Archived - Notes for an address at the Université d’été sur la francophonie des Amériques - Paradoxes of the Canadian Linguistic Situation
This page has been archived on the Web.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.
Paradoxes of the Canadian Linguistic Situation
Gatineau, June 12, 2010
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Bonjour, good morning, buenos días,
I am very happy to be here with you today. Over the next few minutes, I’m going to talk to you about various aspects of Canada’s language policy: its history, its unique structure and, especially, its paradoxes.
First, let me say that the idea of certain Canadian institutions serving as a bridge between the country’s two major linguistic communities has been around since the British North America Act of 1867. English and French have been used from the very first days of Canada’s Parliament and courts of law.
But the expression of Canada’s linguistic duality remained abstract and theoretical during the first century of Canada’s existence. The strong emergence of Quebec nationalism in the early 1960s showed just how inadequate this approach was.
Partly in response to this development, in 1963, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson established the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in order to re-examine linguistic duality instituted by the federal pact of 1867. Starting in 1965, the Commission provided a stark assessment of the crisis in which Canada found itself and shocked many Canadians when its preliminary report stated that Canada was going through the greatest crisis in its history.
In 1967, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, then Minister of Justice, defined language rights as twofold: the right to use (your first language) and the right to learn (your second language). While the right to use was codified and regulated in various ways, the right to learn remained subject to funding limitations and choices made by various provincial governments.
The first federal Official Languages Act was adopted in 1969. It granted equality of status of English and French throughout the federal administration. The Act also stated that the public had the right to receive services from federal institutions in the official language of their choice.
The 1969 Act created the position of Commissioner of Official Languages, a non-partisan ombudsman who was to be the "
active conscience" of Canadians in official language matters. I am the sixth person to hold this position since it was created in April 1970. I report directly to Parliament. My office investigates citizens’ complaints, audits federal institutions and can, when necessary, intervene before the courts. I also have a rather broad mandate of promoting linguistic duality, under which my office conducts studies, publishes information material and, of course, participates in events like this.
In 1982, the advent of a new constitutional document, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, rekindled the language debate.
The Charter strengthened equality and language rights. In terms of education, it introduced a new dimension to language rights by recognizing that English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians in official language minority communities in a province have the right to have their children receive instruction in their own language at the primary and secondary level. It also recognized their right to manage their education system, where numbers warrant.
Following the adoption of the Charter, the Act was once again amended in 1988 so that each would support the other’s objectives. Although many parliamentarians criticized the government for the delay in amending the Act, the announcement was generally well received. The Official Languages Act of 1988 sets out the three main objectives of the Government of Canada:
- to ensure respect for English and French as the official languages of Canada and ensure equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all federal institutions;
- to set out the powers, duties and functions of federal institutions with respect to the official languages of Canada; and
- to support the development of English and French linguistic minority communities and generally advance the equality of status and use of the English and French languages within Canadian society.
In 2005, the Act was amended again to reinforce these new obligations.
This was a turning point in Canadian language policy. Previously, language rights were understood primarily as individual rights. With the addition of obligations regarding official language communities, collective rights assumed a greater importance. The duty to support the development of official language communities and promote linguistic duality forces federal institutions to be proactive. These organizations can take actions that will have a positive impact not only on the lives of people who come into contact with the government, but also on an entire community.
Recognizing that individuals live in a society, within a social and cultural context, comes a bit late. This issue was raised by the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, which used the image of French-speaking North Americans swimming in an sea of English. Collective rights were enshrined in Quebec’s Charter of the French Language in 1977. At the federal level, many battles have needed to be fought by groups representing English-speaking communities in Quebec and Francophone communities elsewhere in the country. Where political debate has been insufficient, court remedies have sometimes led to greater recognition of official language communities. This scenario has been repeated several times in provincial and territorial jurisdictions.
In addition to support for official language communities, the federal government and the provinces invest substantial amounts in second language instruction. This is strictly a political decision. There is nothing in the law that gives Canadians the right to learn their second official language.
Of Canada’s 34 million inhabitants, a little over 5 million speak both of their country’s official languages. This is relatively low compared to European countries, for example. People in other countries are sometimes surprised that a country like Canada, which calls itself “
bilingual”, has such a low rate of bilingualism. Early in my mandate as Commissioner, I met someone from India who was simply dumbfounded by this situation. “
You only have two languages, and they both use the same alphabet!” In countries where it’s normal to speak two or three languages, Canadian unilingualism is an enigma. In this sense, the Canadian linguistic situation is part of a broader North American context.
It is vital that Canada have enough people, particularly in the federal government, who can provide bilingual services to their fellow citizens and enable our two official language communities to understand each other. But our official language policies are not intended to make all Canadians bilingual. Unlike Switzerland, for example, where learning another national language in school is mandatory,Footnote 1 decisions on second-language education in Canada fall under the jurisdiction of the provinces. Some provinces, like Quebec and New Brunswick, ensure that all students receive a solid foundation in their second official language. Other provinces are less interested, despite the significant financial support available from the federal government. In total, more than one million young English-speaking Canadians are taking French courses in school, and some 300,000 are enrolled in immersion programs. The bilingualism rate remains low, however, and is only growing very slowly.
Last year, we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Official Languages Act. While the Act has paved the way for some important advances, there is still work to be done:
- Federal government services are available in both official languages where required by law—but only three times out of four.
- A large proportion of federal government employees have the right to work in the language of their choice—but the work environment is such that they often hesitate to exercise this right.
- Many federal institutions have initiatives to support the development of official language communities and promote linguistic duality—but they often neglect to take into account the impacts of their decisions on these communities.
To improve on these limited results, linguistic duality must go beyond administrative measures. It must be recognized as a value in federal institutions and Canadian society. This requires greater leadership, both in the public service and in civil society.
This leadership was recently epitomized by our Canadian athletes at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games. Many of them were able to—and more than happy to!—address their fellow Canadians in both English and French, right after competing, before they’d even caught their breath.
These young people, who have no linguistic obligations whatsoever, showed exemplary and inspiring bilingualism, and yet some of our national leaders spoke almost exclusively in English during the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games.
I would like to give one last example of a paradox, where the current standards are not sufficient to ensure the effective application of official languages policy.
In Canada, as in a number of countries, bilingualism is considered a mandatory skill for several ranks of officers in the military. Jeffrey de Fourestier, of Ottawa’s Carleton University, has analyzed the bilingualism of officers in Belgium, Finland, Switzerland, Ireland and Canada. He found that only Canada’s armed forces systematically pay for language courses for their officers.
Canada also had the lowest rate of bilingualism among officers. In the other jurisdictions, officers were responsible for their own second- and third-language fluency, without the state having to manage their language training.
The Canadian approach to linguistic issues is thus full of paradoxes. Some of them are normal and reflect the nature of the country. Others are the result of a certain amount of confusion and a lack of government commitment to linguistic duality as a value.
We are constantly debating and discussing Canadian language policy—especially the mechanics (how many public servants have to be bilingual, how effective are the language courses, and so on)— but little is said about the more fundamental issues. Many people have the impression that official language policies have failed, because they think the goal is to make all Canadians bilingual—whereas the Act and policies are focusing on bilingualizing public institutions. It is important to change these perceptions as you can’t have a constructive debate on public policy if the objective is not clear.
Linguistically, Canada has a lot to contribute to the world and to the Americas. Not because it is a perfect role model—on a number of levels, it isn’t—but rather because it has developed a unique approach, adapted to its particular needs, that has had some success. As the Official Languages Act enters its fifth decade, I believe the Canadian experience is worth taking a closer look at.
There needs to be renewed discussion in Canada about what linguistic duality means as a value. This issue is also in the news in several countries of the Americas that are trying to promote their linguistic diversity. The issue of languages—including French—must therefore be on the agenda of hemispheric organizations. In the Americas, French has a voice and Canada has its experience to offer.
This kind of public discussion will have an impact not only on countries, but also on the citizens of their minority language communities. Linguistic diversity must be seen as a point of pride, rather than an administrative problem.
Thank you. I would like to take the time remaining to hear your comments and answer any questions you may have.
- Footnote 1
Each Swiss canton, however, decides which official languages are taught in its schools—German, Italian, French, or Romansh.