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Notes for a speech at the Rendez-vous francophone du maire d’Ottawa
Ottawa, March 25, 2010
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Mr. Deputy Mayor, ladies and gentlemen,
I’m delighted and honoured to be here today to speak with community leaders and citizens about language in our capital city. This breakfast also marks the start of a symposium on language planning in capitals and urban environments.
It is my hope that both events will allow us to work together on the issue of English and French in our capital city. To this effect, I wish to thank the City of Ottawa for its important investment and commitment to the organization of this symposium, and for its remarkable hospitality on this occasion.
I would also like to welcome the international and Canadian participants of the symposium who are with us this morning. We have researchers and city administrators from Biel-Bienne in Switzerland, Brussels, Barcelona, Helsinki and Moncton with us today. I encourage you to follow the debates they will be having today and tomorrow. They will be discussing the services, symbolic representation, and the involvement of the private sector in making their cities’ bilingualism work. The discussion promises to be a rich source of inspiration for all of us.
Canadians and newcomers have hopes, expectations and appreciation towards their capital city. Ottawa is a city like no other in Canada. It is the crossroads of our government, our identity and our international influence.
Municipal employees should feel pride in working for the institution that governs our capital city. They must also consider that their work comes with an extra measure of importance and responsibility. In some ways, what the City of Ottawa does has an effect on every Canadian. No other city in Canada carries such weight, with the possible exception of Vancouver over the last few weeks!
Exactly 40 years ago, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism published its report on the federal capital. 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 1
To illustrate this, briefs to the Commission mentioned the “refusal of Ottawa City Council to permit traffic signs in French; the predominance of English signs on federal public buildings; the difficulties of obtaining service in French in the shops; and the obstacles of testifying in French in local courts.”Footnote 2
Much has changed over the last 40 years. Signs, documents, traffic tickets, information from City Hall, federal signage and public events sponsored by the National Capital Commission and the National Arts Centre—all of these are in both languages.
As leaders in Ottawa, I would like to congratulate you on your accomplishments. The city has come a long way in four decades. However, work still needs to be done. It is still difficult to see both languages as part of the public space in Ottawa—and it’s sometimes hard to see, walking along any commercial street in Ottawa, that this is the capital of a country with two official languages.
Work still needs to be done in order for the predominance of both languages to be seen as a value rather than an obligation. In its role as a national capital, it goes without saying that both English and French should be audible and visible in all aspects of life in this city.
We are moving forward as a country and as a capital city. Improvements are being made and new partnerships are emerging to contribute to the efforts.
The partnership last spring between OC Transpo and the Regroupement des gens d’affaires de la capitale nationale to promote bilingualism in local businesses is a good illustration of what can and should be done.
In May 2008, the City of Ottawa tabled its 2007–2008 Report on French Language Services. It chronicled numerous efforts to improve citizen services, citing such successes as the greater availability of French-language daycare, recreation and public health services.
I encourage you to pursue such initiatives and continue to work with partners like Canadian Heritage, which has also offered its support.
Leadership and the language reflex
We are here today to celebrate our achievements, share best practices, but also to recognize the challenges we face. In Ottawa, challenges still exist in terms of providing essential services equally in both languages. Consider the importance of daycare, for example, in a child’s language development and sense of identity, especially when that child is a member of a minority. The 2007-2008 Report on French Language Services also outlined the need for greater bilingualism at public events.
Clearly, the city must develop a greater language reflex by considering language needs throughout the planning process, and not simply as an afterthought. However, for this to happen, leadership remains an important factor.
Leaders who adopt this reflex, which can also be reflected in their policy decisions, must also set the example themselves in terms of good service and mutual respect. Leaders who wish to represent and serve all their constituents equally should demonstrate their commitment to linguistic duality in all aspects of their mandate.
Of course, employees must also play their part. The use of “active offer”—a simple “Hello/Bonjour”—can also go a long way in demonstrating that an office is capable of serving its customers in their official language of choice. It’s also a reminder for citizens to take advantage of these services, rather than automatically opting for English.
“Hello, bonjour” is becoming a common phrase in the federal public service, but also on occasion in shops and other government offices around Ottawa. It can even be heard on the street, when one isn’t too sure which language to use with somebody. In fact, if linguistic duality becomes prevalent enough in the offices and the shops of the city, the bilingualism greeting might very well become known as “the Ottawa greeting.” Hello, bonjour.
Let’s imagine we could remove the Ottawa River from the National Capital Region for a moment, so that Ottawa and Gatineau were suddenly one integrated urban centre. Half of its population of one million would be composed of citizens capable of speaking and understanding French.Footnote 3 Meanwhile, 63% of Gatineau residents and 37% of Ottawa residents are bilingual.
But the Ottawa River is a beautiful one—and more permanent in a fluid sort of way than our languages.
So we build bridges. Five of them in the space of a few kilometres, which provide an access to a multitude of richness in terms of culture, language, work opportunities, social activities and so on.
My intention is not to advocate a merger of Ottawa and Gatineau, but there are obvious opportunities to benefit from increased cooperation. Whatever your approach, I encourage you to build metaphorical bridges and strengthen both communities that make up the National Capital Region.
Canadian parents today want their children to be able to understand each other and work together, which is supported by the popularity of immersion programs. Our official languages are recognized as one of Canada’s great values—and mutual respect is a key part of that value.
Ottawa is like no other city in Canada because it distils everything we are and want to be into one urban centre.
Forty years ago, the B&B Commission was preoccupied with bilingual signs and representations, recommending improvements for the federal capital and civil service. Much of that has been achieved today.
The time has come for us to reach out in more profound and meaningful ways. It is time to treat language not as an administrative obligation, but rather as a value and genuine opportunity to serve all citizens equally and reflect the bilingual nature of our city and country.
- Footnote 1
Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, Book V, The Federal Capital, Ottawa, 1970, pp. 5-6.
- Footnote 2
Ibid, p. 6.
- Footnote 3
Statistics Canada. 2006 Census. Ottawa’s total population was 801,275, including 298,245 who spoke both English and French. Gatineau’s total population was 239,985, including 201,645 whose first official language spoken was French.