Archived - Notes for the opening address at the International Conference on Language and Territory
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Sudbury, August 29, 2010
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
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Beginning of dialog
Good evening, Bonjour,
It is a pleasure to be here with you today. I would like to thank Ms. Cheryle Partridge, the Waabishki Mkwaa Singers and the Chief of Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation, Mr. Steven Miller, for welcoming us here. Through these ceremonies, we are all sharing in this language, culture and these traditions. I would also like to thank the conference organizers for asking me to address you as the event’s honorary president. I also thank you for bringing together a group of researchers and academics from such diverse places and fields. I would also like to acknowledge the presence at this event of four colleagues—the language commissioners of New Brunswick, Ontario, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
The theme of the conference—language and territory—is vast and complex. The program includes a number of sessions on several different themes. Identity, the dialogue of languages, immigration, history, linguistic spaces in Canada, language planning, language and communication as well as education are only a few themes you will be focusing on over the next five days.
The issue of language and territory being discussed at this conference is not a new one. It has interested and continues to interest not only researchers, but also governments and official language communities across Canada.
The concepts of “language” and “territory” are broad enough to enable the study of a range of issues, themes and realities. Each of these words also encompasses other concepts: one of the concepts that interests me and can be particularly helpful in understanding Canada's linguistic duality is that of space.
The concept of territory assumes there is a space–geographical, physical, psychological–that has been defined. In the case of geographical space, quite often, this means that someone has built a fence to mark the boundaries of their land or that governments have defined the space for which they are responsible. If the concepts of territory and language are juxtaposed, this can also mean that a language exists in a given territory and thus occupies a defined geographical space.
The psychological and social dimensions of a space are not defined as clearly. Territories or spaces with their own social norms can also exist. For example, respecting the dress code of a reception attended by heads of government reflects a more psychological and abstract delineation of space, in the broader sense.
What interests me today is the link between space and language in the Canadian context. How can we create and maintain a space for the use of our two languages in both the public and private spheres? How can this spatial planning strike a balance between a spirit of openness and inclusivity, on one hand, and a community’s and a language’s need for protection and vitality on the other?
We must not forget that the English and French languages in Canada did not always enjoy the same status or presence in the public sphere. In fact, the expression of Canada's linguistic duality remained quite abstract and theoretical during the first century of Canada's existence. This is in spite of the British North America Act, which, as early as 1867, put forth the idea that certain Canadian institutions were required to serve as a bridge between the country's major linguistic communities.
Although English and French have been used from the very first days of Canada's Parliament and courts of law, at the same time the governments of several provinces and territories barred the use of French in their schools and legislatures. I am thinking of the issues of schools in Manitoba and the Northwest Territories, and Regulation 17 in Ontario. In Quebec, institutional bilingualism was established as provided for in the British North America Act; however, the other provinces remained strictly unilingual or, in the case of Manitoba, became unilingual.
Historically, Francophone minority communities and Quebec Anglophone communities were geographically concentrated in one or several regions of the provinces where they lived. In several cases, they were even concentrated in one or several districts of the cities in which they resided. The Peace River region in Northern Alberta, the Highway 11 corridor in Northern Ontario, the Eastern Townships of Quebec, the Acadian Peninsula in New Brunswick, and Lowertown in Ottawa are examples of such geographical concentrations.
In these communities, the minority language was sometimes present in the public space, although it was rare. While signage was in the majority language, quite often the minority language could be heard in businesses or on the street. The "territory" or the "space" occupied by the French language outside of Quebec was therefore, with few exceptions, in the private sphere: in the offices of physicians, lawyers, or notaries, within families, and in community meeting places like schools and churches. French was therefore a private code rather than a public language. Institutions such as Laurentian University, a public space where French has the right to be used, were still the exception rather than the rule.
The face of Canada’s official languages communities has evolved rapidly over the past 40 years. Urbanization, internal migration influxes, economic changes, the development of the Internet, and immigration have all had an impact on the geographical territory and the presence of English and French in public space. In the face of such changes, Quebec, French-speaking communities elsewhere in the country and English-speaking communities in Quebec have had to adapt and continue to do so.
We should not underestimate the challenges these communities face when they become places of destination. Until quite recently, several of these communities were rather homogeneous – linguistically and culturally. We sometimes forget that it has taken 150 years for North Americans to get used to hearing and listening to English spoken with an accent, without making fun of it.
For 40 years, Quebec and the Francophone minority communities in other provinces have been asked to do the same thing as majority communities—welcome newcomers, but within a shorter period of time. The relationship between host communities and newcomers is even more complex when the minority status of a host community is an integral part of its self-image. Defining itself as a majority community with reference to newcomers is part of broader questions relating to a minority community’s identity.
Although the adoption of the first Official Languages Act in 1969 proclaimed the equality of the status of English and French in all federal institutions, challenges remain. As Martin Howard has stated, at the national level: "in spite of their equality in law, the relationship between English and French is nonetheless less equal from a linguistic point of view at least, whereby English has dominant status.”Footnote 1
With the introduction of the Act in 1969, and its subsequent amendments in 1988 and 2005, Canada had chosen to counter the homogenization trend by protecting and promoting English and French. Of course, this initiative was motivated by several factors:
- a certain fear of the Quebec nationalist movement on the part of the federal government;
- a feeling of powerlessness on the part of French-speaking people;
- the fear that French might be swallowed up in the essentially Anglophone universe of North America.
The Act has allowed for major advances, particularly in terms of supporting the development of official languages communities and the promotion of linguistic duality. As demonstrated by the series of community vitality studies conducted by my Office—including one on the French-speaking community right here in Sudbury—Francophone and Anglophone minority communities are certainly showing their vitality, despite certain challenges. However, in many cases, French has not become a public language outside of Quebec—in business transactions or even daily interactions among people with different mother tongues, for example.
In some places, it occupies a larger public space. However, as attested by the debates surrounding the language of signage in certain Ontario municipalities, this issue continues to be controversial.
While changes to the face of French-speaking minority communities may contribute to the creation, or even the expansion of Francophone space, a paradox remains. The lack of French in the public space—in signage, businesses, services—and the lack of visibility of official language communities make it harder for immigrants and Francophiles to integrate and participate in a Francophone space.
When Chinese immigrants arrive in Vancouver or Toronto, they can easily identify Chinatown. They will see signs, businesses and services available. However, unless they know about the history and presence of a Francophone community and institutions, it can be difficult for them to become aware of the presence of a French-speaking community in these cities. They will not know that there are both French and English schools.
I believe that in planning for languages, territory and space in Canada, communities must pursue their development in order to strengthen their vitality, enhance the use of French in the public space—beyond school and cultural activities—and increase their visibility.
Places like the Vanier or Orléans districts in Ottawa, Bonnie Doon in Edmonton, and St. Boniface in Winnipeg should promote themselves more as French neighbourhoods, as places where French is heard as a part of life and Francophone culture is experienced and shared.
Of course, the presence of a language in the public space does not depend solely on a community's initiative. Governments—whether federal, provincial, territorial or municipal—have an important role to play in this area. They can take action and make decisions that enhance the contribution of official language communities. They can encourage the use of the minority language in the public space. They can take measures that foster recognition of Canada's linguistic duality as a value in Canadian society.
Quebec's example speaks volumes. Although an increasing number of French-speaking Quebecers also speak English, English is less visible in Quebec society today than 40 years ago. This is due to a deliberate effort by the Quebec government, whose success has disproved those who claim that governments are powerless in the face of major linguistic movements that affect societies. Today, the debate is more focused on respecting the rights of Anglophone communities, which have adapted to an environment in which French is the main language of communication, and the language of integration of newcomers from diverse origins.
Researchers and academics, like yourselves, can also play a role. The organization of a multidisciplinary and international conference such as this one contributes to the advancement of knowledge. To assemble so many researchers and academics with such diverse points of view who study language and territory, is an impressive feat. It is also an opportunity for you to share your work on languages here in Canada and elsewhere.
In particular, I would like to recognize the contribution of researchers who work in the minority language. Through the research you do, whether in the field of history, linguistics, sociology, politics or science, you are contributing to the creation of linguistic spaces.
Because of your commitment to the advancement of knowledge, your research can also help governments make more informed decisions that will foster language planning that is adapted to the needs of official language communities.
I hope that your discussions and reflections will be most rewarding and interesting.
Enjoy the conference.
- Footnote 1
Martin Howard, “Language in Canada: A Brief Overview,” in Language Issues in Canada: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, 2007, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle, p. 1.