Archived - Notes for an address to the “Penser la ville – Ottawa, lieu de vie français” seminar
This page has been archived on the Web.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: A bilingual city?
Ottawa, November 3, 2011
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Ladies and gentlemen,
I am delighted and honoured to be here today to speak with university researchers and community representatives about all aspects of the French-speaking community in our nation’s capital. I would like to take the opportunity to thank Linda Cardinal as well as all the seminar organizers for inviting me.
I lived in Ottawa as a child, but my family moved away from the city when I was a teenager. I came back nearly 25 years later, after spending some time in Québec City. I was particularly aware of the impressions that a French-speaking visitor to Ottawa might have when visiting tourist attractions, walking through the streets, shopping, or eating at a restaurant. I found it hard to imagine that French Canadians could feel like this city was the capital of their country.
The status of the French language in Ottawa is an issue that has concerned me for a long time. And so I applaud the Francophone community’s initiative in coming together to make the “Ottawa dream” come true. It takes determined effort to stop, think and take stock. “Dreaming of the future” is just the beginning of a very engaging project!
Like elsewhere in Canada, Ottawa’s French-speaking community is going through major changes. It’s going mobile, it’s diversifying, and it’s asking questions.
This year, it seems as if there are many of us who are thinking about the future of our city, the future of our capital. In addition to the États généraux de la francophonie d’Ottawa, the National Capital Commission is currently consulting the public in order to develop Horizon 2067: The 50-Year Plan for Canada's Capital. The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages will also be providing input, as you probably heard this past summer. These various initiatives show how complex the situation in Ottawa is.
To outsiders, our language issues might look like a puzzle. Canada is officially bilingual, but its capital is—unofficially—unilingual English, but with a bilingualism policy. And Gatineau, its next-door neighbour, is officially unilingual French. Added to the mix are the National Capital Region and the National Capital Commission. Different institutions, different language policies, plus the significant presence of the federal government. In addition to being complex, the language situation stirs up emotions that quite often divide Canadians. We saw this in the summer, following the Thibodeau v. Air Canada decision and in the media’s frenzied response to my office’s call for bids to evaluate the state of bilingualism in the capital. It is natural for linguistic duality to be central to our social debates, but I would never have thought that my plans to evaluate the experience of French-speaking visitors to the nation’s capital would create such a controversy in the media . . . before I had even said anything on the subject.
Despite these controversies, it appears that many of us want to examine the status of French in Ottawa.
For me, this is not new. Ottawa as a bilingual city is a subject that I have been thinking about for a long time—even before I was appointed Commissioner of Official Languages. I wrote a whole chapter about it in my book, Sorry, I Don’t Speak French. And today, I would like to focus on this particular aspect of the debates on our nation’s capital, on Ottawa as a French-speaking community.
Symbols are very important in a capital city. One of the extraordinary things about Washington D.C. as the capital of the United States is that it tangibly represents the history of the country. The Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial honour the country’s founding fathers; the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial both commemorate national tragedies. Visitors learn a lot about the history of the country by simply walking around Washington. Each of these monuments works on two levels—a purely symbolic level and a more intellectual level. For example, each monument has a bookstore offering a wide variety of materials, like tourist guides, academic studies and biographies. Ottawa does not play the same role in Canada. In fact, when you walk around our national capital, you get many conflicting messages.
First, let’s talk about the presence of French. There are no problems in this area on Parliament Hill, at the National Gallery or in the War Museum. However, beyond Wellington Street and Parliament Hill, French disappears. Along Sparks Street or in the Byward Market, how many signs are there in French? What is there to show you that you are, in fact, in the capital city of a country that claims to be officially bilingual? There are a few exceptions: some Ottawa businesses have a bilingual public image, like “Poissonnerie Lapointe Fish Market” or “Pharmacie Brisson Pharmacy.”
The Official Languages Act states that the Government of Canada is committed to enhancing the bilingual character of the National Capital Region.
It is my job to ensure that the government is living up to its commitments. How can it enhance the bilingual character of the National Capital Region if it doesn’t know what that character is? This is why my office decided to find out about the experiences of French-speaking visitors in the capital. Can you rent a car in French? Can you reserve a hotel room in French? Can you get a bilingual menu?
The results of these observations will help me to start a discussion about the government’s role in fostering linguistic duality in Ottawa.
Over 40 years ago, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism published its report on the federal capital. In the report, the Commission spoke about the importance of a capital city in the following terms:
. . . a capital is a symbol of the country as a whole. It should express, in the best way possible, the values of the country as a whole, its way of life, its cultural richness and diversity, its social outlook, its aspirations for the future. This symbolism has both an internal and an external dimension. Citizens from across the country who visit their capital should find in it a fuller understanding of their country’s traditions and a pride in personal identification with it. Similarly, visitors from other countries should be able just as readily to find tangible expression of the values of a country with which they may be unfamiliar.Footnote 1
The effects of the language situation in Ottawa reach well beyond the region, because this is our federal capital.
Both Canadians and newcomers have expectations about their capital city. Ottawa is the symbol of our government and of our identity. As citizens, it is perfectly normal to want to be able to identify with the capital of our country.
What visitors experience during their stay here in Ottawa continues to have an impact on them when they return home, and influences them as Canadian citizens, as residents of their province or territory, and as members of their local communities.
If Ottawa were a truly bilingual city, French-speaking Canadians would feel like they were part of a larger society that includes them and welcomes them. They would feel secure in the knowledge that they could be served in French, and that they would be able to understand hospitality industry staff, police officers, doctors and politicians.
The citizens, institutions and businesses of a truly bilingual city respect each other’s language and consider that respect to be a core value. They don’t leave anyone out when planning an event, hiring staff or organizing a public service project. This way of doing things becomes part of the organizational culture, and employees develop the reflex of taking language issues into account.
I’ve talked to you about visitors, but the title of today’s seminar refers to Ottawa as a place where you can live in French. But can we really separate the Ottawa that tourists experience from the Ottawa that residents live in?”
For Ottawa to be a capital city where all Canadians feel welcome, regardless of whether they speak English or French, I believe that it also needs to be a city that is proud of its French-speaking community.
As things stand now, many French-speaking Ottawans have become resigned to the fact that they cannot get service in French at many local institutions and most commercial establishments in the city, so they have stopped trying.
On a practical level, in a city like Ottawa, it makes sense that residents—and customers—are served in the official language of their choice. Bilingualism in the capital city of Canada cannot be considered artificial or foreign. Ottawa is home to a dynamic Francophone community—it is a place where you can study in French, go to the theatre in French, do business in French and play sports in French.
Ten years after the City of Ottawa adopted its bilingualism policy, we should applaud the numerous efforts and improvements made regarding services to citizens. The list of successes is long. The same goes for the private sector, which gives us many instances of exemplary practices.
There is still work to be done before the presence of our two official languages is perceived as a value rather than an obligation. In its role as the nation’s capital, Ottawa must ensure that both English and French are seen and heard in all aspects of city life. The federal government, which certainly has a role to play in this regard, must continue to support the efforts of the city and its Francophone community.
“Hello, bonjour” is becoming a common phrase in the federal public service. You can also hear it occasionally in shops and other government offices around Ottawa. You can even hear it on the street, when someone isn’t sure which language to use with someone else. This bilingual greeting might very well become known as “the Ottawa greeting.”
The time has come to proclaim the bilingual nature of our city and our country by building partnerships between Anglophones and Francophones rather than driving wedges between them.
It is time for all Canadian citizens to respect their fellow citizens’ wish to be addressed in the other official language.
It is time for French-speaking Canadians to feel at home in their capital, in their city, in our city.
- Footnote 1
Canada, Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, Book V: The Federal Capital, 1970. On-line version consulted November 1, 2011.