Archived - Address for the European Day of Languages
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Canada’s Linguistic Duality Will Never Be Silenced – Sign Languages in Canada
Strasbourg, September 26, 2011
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Members of the Secretariat of the Council of Europe,
Permanent Representatives of the Council of Europe,
Members of the European Parliament,
Members of the European Union of the Deaf,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you for inviting me to attend the celebrations for the European Day of Languages, which is focusing this year on the state of sign languages. I regret that I cannot be there in person to celebrate this day with you. As Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages, I am responsible for language issues that fall under federal jurisdiction. My mandate consists of ensuring recognition of the equal status of Canada’s official languages—English and French—and federal institutions’ compliance with the Official Languages Act. In one sentence, my role is to encourage promote, persuade and generally shake things up!
My duties also include the promotion of linguistic duality and the protection of Canadians’ language rights. It is on that aspect of my mandate that I am basing my remarks on sign languages for deaf and hearing-impaired persons in Canada. Although I am not an expert on sign languages, I will humbly share my thoughts with you.
The general objectives of the European Day of Languages are to alert the public to the importance of language learning, increase plurilingualism and intercultural understanding, promote the rich linguistic and cultural diversity of Europe, and encourage lifelong language learning. It is easy for me to draw parallels between these objectives and those of my mandate. As Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages, I am required to take all measures within my power to meet the three main objectives of the Official Languages Act:
- the equality of status of English and French in Parliament, the government of Canada, the federal administration and institutions subject to the Act;
- the preservation and development of official language communities in Canada; and
- the equality of English and French in Canadian society.
As you may know, Canadian politics has always been deeply affected by relations between the English-speaking majority and the French-speaking minority. Our linguistic duality is a big part of the Canadian identity, and how the rest of the world views us.
But our situation is unique—unlike some multilingual countries, such as Switzerland or Belgium, Canada’s language communities do not live in completely separated geographic areas. However, the two linguistic groups are not evenly distributed throughout the country—Francophones make up about one quarter of the Canadian population and, even though most of them are in Quebec, there are also smaller Francophone communities across the country.
Although English is the lingua franca today, its predominance may wane as a result of pervasive globalization. Bilingualism, and indeed plurilingualism, will make the difference in the world of tomorrow. In business and education, unilingual Anglophones will be competing with bilingual and even trilingual candidates who, in addition to their own language, have mastered not only English but also a third language. As I have often said since the beginning of my mandate: Canada’s linguistic duality leads to cultural diversity.
Language skills bring much more than economic advantages: they foster openness to other cultures and inspire us to be tolerant and compassionate, reflecting different visions of the world. Deaf and hearing-impaired persons have their own visions of the world, and their own languages.
We have two sign languages in Canada, corresponding to our two official languages. Quebec Sign Language (QSL) is used mainly by Francophones, while Anglophones prefer American Sign Language (ASL), which is also used in the United States. Our two official languages, English and French, are a fundamental characteristic of the Canadian identity. This is why, throughout its history, Canada has passed laws and adopted policies to better protect and promote its official languages.
The importance of our official languages is also recognized in the Canadian Constitution. In fact, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is part of the Constitution, includes a series of language rights. Canada’s Official Languages Act clarifies the rights and obligations set out in the Charter.
From 1991 to 2007, our Cable Public Affairs Channel, which broadcasts unedited, uninterrupted and unfiltered coverage of the proceedings of the House of Commons and selected standing committees, presented Question Period live every day, with closed-captioning in English only and sign-language interpretation in QSL.
In January 2004, former senator Jean-Robert Gauthier, who was hard of hearing, filed a complaint alleging that the House of Commons of the Canadian Parliament was discriminating against him under section 5 of the Canadian Human Rights ActFootnote 1 because it did not provide French-language closed-captioning for the proceedings of the House, although that service was available in English.
Former senator Gauthier won his case. In 2007, as a result of his tireless efforts in defending the rights of deaf and hearing-impaired persons, the Parliament of Canada became one of the world’s first legislatures to use state-of-the-art voice-recognition technology for remote live closed-captioning of its proceedings.
The United Nations General Secretariat’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which recognizes the linguistic identity of the deaf community, was ratified by Canada on March 11, 2010. Regardless of whether language is spoken or signed, deaf and hearing-impaired persons have the same language rights as any other citizen.
As Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages, I enthusiastically support the European Day of Languages, whose objectives closely align with the spirit of Canada’s Official Languages Act. Linguistic duality is an important value in Canadian society, and I would like to see that value reflected worldwide. As a citizen of the world, I encourage openness to different languages and cultures, as well as language learning, so that we can all rise to the challenge of a multilingual and multicultural society.
On behalf of Canadians of all linguistic origins, both spoken and signed, I wish you all a very happy European Day of Languages.
- Footnote 1
"It is a discriminatory practice in the provision of goods, services, facilities or accommodation customarily available to the general public
(a) to deny, or to deny access to, any such good, service, facility or accommodation to any individual, or
(b) to differentiate adversely in relation to any individual, on a prohibited ground of discrimination." Canadian Human Rights Act, 1976-77, c. 33, s. 5.