’s capital!
The reality in Ottawa and Gatineau has changed since the Laurendeau-Dunton Commission called for improvements to the status of French, in 1970. The communities have been influenced, among other factors, by the presence of a federal public service that became more and more bilingual.
But even now, there remains in Ottawa and Gatineau some of the “pervasive imprint of provincially oriented institutions,”Footnote 3 as the Laurendeau-Dunton Commission reported.
In Ottawa, 80% of the population has English as its first official language spoken whereas 16% has French. Thirty-seven percent of residents are bilingual.
The situation is just the reverse in Gatineau: 84% of residents have French as their first official language spoken and 13% have English. Sixty-three percent of residents are bilingual.
The situation in Ottawa–Gatineau has a major impact on citizens, institutions and businesses in terms of communications, identity and belonging, language security, education, as well as public policy and legislation. And the effects of the Ottawa–Gatineau situation reach well beyond the region because this is our federal capital.
What visitors experience here they take home and remember when they act as citizens of Canadian society and members of their local and provincial societies.
Despite the significant bilingualism potential of the city, it is still difficult to find service in French in Ottawa commercial establishments, and just 28% of the City of Ottawa’s public service positions are designated bilingual.
As a result, too many French-speaking Quebecers continue to see Ottawa as the capital of a different nation: quaint, perhaps worth a visit sometime, but certainly not home.
In Quebec’s Richelieu Valley, a recent letter to the editor entitled “Le Canada n’est pas billingue” by a citizen of Mont-Saint-Hilaire proclaimed that, “Le Canada est un pays unilingue. Pour vous en convaincre, allez vous y promener… Malheureusement, même après avoir gouverné le Canada pendant près de quarante ans, les Québécois n’ont pas réussi à imposer leur bilinguisme aux Canadiens. Car il ne faut pas se le cacher, le bilinguisme au Canada n’existe qu’au Québec.”Footnote 4
The author’s sentiments reveal the misunderstanding that Canada’s Official Languages Act was supposed to make all Canadians bilingual. But they also reveal the feelings that remain among some French-speaking Quebecers that the other side of the Ottawa River is not home.
For many French-speaking Quebecers, Quebec City indeed represents and reflects their home especially due to its predominant language.
Were Ottawa a truly bilingual city, French-speaking Canadians could feel more at home and part of a larger society that includes and welcomes them. They could feel secure in the knowledge that service in French is available, and that it would be possible to understand employees in the hospitality industry, police officers, doctors and politicians.
The Honourable Mr. Justice Michel Bastarache said this in a 1998 debate entitled Building a Just Society:
In a modern democracy, the concept of majority rule does not apply to language; instead, language reflects citizens’ shared values and their understanding of the requirements of a diverse society. The message of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is that respect and equality are at the core of Canada’s system of common values. We therefore have a commitment to promote the linguistic and cultural safeguards that minority groups require.Footnote 5
The citizens, institutions and businesses of a successfully bilingual city consider respect for each other’s language to be a core value. They function with a healthy language reflex, remembering those who speak a different language when planning an event, hiring an employee or organizing of a public service project. Their leaders themselves strive to set a strong example by using the preferred language of the people they address.
This fosters a sense of belonging, reinforces an individual’s language identity, strengthens a person’s language security and promotes harmonious relations among the diverse members of a city or society—all important elements of general health and well-being.
Ironically, Ottawa and many other Canadian cities are full of parents who want their children to learn a second official language. Immersion programs—the invention of a group of visionary parents in St. Lambert, Quebec—are in high demand.
We are seeing bilingualism rates increase across the country, but not at pace with demand. The problem is a gap in the language education continuum. Post-secondary institutions in Canada no longer put as much emphasis on language proficiency as they used to. Naturally, toward the end of high school when students start to have options, they tend to drop second-language instruction, thinking it will help to boost their grades and allow them to get into the college or university of their choice. Sadly, many are actually counselled out of immersion.
Once at a post-secondary institution, they often find French taught not as a Canadian language, but rather as a foreign one: without works by French-Canadian authors.
No wonder our federal government continues to struggle to provide second-language training to so many public servants wanting to advance to positions with bilingualism requirements. Many universities don’t seem to realize that proficiency in both official languages is an important skill for the country’s largest employer.
I would argue those education challenges have a significant impact on the city’s language landscape. As second-language education is made more easily available, language becomes less of a secret code belonging to some specific segment of the population. And so the positive cycle of language use and respect grows, even among the unilingual. People come to see their community with different eyes, more attuned to linguistic and cultural sensibilities.
As I mentioned this morning, exactly 40 years ago, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism published its report on the federal capital. In it, the Commission spoke about the importance of a capital city in the following terms:
[…] a capital is a symbol of the country as a whole. It should express, in the best way possible, the values of the country as a whole, its way of life, its cultural richness and diversity, its social outlook, its aspirations for the future. This symbolism has both an internal and an external dimension. Citizens from across the country who visit their capital should find in it a fuller understanding of their country’s traditions and a pride in personal identification with it. Similarly, visitors from other countries should be able just as readily to find tangible expression of the values of a country with which they may be unfamiliar.Footnote 6
That is, I think, the lens through which we should be looking.
In that volume, it reported that the Commission had heard testimony that, among other things, “a Francophone resident or visitor from Quebec could not feel ‘at home’ there; that the federal capital is like a foreign territory to a substantial sector of the Canadian population.”Footnote 7
That report was published a year after Canada adopted its Official Languages Act, just as Keith Spicer became the first Commissioner of Official Languages and it has been 10 years since Ottawa adopted a bilingualism policy. But that does not make it an officially bilingual city. What I hope we can learn from this conference is what it means for a city to be bilingual. One conclusion I draw: the key is one of identity; how to expand on the notion of “us”.
On a practical level, in a city like Ottawa, it makes sense that residents—and customers—be served well in the official language of their choice. Municipal authorities can lead by example and support businesses that want to improve their services in both languages.
As things stand now, many local Francophones in the country’s capital have become resigned to the fact that they cannot get service in French at many Ottawa institutions and most commercial establishments, so they have stopped trying.
Strong leadership and legislation are required to reverse this. Ottawa must move its Bilingualism Policy up in priority and perception.
It might work with the City of Gatineau to create meaningful, far-reaching and lasting partnerships between the city’s English- and French-speaking communities.
A new era?
I hope this symposium offers you all an opportunity to share experiences and best practices, as well as inspiration and energy. I have learned a lot about challenges and successes from our participants from Moncton, Helsinki, Biel-Bienne, Brussels and Barcelona—and I hope to learn more. We have much to share.
I spent my childhood in Ottawa, but my family moved away when I was an adolescent. I moved back almost 25 years ago, from Québec City—and was, as a result, particularly conscious of the impressions a French-speaking visitor to Ottawa would have as he or she visited the sites, walked the streets, went shopping, and had meals in restaurants. I found it hard to imagine that a French-speaking Canadian would feel welcome.
I worked for many years in this city as a journalist. And I have written extensively on the disconnect between our capital’s English- and French-speaking communities. I have come to believe that if Canada has come to be so successful in managing its diverse population, it is in large part due to our historic partnership, our openness to differences and our respect for each other’s languages.
We have made overtures and we continue to make them. The past 40 years have in fact been a period in which we prepared the groundwork for what I hope will be a historic new era of overtures and harmonies.
Perhaps Canada is now entering the great age of its symphony.
It is certainly time.
It is time for partnerships between English- and French-speakers in Canada on a scale like never before. They should start right here in Ottawa and Gatineau.
It is time for the children of our official language minority communities to see themselves reflected in the daycare centres, summer festivals, and institutions they attend in our federal capital.
It is time for our students to know without a shadow of a doubt that it is essential to learn their second official language if they hope to be any kind of leader or service provider in Ottawa or nationally.
It is time for all Canadian citizens to have a language reflex, what is called “active offer” in the federal government, to remember and respect the fact that their fellow citizens may prefer to be addressed in the other official language.
It is still okay to know only one of those languages. However, it’s important to take a moment to find a colleague able to offer assistance to the citizen. It opens the door wide to mutual understanding, respect, and harmony.
It is time for us all to make such efforts, particularly in Ottawa.
It is time for French-speaking Canadians to see themselves reflected in this capital city and to be represented by it.
It is time for members of both official language communities in Ottawa and across Canada to feel secure in the knowledge that Canadians value both languages, that we want to protect and promote French in this vast sea of English and that in Quebec, English-speakers are not the enemy but rather an invaluable ally.
It is time for a federal capital where unilingual, bilingual and multilingual citizens and visitors can interact freely in the official language of their choice.
It is time for meaningful equal partnerships, for better bridges over the waters that divide us.
The symphony is happening on those bridges.
- Footnote 1
Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1965, p 316.
- Footnote 2
See http://www.clo-ocol.gc.ca/en/language_rights/act for details.
- Footnote 3
Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. Book V: The Federal Capital, 1970, p. 25.
- Footnote 4
Jacques Langlois,. “Le Canada n’est pas bilingue,” L’œil régional. Beloeil, Quebec, Saturday, February 27, 2010, p. 7.
- Footnote 5
- Footnote 6
Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. Book V: The Federal Capital, 1970, p. 3.
- Footnote 7
Ibid, pp. 5-6.