Archived - Notes for an address during the visit of the American Congressional Fellows
This page has been archived on the Web.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.
Ottawa, May 16, 2011
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon.
First of all, I would like to welcome the American Congressional Fellows to Canada, and also thank Mackenzie Grisdale for inviting me on behalf of the Parliamentary Internship Programme. It is a great honour for me to discuss Canada’s language situation with such a knowledgeable group of people.
I spent four years in Washington during the first Clinton administration, which made me much more aware of the differences in our systems of government and our political cultures. It struck me that the Canadian parliamentary system—particularly when there is a majority government—is like the old Hollywood studio system. When Louis B. Mayer ran MGM, he decided what films would be made, who would be stars and who would be relegated to B movies. Similarly, a prime minister with a majority controls the levers of power.
In contrast, Washington now is like Hollywood. Power is scattered, and anyone who can marry an idea and votes can pass legislation—just as anyone who can marry an idea and money can make a movie.
Another conclusion I came to was that language is a defining, ongoing issue in Canada in the same way that class is in Britain and race is in the United States.
But the Canadian identity is not only of Anglophones and Francophones; it is also made up of First Nations, Inuit and Métis languages and cultures. These Aboriginal peoples have, for centuries, shown us the importance of passing on not only our language, but also our culture. They continue to struggle to ensure that their languages are retained and flourish, and that their cultures are passed on to future generations. One of the fascinating developments over the last few years has been the introduction of the Official Languages Act and the Inuktitut Language Protection Act, which has made the territory of Nunavut officially trilingual.
During your visit, I am sure you have heard a great deal about the significant changes that occurred in the federal election of May 2, with the Conservatives winning a majority, the New Democrats becoming the Official Opposition, the Liberals dropping to third place, and the Bloc Québécois losing official party status. You may not have realized the degree to which language played a role in the election.
We are essentially two unilingual societies that live side by side: almost 60% of French-speaking Canadians speak no English, and almost 90% of English-speaking Canadians speak no French. Elections, however, require a national conversation in both English and French. This requires that political leaders—and candidates for political leadership—be able to speak both languages.
That reality shapes the way we think about political leadership in Canada. It sets the bar high. And I believe it should underpin the way we consider leadership of all kinds in this country. To do this, we have to consider language in terms of values and not simply obligations.
Since the passage of the Official Languages Act, over 40 years ago, we have seen bilingualism become one of the prerequisites of political leadership in Canada. It is now unthinkable that a prime minister, or the leader of a political party, would be unable to speak to all Canadians, regardless of their official language. We are the only Western democracy I know of that requires our political leaders to engage in a two-hour televised debate in one language and then, 24 hours later, in a two-hour televised debate in the other language.
Like the civil rights struggle in the U.S., the struggle for language rights has been a significant factor in our history over the last half century.
This assumption that political leaders must be bilingual is a fairly recent phenomenon. I spent my childhood in Ottawa and, in the 1950s, French was the language of elevator operators and clerks on Parliament Hill. Mackenzie King, Canada’s longest-serving prime minister, did not speak French, and neither did prime ministers John Diefenbaker or Lester Pearson. And it was only in 1958 that simultaneous interpretation was made available in the House of Commons. Until then, members of Parliament were free to use French—but they had no assurance of being understood.
But in the debate on simultaneous interpretation, Pearson, a career diplomat, called his own unilingualism “a handicap.” And that sense of discomfort, which only increased when dramatic changes began to happen in Quebec in 1960, was at the root of one of the great sea changes in Canadian public policy.
The early 1960s were stormy in Quebec. In addition to major social and political changes, the Front de libération du Québec—the FLQ—set off its first terrorist bombs. In 1962, Canada’s political situation was similar to what it has been like in the past few years, until the very recent changes in Canada’s political landscape: a minority Conservative government, and a strong Quebec-based party preventing both the Conservatives and the Liberals from getting a majority.
In fact, one of the recurrent factors in Canadian politics has been the sudden injection of new MPs from Quebec. In 1958, 50 Conservative MPs were elected from Quebec, and Diefenbaker, then Prime Minister, did not know what to do with them. Most of them vanished in the next election.
In 1962, 26 Créditistes—largely unilingual French-speaking populist believers in the doctrine of social credit—were elected from Quebec. They made the question of language a constant issue of debate. Why were the Orders of the Day in English only? Why was the menu in the Parliamentary Restaurant in English only?
Responding to this, Pearson, then Leader of the Opposition, called for the creation of a royal commission on bilingualism and biculturalism in December 1962.
In 1963, as Prime Minister, Pearson was responsible for creating this very commission. Two years later, the commissioners declared that Canada was passing through the greatest crisis in its history.
In 1966—even before the Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism reported on anything—Pearson declared that the federal government would make it possible for French-speaking Canadians to work for the federal government, and that he would ensure that their language was respected.
In 1967, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, then Minister of Justice, defined language rights as twofold: the right to learn and the right to use. The entire edifice of language rights, constructed over the four decades since then, rests on these two pillars.
In its recommendations in 1967, the Royal Commission proposed a new partnership between English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians. From then on, the Government of Canada was to function more effectively in French, and the predominantly English-speaking provinces would be encouraged to offer more public services in the language of the minority, where demand was sufficient.
The Official Languages Act was adopted in 1969. It proclaimed the equality of status of English and French in all federal institutions. It also spelled out the demographic criteria for the delivery of federal services in both languages. The Act was amended in 1988 to include new standards and rules governing such areas as language of work.
In 1982, a new constitutional document, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, consolidated equality and language rights. The Charter recognized the right of Anglophones and Francophones in minority communities, regardless of where they live, to manage their school systems and have their children instructed in their language, where numbers warrant.
The Charter led to a national rectangular dialogue involving the courts, governments, official language communities and citizens. This dialogue has contributed to an increasingly generous interpretation of language rights.
The Official Languages Act also created the position of Commissioner of Official Languages, and defined the responsibilities of the job I now hold. As Commissioner, I oversee federal language issues. My mandate is essentially to ensure that the status of each of Canada’s official languages is respected, and that federal institutions comply with the Act.
I am an agent of Parliament. That means that I do not report to a minister, but to both houses of Parliament. In that sense, my office is comparable to the Congressional Budget Office.
My duties also include promoting linguistic duality and protecting Canadians’ language rights. In short, my role is to encourage—and disturb. I use many of the tools set out in the Act to fulfill this dual role.
One of those roles is that of a language ombudsman. My office receives about a thousand complaints per year, mostly from individuals who were not served in the official language of their choice. We also review complaints involving language of work and the obligation to support the vitality of official language communities. I investigate these complaints and then recommend corrective measures as needed.
But dealing with complaints is not enough to change minds and institutions. As the American environmentalist and community activist Van Jones says, Martin Luther King didn’t become famous for delivering a speech called “I have a complaint.”
As Commissioner, another of my main responsibilities is to promote linguistic duality within the federal government and Canadian society as a whole. As I mentioned earlier, we would see considerable progress if official languages were treated as a value and leadership skill, particularly within the public service, rather than simply as a burden. Speaking both official languages enables public servants to serve the public, who have a right to service in their language of choice and, in some regions, to manage employees who have the right to work in their language of choice.
But knowing both official languages, and the conversations that take place in each language, is also critical to understanding the country and the public environment in which policy-makers must operate. Policy-makers have to advise ministers. As an example: Canadian political figures appear once in a while on French-language social debate television programs. Supposing a minister were invited to be a guest, how could public servants and policy analysts advise the minister about whether to appear on the program, what the risks and benefits might be, what messages to stress and what traps to avoid, if they hadn’t seen the show and couldn’t understand it?
Leadership in a public sector organization that respects both official languages means much more than reading a speech in French, or conducting a meeting in which both languages are used, or ensuring that messages to staff go out in both languages. Ultimately, it’s a matter of understanding the values and culture expressed by the language. It is a matter of respect.
Showing leadership in terms of official languages demonstrates vision at work and an optimistic and inclusive vision of the country.
Linguistic duality and multiculturalism co-exist in Canada. I learned recently that 80% of the students in the Alliance Française programs in Vancouver are of Chinese origin. We had two governors general in a row who came here as visible minority refugees, joined one language community, and later decided to learn the other official language.
And last week, I attended an award ceremony for secondary students who had won prizes for their written and verbal skills in French as a second language. A significant majority of the winners were from backgrounds that were non-European.
But we are certainly not unique in having concerns about language and immigration.
The U.S. and Canada both have a very high rate of immigration. Many of these immigrants do not speak English (or French) as a first language. Both of our countries have ongoing challenges in responding to immigrant communities that do not speak English—or, in our case, English or French. That trend is only going to increase.
There are some differences in our approach to immigration. Canada is considered to have the largest per capita immigration of any country in the world; we welcome between 225,000 and 250,000 immigrants annually. While there is a public debate over our refugee determination system, support for immigration remains high—and high immigration levels have continued over the last decades, regardless of the government in power.
The particular challenge we have is attracting French-speaking immigrants—both to Quebec and to French-speaking minority communities outside of Quebec. In some provinces, there has been very effective collaboration between the federal and provincial governments and French-speaking communities to attract, support and integrate French-speaking immigrants—who have come largely from North Africa and sub-Saharan French-speaking Africa.
As Commissioner of Official Languages, I have made it one of my priorities to invite Canadians to reconsider the way they perceive the link between linguistic duality and cultural diversity. Through my mandate, I have gathered a better understanding of how visible minorities feel about the role our two official languages play in our national dialogue. I am convinced that, far from being contradictory, the two concepts are complementary. Canada would not be where it is today, in terms of cultural diversity, if it had not made a commitment to recognize and support two official languages.
Thank you. I would be happy to answer any questions you have. And, as I mentioned earlier, I am interested in hearing about any experiences you’d like to share about the challenges you have faced involving language issues.