Archived - Notes for an address at the Multidisciplinary Approaches in Language Policy and Planning Conference at the University of Calgary
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Planning for Language Use: the Ever-Changing Challenges
Calgary, September 7, 2012
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
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Beginning of dialog
Good evening, bonsoir.
It is a particular honour to be speaking at this conference of international experts. I have had the pleasure of meeting some of you; others, I have read and others, I am looking forward to hearing. The subject we are here to discuss is of great personal and professional interest to me. I am especially pleased that you are discussing multidisciplinary approaches to language policy and planning. I appreciate multidisciplinary approaches. In my work, I deal with academic disciplines as disparate as public administration, political science, history, demography, educational and pedagogical theories of language learning, language rights jurisprudence, constitutional law, and sociolinguistics—which is itself a multidisciplinary field. If I have any frustration with academia, it is with the artificial boundaries that are too often drawn between academic disciplines.
As Commissioner of Official Languages, I am not directly in the language planning business myself, but I monitor those who are. Invariably, my recommendations call for better language planning. For example, in our audit of Parks Canada, which was released earlier this week, I recommended the establishment of an accountability framework, the creation of a formal network of official languages coordinators, a new official languages action plan, a language policy that takes into account the visitor’s experience and the inclusion of language criteria in managers’ performance evaluations. These are all elements of language planning. In fact, I think it is safe to say that language policy is only effective when there is thoughtful planning behind it. Ideally, this planning should extend over a longer period than the usual annual or even triennial planning process. As such, its success can only be evaluated years later.
Canada is often described as a bilingual country. This is misleading shorthand for the fact that Canada has a policy of official bilingualism, which is quite a different thing.
Let me explain. There are some 200 languages spoken in Canada, including 50 Aboriginal languages. But 98% of the 33 million Canadians speak at least one of Canada’s two official languages, English and French. Of those 33 million, only five million are bilingual in English and French. There are 24 million who do not speak French and four million who do not speak English.
There are, in effect, two language communities living side by side in Canada, both of which are largely unilingual.
Among these two broad language communities, however, are substantial minority-language communities. There are almost a million French-speaking Canadians living outside Quebec, Canada’s only majority French-speaking province, and almost a million English-speaking Canadians living in Quebec.
Official bilingualism means the federal government should be bilingual, so that citizens don’t have to be. Ironically, countries that are not officially bilingual often have more bilingual citizens than we do, because their people must learn the language of the majority to deal with the state.
Before adopting its own language policy, Canada studied the examples of other countries extensively. During the 1960s, Canada’s Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism looked at South Africa’s individualist approach, whereby citizens could use both official languages at the time, English and Afrikaans, throughout the country. The Commission also studied the territorial approach taken by Switzerland and Belgium.
Finally, it looked at the Finnish compromise: a mix of bilingual and unilingual regions, with central services provided in both languages. Finland was the Goldilocks example: a compromise between the individualist and territorial approaches. Canada is too large for a singular, individualist approach, but there are too many minority-language communities to permit a purely territorial approach.
As John Ralston Saul has often observed, Canada is complex. And so are our language issues. Language questions are rights-based—enshrined in a charter of rights, defendable before the courts—but they are also values-based. Language rights are individual rights, but they are also collective rights. The Official Languages Act applies to the federal government and federal institutions, but not to provincial institutions. Quebec is officially unilingual, with French as its official language. New Brunswick is officially bilingual. Ontario has a French-language services act, which requires certain provincial services to be provided in French in designated areas. Nunavut, one of the northern territories, has three official languages: English, French and Inuktitut.
Canada also has two legal systems: common law and, in Quebec, the Civil Code. But the Civil Code has never been officially translated into English. And to make things even more complicated, power is divided between the federal and provincial governments, with the provinces having jurisdiction over health and education, for example. I often say to international audiences that, in 1867, the Fathers of Confederation decided the federal government should have all the important responsibilities—defence, foreign policy, major economic development and international trade—while the trivial, insignificant issues, like health and education, should be left to the provinces. Not surprisingly, the priorities of Canadians have changed since 1867, and this shift is at the root of many of our federal-provincial debates.
There have been many challenges in developing language policies and programs over the years. One of the things we have not emphasized enough is the use of research as a tool. For example, immigration is increasingly important to the vitality of our communities. If governments want to establish national policies that reflect their citizens’ linguistic and demographic realities, they must study global patterns of migration. To truly appreciate these social and political realities, they must have a strong understanding of their complexities. Governments should not merely support and guide policy and program development; if they want an accurate picture of the vitality of their language communities, they must also follow the evolution of linguistic demographics closely.
One key question needs to be asked before we make a plan: what are we planning for? What will the plan accomplish? In Canada’s case, language planning has had several goals: the protection and promotion of French and English, the preservation of minority-language communities, the assurance that citizens can get services from the federal government in the language of their choice and the right of federal public servants in certain parts of the country to work in their language of choice. Overall, these are all part of a single, broader goal: preserving the unity of the country.
This morning, in an editorial, The Globe & Mail quoted constitutional scholar and former Saskatchewan Attorney-General John D. Whyte as saying “The threads of a thousand acts of accommodation are the fabric of a nation.” I was at the Supreme Court when he uttered those words, during the Supreme Court Reference on the Secession of Quebec, and they made emotional chills run up my spine then. They still do. The Official Languages is one of those acts of accommodation, and is a significant part of the fabric of the nation.
Many believe that Canada’s language policy dates back only 40 years, to the adoption of the first federal Official Languages Act. That’s not entirely true.
In fact, there were constitutional language policies in place even before Confederation. The use of French in the Assembly of the Province of Canada was assured in 1848, for example. But language planning can only be said to have begun 50 years ago, in 1962, with the beginnings of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism.
In fact, from 2006 to 2011, Canada’s political situation was remarkably similar to that of September 1962: a minority Conservative government, a third party of French-speaking MPs that kept either Conservatives or Liberals from getting a majority, and a serious effort by Liberals and Conservatives to figure out what was going on in Quebec.
During that month in 1962, Maurice Lamontagne, an economist and Liberal strategist, wrote a memo to Liberal leader Lester Pearson. It was an extraordinary document, and I was amazed when I found it in the National Archives.
Lamontagne argued that it was up to the Liberal Party to set out and achieve three concrete objectives.
First was the patriation of the Constitution, which, he wrote, “must include a declaration of human rights covering federal and provincial areas.” Second was the creation of a national flag and national anthem that would, he argued, leave no doubt about the sovereignty of the country.
Finally, he wrote: “All federal institutions must become bilingual and be the concrete demonstration of our bilingualism.”
In December 1962, three months after Lamontagne penned his memo, Lester Pearson, then leader of the opposition, called for the creation of a royal commission on bilingualism and biculturalism. Pearson later wrote that of all the speeches he gave, this one had filled him with the most pride.
In his speech, Pearson raised a series of questions that are still relevant today: “Are we ready ... to give all young Canadians a real opportunity to become truly bilingual? If the answer is yes ... what concrete steps should be taken ... to bring about this opportunity, having regard to the fact that constitutional responsibility for education is, and must remain, exclusively provincial?” He also explored the lack of French-speaking Canadians in the public service and the need for language training.
When Pearson became Prime Minister just a few months later, he established the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, co-chaired by André Laurendeau and Davidson Dunton.
On February 1, 1965, the commissioners presented a preliminary report. Its message was stark: Canada was passing through the greatest crisis in its history. The separatist anger in Quebec on the one hand and the hostility toward French in the rest of Canada on the other had convinced the commissioners that there was an urgent need for an interim report that would tell Canadians how serious the situation was.
So, how did Canadians react to being told their country was passing through its greatest crisis so far? On one level, with the usual mixture of denial, disagreement and unease that you would expect from any announcement of a crisis that is not immediately obvious. But in retrospect, I think it’s reasonable to suggest that English-speaking Canadians reacted in three ways. Without ever saying so consciously, or even realizing it, English Canada responded by saying “Right. We will require public servants to learn French. We will send a significant number of our children to French immersion schools. And, in the meantime, until they are ready, we will let Montreal lawyers run the country.”
In 1966, Pearson rose in the House of Commons and announced a new policy for the public service. He said:
- it will be normal practice for oral and written communication within the public service to be made in either official language at the option of the persons making them, in the knowledge that they will be understood by those directly concerned;
- communications with the public will normally be made in either official language having regard to the person being served;
- the linguistic and cultural values of both English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians will be reflected through civil service recruitment and training; and
- a climate will be created in which public servants from both language groups will work together toward common goals, using their own language and applying their respective cultural values, but each fully appreciating and understanding those of the other.
I have always been struck by how well these four points encapsulated the objectives of what would become the Official Languages Act. More than anything, Pearson was announcing Canada’s language policy objective. The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism made other policy recommendations, but the Pearson statement remains the earliest and most complete articulation of the policy goal the Act was meant to achieve.
A year later, in 1967, Pierre Trudeau, who was Minister of Justice at the time, added to that vision. In a speech before the Canadian Bar Association, he offered a very simple definition of language rights: the right to learn and the right to use. The whole concept of language rights, which has developed over the four decades since, rests on these two pillars.
More particularly, “the right to learn” became enshrined in section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which recognizes the right to receive minority-language education. This fundamental right benefits a million French-speaking Canadians who live in minority communities across Canada, and almost a million English-speaking Canadians living in minority communities in Quebec.
In Canada, the recognition of language rights and their implementation has often resulted from political compromises, linguistic crises and legal challenges. Achieving this recognition has also required strong leadership by determined people committed to Canadian values. Still, the right to second-language learning remains undefined. No such right is guaranteed in the Constitution Act, 1982. Yet, becoming proficient in a second official language is critical to ensuring that the “right to use” really means something, especially for a government committed to providing services in both languages in every region where a significant official language minority exists.
With the Act, the public service had to meet a series of standards that had previously never been specified. One tool that was put in place to achieve these standards was language training. It was initially created as a catch-up program, a temporary measure to allow civil servants already in the system to respond to the new challenges. It was to be phased out as new—presumably bilingual—employees were hired.
We are now in 2012 and not only is language training still around, but it’s also so cumbersome to manage that it’s being transferred to individual federal institutions. Allow me to say that perhaps not everything has gone according to plan.
One reason for the fossilization of language training is that universities stopped considering French a Canadian language and therefore stopped encouraging students to see it as an essential asset to future leaders. The expected flood of bilingual graduates never materialized.
But surely one of the purposes of receiving a university education is to learn how to show the way, innovate, excel, be persuasive, intervene in a conflict, supervise and give advice. A university degree from a Canadian university should give students the competency to become a leader, in both official languages, as soon as they graduate.
It is clear to me that universities must step up their efforts to ensure that the graduates they send into Canadian workplaces—and abroad—have sufficient knowledge of both official languages. And if those graduates want to work for the public service, they must have ALL the basic qualifications when they arrive on our doorstep. Language competencies are just as important as education or work experience. They are not “nice to haves;” they are “must haves.”
A worrying trend is emerging in Canada’s English-language universities: most of them no longer require the knowledge of the second official language for admission. I was even told that the president of one Canadian university described French as a “foreign language.”
With the disappearance of this requirement, young people are seldom encouraged to remain in French immersion. In some high schools, students are advised to drop French immersion for less demanding courses to improve their chances of getting into the university of their choice. Putting students in this predicament creates an incentive for mediocrity. It is absurd that the future of bilingualism in Canada should rest solely on the shoulders of our young students. While more and more bilingual students flock to English-language colleges and universities, very little is being done to encourage them to continue to pursue French, except in some predominantly bilingual or French universities.
Canada has come a long way in its language policy and planning and even though progress is made in baby steps, we have many successes to be proud of. Today, linguistic duality encompasses everyone, regardless of their ethnic origin and first language. In the workplace, bilingualism is in demand everywhere—in business, communications, education and international trade.
In the public service, as in Canadian society, bilingualism is a wide, double door that opens to a world of diversity, and it is now universally recognized as an essential criterion for political leadership.
Linguistic competencies are also leadership competencies. How can you be a leader if you don’t understand those you are leading? How can I claim to respect the diversity of our country if I don’t know what is thought, written and said in the other official language? The latest data from the Public Service Employee Survey shows that around 92% of employees in designated bilingual supervisory positions meet the language requirements of the position. We certainly view this as a success for Canada’s language policy.
We live in a time in which failure is obvious and success is invisible. Let me give you two examples. The Vancouver Olympic Games were a success on the ground in terms of the use of both of Canada’s official languages. The opening ceremony, on the other hand, was a failure. No one remembers the success on the ground, but everyone remembers the backlash over the absence of French during the opening ceremony. My second example is the state funeral for Jack Layton. The ceremony was a huge success story for linguistic duality, but no one ever mentions that.
The situation is not entirely negative, though. For the first time, a majority of provincial premiers are bilingual. The Prime Minister, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, the Clerk of the Privy Council, the Minister of Canadian Heritage and the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism all come from western Canada— and are all bilingual. It seems that the critics were wrong 40 years ago when they predicted that the Official Languages Act would prevent many people from western Canada from entering the public service.
The careers of those I just mentioned clearly show that bilingualism is not just an asset to those who aspire to the top government jobs in Canada; it is also an essential leadership skill. But even though it seems self-evident, getting language mastery recognized as a leadership competency still remains a challenge in language policy and planning.
Unfortunately, sometimes there is a disconnect between our aspirations for linguistic duality, as expressed by our laws and political discourse, and reality, which shows that linguistic duality is absent from the day-to-day lives of many Canadians, and thus from those of many public servants. Look at the recent language controversies surrounding the appointment of a unilingual judge to the Supreme Court and the hiring of a unilingual auditor general. These appointments were met with strong criticism in many of the country’s major newspapers, which shows that Canadians now have higher expectations. The bar has been raised. But we must ask ourselves what actions are being taken by government to protect Canada’s language achievements. It is vitally important that the government show leadership in this area, especially if we say language rights are an intrinsically Canadian value. What good is it to establish language policies if no concrete actions are taken to maintain them?
Another challenge we face is getting universities to provide more learning opportunities for students. The rate of bilingualism among Anglophones could be much higher. In my meetings with people from across the country, I have seen that French-as-a-second-language programs have had limited success. This is not because of a lack of enthusiasm on the part of young people or a lack of will on the part of their parents, but rather because of a lack of resources. English-speaking students who want to learn French are denied access to programs because of the restricted number of spaces, a lack of funding or a shortage of qualified teachers.
Canada needs to provide a true continuum of second-language learning opportunities for all Canadians, from elementary schools to post-secondary institutions and then through to the labour market. This is very important in preparing our young people for a future as productive citizens of their own country and citizens of the world.
To achieve this, we need to create more opportunities for engagement between English-speaking and French-speaking Canada. Collaboration between universities could be facilitated, and could take the form of study and cultural exchanges or visits, as well as work opportunities. At the moment, most of the exchange opportunities in Canadian universities are offered at institutions in other countries, and those within Canada are rather limited.
More specifically, almost 70% of institutions report offering French-language exchanges of some kind, but most of these exchanges are with France or other French-speaking countries. There are relatively few exchanges with French-language institutions in Quebec or elsewhere in Canada. And in Quebec, only five institutions report offering English-language exchanges.
Linguistic duality is based on a simple statement: our two official languages, English and French, belong to all Canadians, and they build bridges between us. The national conversation takes place in English and French. Our language policy should aim to encourage this conversation to take place from coast to coast to coast.
I would like to conclude by sharing a comment by the great literary scholar Northrop Frye. During a debate on the Official Languages Act in the House of Commons in the summer of 1969, a remarkable Conservative member of Parliament, the late Gordon Fairweather, cited Frye as follows:
The Canada to which we really do owe loyalty is the Canada that we have failed to create. I should like to suggest that our identity, like the real identity of all nations, is the one that we have failed to achieve.Footnote 1
For me, these words express, not discouragement, but determination to be true to the vision of what Canada can achieve. While reality still falls short of the ideals we have set for ourselves, it is that sense of the unachieved ideal—the identity that we wish to assume, the standard that we are constantly trying to reach—that reflects the spirit of our language policy.
These words also suggest that the spirit of our language policy represents a journey as much as a destination. And it is a journey, I would argue, that will challenge and enrich each and every one of us—and Canada.
- Footnote 1
Northrop Frye, The Modern Century, Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 122–123.