Archived - Notes for an address at the conference lunch of the National Capital Region’s Association Canada-France
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Ottawa, December 10, 2011
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Ladies and gentlemen,
I am honoured and delighted to be in Chelsea today for your conference lunch. It’s always a pleasure to celebrate the cultural bonds and friendship that exist between Canada and France, and to highlight the vitality of our national capital region’s French-speaking community. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Jean‑Paul Turcotte as well as all members of the Association Canada-France for inviting me to speak to you.
Recent headlines are forcing us to re-examine the language issue and to reflect on the path Canada has taken in the past 42 years. One thing is certain: when it comes to language, Canadians have high expectations. Just look at the public reaction to recent events like the appointments of a unilingual English auditor general and Supreme Court judge, as well as the controversy over unilingual English managers at the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec. Add to that the concern Francophones are expressing over a perception that Montréal is becoming more English; Québec City Mayor Régis Labeaume’s public criticism of the increasing use of English signs in Paris; and Montréal’s French-language school board’s plans to require students to speak only French at school, including in the schoolyard and cafeteria.
But the news isn’t all bad.
Who would have thought that the Calgary Herald, the Edmonton Journal, and the Ottawa Citizen would each individually support the idea that the auditor general must be bilingual?
For the first time, most provincial premiers are bilingual, as are eight of the nine NDP leadership candidates.
During parliamentary debates on the Official Languages Act in 1968 and 1969, some people suggested that the law would end all hopes of a public service career for western Canadians. The Prime Minister, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Chief of the Defence Staff, Clerk of the Privy Council, and ministers of Heritage and Citizenship and Immigration are all from western Canada and are all bilingual.
This confirms my belief that failure is obvious, and success invisible. Let me give you two examples. The Vancouver Olympics were a great success in terms of linguistic duality—on the ground. But what we remember is the failure during opening ceremonies. Failure is obvious, success invisible.
The state funeral for Jack Layton was a great success in terms of linguistic duality. The service was not without its share of controversy: some suggested that Stephen Lewis embarrassed the Prime Minister and the Governor General with his very political eulogy, and others responded that the eulogy was entirely in keeping with the image of Jack Layton, given how important politics was to him. No one—and I mean no one—said anything about the presence of both official languages at the funeral. Success is invisible.
In France, there doesn’t seem to be as much concern about the influx of English, but in Quebec, the reaction is alarming.
Canadians’ relationship with language has shaped our country in many ways. The coexistence of English and French is a definitive feature of Canada’s identity. But in Quebec—the cradle of Francophone culture in Canada—French is at the heart of the “national” identity. The Québécois refer to France as the “motherland,” and the French think of the Québécois as their “cousins.” Obviously, there is a unique linguistic genealogy that unites Quebec and France, but there are also fundamental bonds that exist between Canada and France. After all, France is one of Canada’s founding countries.
However, French Canadians and the French from France have different views on their relationship with language. In Europe, English represents neutral territory. When discussing issues such as the economy or international relations, communicating in English is a way to ease the linguistic tensions that would otherwise exist among countries of the European Union. English is not neutral in Canada, and especially not in Quebec. Rather, it’s synonymous with inequality when used to the detriment of French. Linguistic duality sometimes suggests conflict rather than concord.
In France, citizens are often indifferent to the increased presence of English, as witnessed by the lack of concern regarding the ubiquity of English in Paris—phrases like “smart phones,” “iced coffee,” and “souvenir centers” in company names and on signs. Here in Quebec, the Office québécois de la langue française is launching an awareness campaign to encourage large companies with trademarked names to add a French description to their name, so that you can go for coffee at Les cafés Second Cup, for example.
The Mayor of Québec City is not the first to resent the increased presence of English in Paris. Many Quebec tourists are shocked when they visit the City of Lights. In March 2000, Air France decided to make English the language of communication between pilots and the control tower at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. Then premier of Quebec Lucien Bouchard scolded Paris for having planes that took off from Dorval in French and landed in France in English.
It’s hard to understand the threat to French when France doesn’t retaliate against the pervasiveness of English. It seems that the survival of the French language is not as current or emotional an issue as it is in Canada.
If France doesn’t send the message that French is important and must be protected everywhere in the French-speaking world, then who will?
Relations between France and Canada have always been eventful. General De Gaulle’s “Vive le Québec libre” line in July 1967 created a great deal of diplomatic tension between two countries. The Canadian government viewed the declaration as complete French interference in Canadian politics. Since then, federal-provincial tensions have always been central to the history of Quebec’s para-diplomacy.
Until very recently, France’s policy was “ni ingérence, ni indifférence” (non-interference, non-indifference) when it came to relations with Quebec and Canada. French leaders would not take a stand on the question of sovereignty for fear of souring France’s relationship with Canada. Jacques Chirac came very close, though, in 1995 when he appeared on the American TV show Larry King Live. When Larry King asked him, “If Quebec decides to separate, will you recognize that new government?” Chirac replied, “If the referendum is positive, the government will recognize the fact!”Footnote 1 which put the Canadian government in an awkward situation. Then Larry King asked Chirac whether he had a recommendation for the Quebec people as to how they should vote. Reverting to the “non-interference, non-indifference” policy, Chirac replied that he didn’t want to interfere in Quebec affairs.
Personal relationships have often influenced the relations between our countries. The friendship between Jacques Chirac and Jean Pelletier, dating back to the time when they were mayors of Paris and Québec City, had an impact on Chirac’s views during his presidency.
In 2009, Nicolas Sarkozy ended the non-interference, non-indifference policy toward Quebec by clearly expressing his preference for Canadian federalism. He even referred to Quebec’s sovereignty movement as “sectarian,” but then had to recant due to the reaction to his statement.
The position taken by Sarkozy—who said that the non-interference, non-indifference formula wasn’t his “thing,”Footnote 2 a first in the history of Canada-France relations—was denounced by the Parti Québécois. The French leader was accused of not understanding Canadian policy and of ignoring the complex relationship between Quebec and Ottawa. It is difficult to imagine any political strategy other than non-interference, non-indifference for France: supporting either point of view would be to deny Canada or a large part of Quebec. However, it’s hard to find the “non-interference, non-indifference” in the following statement by Sarkozy:
Do you believe the world, as it faces an unprecedented crisis, needs division? Is it to prove that you love somebody that you’re required to hate their neighbours?Footnote 3
Sarkozy has thus drawn a line under France’s traditional diplomatic position. According to observers, Prime Minister Harper, who still insists on speaking French at G8 meetings, has developed a relationship that verges on the familiar with Mr. Sarkozy.
In the preface to an essay on Quebec’s international policy, I wrote that as long as Quebec’s policies and goals remain ambiguous, there is a risk that its external policy will be defined solely in terms of the sovereignty issue and the rivalry between Quebec and Ottawa. As Canada’s commissioner of official languages, I am required through my mandate to maintain a policy of non-interference non-indifference.
The message of the French-speaking world, regardless of whether it originates from France or Canada, is one of inclusion, openness and discovery. Canadian society is constantly seeking to reconcile social cohesion with cultural respect. Immigrant families encourage their children to learn both official languages and make multilingualism a priority in response to national and international market forces. In the public service, many managers have admitted to me that, with the exception of French-speaking Canadians, employees who become the most proficient in both official languages are those that have come here from elsewhere—and this is in addition to their mother tongue, in many cases.
I must point out that this phenomenon is not unique to Canada. In other countries, newcomers often choose to learn the language of the minority so that they can integrate better. A Council of Europe executive told me that one of his sons was taking a course in Dublin to learn Irish. All the other students in his class were immigrants who had moved to Ireland.
France and Quebec are united by language and values. They are also linked by a 1978 agreement between the two countries under which tuition fees at Quebec universities are the same for students from France as for students from Quebec, meaning that the French do not have to pay the fees normally charged to foreign students. Quebec students who study in France also benefit from free access to university.
The flow of students has reversed, however: the number of Quebec students in France has stagnated for a number of years now, while the number of French students in Quebec has increased 37 percentFootnote 4 in four years. And there are nine times more French students crossing the Atlantic from east to west than Quebec students making the trip in the opposite direction. But this is a matter of demographics: France has eight times more people than Quebec.
Quebec’s popularity among French students is not surprising. First, for those interested in advanced business courses, it costs much less to study here—seven times less, in fact. Montréal’s low cost of living is also a factor, as well as its urban setting, international reputation and low unemployment rate.
But it’s not just Montréal. According to Hélène Le Gal, the French Consul General in Québec City, students from France are more inclined than other foreign students to pursue their education outside Montréal and Québec City. Along with their younger peers—now numbering 1,000—who come to study at CEGEPs from Rouyn-Noranda to Sept‑Îles and the Gaspé, they contribute to the vitality of Quebec’s regions.Footnote 5
As Commissioner of Official Languages, I have observed that many of them choose English-language universities. We can’t ignore the fact that Montréal is a city where two cultures meet, a city that has two university systems, one in each official language. You can get a higher education, learn or perfect your English while living in French, and enjoy a relatively low cost of living compared to other large international cities. For students from France, this is ideal, and I don’t see why they would pass up an opportunity like this!
Quebec universities are developing more and more programs with courses in languages other than French, especially for graduate and post-graduate studies, as a way to recruit foreign students. I’m thinking, for example, of the trilingual bachelor’s degree in business administration offered by Montréal’s École des Hautes Études Commerciales in French, English and Spanish. Students from France make up more than half of that class this year. And starting next fall, the bachelor’s in business administration will also be offered as a bilingual program.Footnote 6
The message is clear: a knowledge-based society does not function in only one language. We mustn’t forget that language skills are also leadership skills! English-language universities should follow Quebec’s example if they want to attract foreign students and educate a new generation of bilingual Canadians who can compete at an international level. Canada needs to raise its profile and try to keep these young French students here with us as much as possible. They are the ideal immigrants: young, French-speaking, educated, already integrated thanks to their years of study here . . . and now bilingual!
As citizens, we must adapt to the new demands that define our world today. Canada’s national dialogue takes place in two official languages, and although geographical borders may be decreasingly relevant in the global dialogue, language is still important. In fact, language skills are increasingly becoming leadership skills. The leaders of tomorrow will not be unilingual.
Exchanges between Canada and France further strengthen the scientific, cultural and economic bonds between our two societies. Today’s students—both French and Canadian—help to support this unique relationship and foster linguistic duality.
- Footnote 1
CNN, Larry King Live, 1995.
- Footnote 2
Canadian Press, “Sarkozy calls for Quebec-Canada unity in hard economic times,” CBC News, February 2, 2009.
- Footnote 3
Paul Wells, “Quebec gets the French kiss-off: Sarkozy’s indifference is just the latest sign of sovereignty’s wane,” Maclean’s, February 25, 2009.
- Footnote 4
Alain Dubuc, “Subventionner les Français?” La Presse, November 23, 2011 (in French only).
- Footnote 5
Hélène le Gal, “Échanges d’étudiants: la France et le Québec en sortent gagnants,” La Presse, November 29, 2011 (in French only).
- Footnote 6
Pascale Breton, “Étudier en anglais au Québec est une aubaine pour les Français,” La Presse, November 21, 2011 (in French only).