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Linguistic Spaces in Canada: the Commissioner of Official Languages’ Perspective
Sudbury, August 30, 2010
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
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Beginning of dialog
Good day, Bonjour.
It is my great pleasure to be here with you today and to participate in this panel of Canada’s five linguistic ombudsmen. As the title of my presentation indicates, my intention today is speak to you about the linguistic space that I work in as Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages.
The 1969 Official Languages Act created the position of Commissioner of Official Languages, a non-partisan ombudsman. The Commissioner must also be the “active conscience” of Canadians in official language matters. I am the sixth Commissioner of Official Languages since the position 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 one.
What does the Canadian linguistic space look like? How is this space organized by the federal government and federal institutions? In order to answer these questions, we must first define what we mean by “space.”
The way in which we define the concept of space may vary according to the discipline or position from which we are approaching the subject. According to the Oxford English dictionary, one of the most current definitions of space is as follows: “a continuous area or expanse which may or may not contain objects.” This definition refers particularly to the physical aspect of space.
Numerous researchers from varying disciplines are interested in the concept of space. In 2008, an entire book was produced by Joseph-Yvon Thériault, Anne Gilbert and Linda Cardinal, dedicated to the minority Francophone space. According to the authors, “this [Francophone] space had built up, over the years, in response to provincial realities, around which each Francophone minority organized its life and relationships and increasingly demanded rights, legislation and services in French.”Footnote 1
According to Anne Gilbert and Marie Lefebvre, such space is “structured by the places where we live in French [...]: schools, the radio, businesses, theatre, etc. where French is the preferred language.”Footnote 2
Space is “the source of representations. It reinforces the image of the group as a unified whole, beyond the divisions of the real world. It is subject to strategies. It is incorporated into the community’s identification process, and provides the opportunity for the community to demonstrate its strength and affirm its legitimacy.”Footnote 3
Thus, space can refer to a geographically defined space and may also refer to a more abstract psychological, or even virtual or philosophical space.
In my opinion, a space is the place where a citizen, individual and consumer can see, hear and receive services in the minority language. The minority language is, therefore, present, visible and heard on the radio, on signs, in the newspapers, in businesses, and in the delivery of government services.
Of course, when we examine the Canadian linguistic space, we notice that there are a certain number of linguistic spaces; some are bilingual or multilingual—as is the case with the Northwest Territories and Nunavut—but the majority are unilingual. We also realize that key players, such as government, communities and civil society, do not all understand the notion of “creating a linguistic space” in the same way.
A rather telling example is that of the recent Olympic Games in Vancouver last February. For the Organizing Committee of the Games (VANOC), making the minority language—in this case, French—visible and audible had a very particular meaning. VANOC felt that having a Francophone choreographer, acrobat and dancers gave the French language a sufficient presence in the opening ceremonies. It also believed that a Leonard Cohen song could be counted as Francophone, because he was born in Quebec.
This notion—that it is possible to ensure the presence of the Francophone language and culture without them being heard—makes me think of how children were viewed in the Victorian era. It was nice to have children around, as long as they were seen, but not heard!
Missed opportunities, like that of the Olympic Games, can give the impression that there has not been much progress since the adoption of the first Official Languages Act in 1969. However, if we take a moment to remember where we started from—a bilingual sign in national parks in Alberta attracted the wrath of a section of the population and became the target of acts of vandalism and graffiti—we quickly realize that we have made enormous progress.
The 1969 Act was the first manifestation of respect for Canada’s two languages and linguistic communities. In addition to creating the position of Commissioner of Official Languages, the Act:
- recognized the equal status of English and French across the entire federal administration; and
set forth the public’s right to receive services from federal institutions in both official languages.
- These language rights were further strengthened on a number of occasions.
In 1982, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms strengthened rights in matters of linguistic equality. It also added a new dimension—education—by recognizing that Anglophone and Francophone citizens in a minority situation in a province had the right to have their children educated at the primary and secondary level in their language. It also stated that they had the right to manage their school system where numbers warranted.
Integrating these language rights into the fundamental law of the land was thus another manifestation of respect for the country’s two linguistic communities. It was also a second organization of the Canadian linguistic space.
The development of the Canadian linguistic space by the federal government continued in 1988. The Act was amended again to harmonize it with the objectives of the new constitution. The new 1988 Official Languages Act needed to meet three major objectives of the government of Canada:
- it reiterated the equality of status between Canada’s two official languages and reiterated the equality of rights and privileges with regard to their usage in federal institutions;
- it set out the duties and roles of federal institutions with respect to official language matters; and
- it supported the development of English and French linguistic minority communities and fostered the full recognition and use of both French and English in Canadian society.
This last objective, regarding the development of communities, resulted in new obligations in 1988, which were strengthened further in 2005. The changes brought to the Act in 2005—which was a parliamentary initiative,Footnote 4 not a governmental one —confirmed that, from that moment on, federal institutions had to take positive measures to demonstrate the federal government’s commitment to developing official language communities.
The addition of minority language education rights in the 1982 Charter and the obligation to support the development of the communities in 1988—which was strengthened further in 2005—marked a turning point in Canadian language policy. Previously, language rights were understood as individual rights. By adding obligations regarding official language communities, collective rights assumed a greater importance. The obligation to support the development of official language communities and promote linguistic duality forces federal institutions to be proactive. These organizations can take action that will have a positive impact not only on the lives of people who come in contact with the government, but also on the community as a whole.
During the Olympic and Paralympic Games last February, a number of federal institutions and private companies took concrete action that increased the presence of the French language in Vancouver. A number of them had large signs in French right in the heart of downtown Vancouver. Coca-Cola had French-language advertisements up in Vancouver’s public transport system, some spanning the full height of walls and bus stops.
Canada Post, which has a building in downtown Vancouver, used its facilities to display large-format signs in both languages. As we can see, strengthening language rights has led to a certain amount of progress over the last 40 years.
However, an important paradox remains regarding the role of the federal government in the linguistic regime. With the federal government assuming a greater presence in the linguistic organization of the country, other key players have tended to back away from their responsibilities in this area. I am thinking here of the provinces, territories and municipalities. These key partners of the federal government and official language communities have not always recognized that they have a role to play in advancing the development of the latter. It is not uncommon to hear: “It’s not our responsibility. It’s up to the federal government!” or “It’s the federal government that gives money for that sort of activity, not us!”
The provinces, territories and municipalities have a lot to gain—socially, culturally, linguistically and economically—from advancing the development of their official language communities and promoting their presence, their language and their heritage. Even though, over the years, certain provinces and territories have passed legislation or enacted policies relating to services in French, they have been slow to recognize that they also have a responsibility towards their official language communities.
The high number of court cases is an eloquent testament to this. Official language communities have often had to seek legal recourse before the courts to ensure that their language rights in education—which is under provincial jurisdiction—are recognized as set forth in the Charter. In situations when the provinces have not recognized their responsibilities, the cases brought before the courts have sometimes led to a greater recognition of place and status of the official language communities.
I can think of another example where the standards established by the federal government were not sufficient to guarantee the efficient application of official language policies and create a genuine linguistic space: the Canadian Armed Forces.
As in a number of countries, bilingualism is a mandatory skill for several officer ranks in the military. Jeffrey de Fourestier, of Carleton University in Ottawa, has analyzed the bilingualism of officers in Belgium, Finland, Switzerland, Ireland and Canada. He concluded that Canada was the only country where the Armed Forces systematically paid for language courses for their officers.
Canada is also the country with the lowest rate of bilingualism among officers. In other countries, officers are bilingual, or trilingual, without the state having to manage their language training.
The Canadian approach to the linguistic question is, thus, full of paradoxes. Some of them are normal and reflect the nature of the country. Others are the result of a lack of government commitment regarding the value of linguistic duality.
Even though, after 40 years, there have been numerous advances, there is still work to be done. Work on the creation and strengthening of a genuine Canadian linguistic space, where the minority language is present, visible and audible must be continued.
Official language minority communities must be able to see, hear and live their language within their municipalities, provinces and territories. They must continue to develop so as to strengthen their vitality, promote the use of the minority language in the public sphere—not only in schools or as part of cultural activities—and increase its visibility. It is by increasing their visibility within their regions that official language communities will continue to be host communities for newcomers wishing to integrate themselves.
Obviously, the communities must not be left to act on their own. Other government players also have a role to play. They can take measures that encourage and promote the use and presence of the minority language in the public sphere.
Provinces, territories and municipalities should, for their part, seize upon the opportunities that present themselves to promote the contribution of their official language communities’ language and culture. They, too, can take measures that encourage and promote the use of the minority language in the public sphere. The participation of the City of Sudbury’s representatives in the États généraux de la francophonie du Grand Sudbury in 2008 and its subsequent meetings is just one example of the type of opportunity in which municipalities can take actions that promote the contribution of their official language communities. The francophone community’s participation in the development of Nunavut’s language policy is another positive example.
They have the chance to take the lead in enhancing the presence of the minority language through communications, service delivery to the population, signage and throughout public areas.
As for the federal government, it must continue to ensure that:
- where necessary, its services are available in both official languages more often than three out of four times, as is currently the case;
- a greater proportion of its employees who have the right to work in the language of their choice feel completely at liberty to exercise this right;
- federal institutions continue to establish initiatives that support the development of official language communities and promote linguistic duality, while at the same time considering the impact of their decisions on these communities.
There are constantly debates and discussions over Canadian language policy and the Canadian linguistic space. This discussion occurs at all levels—national, provincial or territorial, and regional—and between many key players. This panel is an example of this continuing national conversation.
Even if challenges remain and the debates continue, Canada has much to offer the world, linguistically speaking. Not because it is a perfect example—in many ways, it is not—but because it has developed a unique approach that is adapted to its particular situation, and which has enjoyed a certain degree of success. As we enter the fifth decade of the Official Languages Act, I believe that the Canadian experience is worth examining because it demonstrates the desire and ability to create diverse spaces—geographical, virtual and philosophical—that encourage and promote the use of the minority language. It testifies to the possibility to organize both space and language.
At the start of this 21st century, in which Canadian society and official language communities are in constant evolution, there is cause to wonder what the future of the territory and space will be. More specifically, what will the Canadian linguistic space look like?
These are just some of the questions that will continue to fuel the discussion surrounding Canada’s linguistic regime and linguistic duality as a value.
I would like to thank you for your attention.
- Footnote 1
Joseph-Yvon Thériault, Anne Gilbert and Linda Cardinal, L’espace francophone en milieu minoritaire au Canada: Nouveaux enjeux, nouvelles mobilisations, 2008, Éditions Fides, Montréal, p. 9.
- Footnote 2
Anne Gilbert and Marie Lefebvre, “Un espace sous tension: nouvel enjeu de la vitalité communautaire de la francophonie canadienne” in Joseph-Yvon Thériault, Anne Gilbert and Linda Cardinal, L’espace francophone en milieu minoritaire au Canada: Nouveaux enjeux, nouvelles mobilisations, 2008, Éditions Fides, Montréal, p. 65.
- Footnote 3
Ibid., p. 66.
- Footnote 4
It was Senator Jean-Robert Gauthier who introduced into Parliament the Bill S-3 (the most recent change to the Act), passed by Parliament in November 2005.