Archived - A Historical Portrait of French in America
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Conference of the French Studies Department, Concordia University
Montréal, November 14, 2012
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
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Beginning of dialog
“On the one hand, the study of a language like French is rewarding in itself and gives a superlative training to a student in the precise handling of his own language. On the other hand, an interest in bilingualism may well be the sole measure which can save Canada from absorption by the United States. This country of ours is a dual one or it is nothing. The essence of Canadian nationhood lies in this very fact, that it is a political fusion of the two elements in North American history which refused to belong to the United StatesFootnote 1.”
I would like to thank Paula Bouffard for inviting me here today. It is with great pleasure that I accepted to talk to you about French in America - a subject that fascinates me, and around which I constructed my career, whether it is as a political journalist, writer, or Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada.
Before we start, I would like to say a few words about our official languages. We often refer to our "
two solitudes" to talk about English and French. It is from the poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, from which Hugh MacLennan took the title of his famous novel. The full quotation is:
Love consists in this,
That two solitudes protect and
Touch and greet each other.
But it has become a catch phrase to represent distance and incomprehension between French and English. In fact, according to Wikipedia, “
Two Solitudes refers to a perceived lack of communication and moreover a lack of will for communication between Anglophone and Francophone people in Canada.” MacLennan was always a bit disappointed that his title was taken as a symbol of the distance between French and English in Canada, for the Rilke poem referred to an intimate connection. While MacLennan did not speak French himself, he was a strong proponent of second-language education.
In the past few decades, I have noticed, not without some concern, that universities now see French as a foreign language. Fortunately, this is not the case in Concordia. English and French are Canadian langages. They belong to all Canadians, from coast to coast to coast, unilingual or bilingual. In Canada, French is not a foreign language, not more than English is a foreign language in Quebec. It is a great plus to study French in an Anglophone university, and I would add to study English in a Francophone university. But linguistic tensions still exist between our two founding peoples.
In my opinion, this reaction stems from a profound misunderstanding and seems to illustrate incomprehension in regards to the reality of Quebec’s minority Anglophone communities.
There is a fundamental difference between the rise of English as an international language of communication used by industry, commerce, researchers and tourists, and the real needs of the people who are part of Quebec’s Anglophone communities. In fact, it is not rare to hear leaders of these communities say that English is not in danger in Quebec, but the Anglophone communities are.
Thirty years ago, the late Gérald Godin understood this well. When he had to preside a parliamentary commission of the Assemblée nationale who had to review the Charte de la langue française, he clearly indicated that the Anglophone community, already in a very minority situation, did not threaten French. According to him, the pressures came from elsewhere. After three decades, the impact of globalisation shows us how prescient he was.
It is easy enough to find negative narratives about language and language policy in Canadian history. There are whole schools of interpretation based on the negative view that Canadian history is a series of failed attempts to wipe out the French language: the Conquest, the putting down of the Rebellion of 1837, Lord Durham’s recommendation in 1839 to assimilate French-speaking Canadians as quickly and efficiently as possible, the hanging of Louis Riel in 1885, Regulation 17 in Ontario in 1912 and the Manitoba Schools Question in 1916, which ended all minority language instruction, the Conscription Crisis in 1917, the sequel to the Conscription Crisis in 1942, the War Measures Act in 1970, and the so-called Night of the Long Knives in 1981.
It is easy to find or to construct a negative narrative of these events. The Conquest continues to shape a significant part of Quebec intellectual thought, as Christian Dufour’s 1991 book Le défi QuébécoisFootnote 2 makes clear. Similarly, the Rebellion of 1837 figured in dramatic terms in Pierre Falardeau’s film 15 février 1839.Footnote 3
When John A. Macdonald refused to commute Louis Riel’s death sentence, a Quebec newspaper wrote “
Riel n’est qu’un nom: c’est l’élément canadien-français et catholique qu’on veut faire danser au bout de la corde.” And Honoré Mercier, then leader of the Liberal Party in Quebec and later premier, told a massive rally in Montreal that the execution was “
a blow struck at the heart of our race.”Footnote 4 It took a century for the Conservatives to recover from the effects of that blow.
The late Université de Montréal historian Michel Brunet argued that Laurier’s failure to protect French-language schools in Manitoba was proof that he had failed to lay the foundation of a common patriotism, which did not exist, and that French Canadians were seeking an impossible dream.Footnote 5
Those who see Canada as an unending series of defeats can construct their narrative accordingly. Normand Lester did this with his three-volume series Le Livre noir du Canada Anglais, which became a bestseller in Quebec. Lester is by no means alone. In a widely used textbook in Quebec, Histoire du XXe Siècle, the only reference to Pierre Trudeau is his proclamation of the War Measures Act, describing it as a vicious attempt to eradicate Quebec nationalism and terrorize society.Footnote 6
Similarly, in his biography of René Lévesque, Pierre Godin described the 1982 Constitution as “destroying little by little” Quebec’s language law, and said that Article 23 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was “
the last attempt to anglicize Quebec.”Footnote 7
In contrast, let me propose a positive narrative, a narrative of inclusiveness and respect. Consider the following. When he was Canadian High commissioner in London, Mel Coppe discovered that in the days after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, the British army informed the citizens of Quebec City that their language and religion would be respected. Michel Brunet – who was, as Christian Dufour points out, hardly an uncritical historian and one of the founders of a nationalist school of Quebec history – wrote that “
the generosity of the Conqueror, his benevolence, his concern for the general interest, his spirit of justice, won the hearts of the defeated.”Footnote 8 In the debate in the British House of Commons on the Quebec Act in 1774, Sir Edward Thurlow, the Attorney-General, made the government’s intentions clear.
You ought to change those laws only which relate to the French sovereignty, and in their place substitute laws which should relate to the new sovereign,” he told the House. “
But with respect to all other laws, all other customs and institutions whatever, which are indifferent to the state of subjects and sovereign, justice and wisdom conspire equally to advise you to leave to the people just as they were.”Footnote 9
And Edmund Burke echoed the refrain, arguing that if the French in Canada received English liberty and an English constitution, they would make valuable and useful contributions to Great Britain whether they spoke French or English, and remained Catholic or not.Footnote 10
The first key steps toward Canadian democracy were taken, hand in hand, by Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine in 1842. As John Ralston Saul wrote, it was the first strategic act in the creation of the country: the reformers suddenly understood that Francophone and Anglophone reformers had to co-operate.Footnote 11
John A. Macdonald understood this, and in 1856 -- a decade before Confederation -- he summarized the duty of a prime minister. “
He must make friends with the French; without sacrificing the status of his race or language, we must respect his nationality,” he wrote to a friend. “
Treat them as a nation, and they will act as a free people generally do – generously. Call them a faction, and they become factious.”Footnote 12
Macdonald’s comment proved to be prescient: those of his successors who treated French-speaking Canadians with respect were greeted with generosity, while those who treated them as a faction were treated with factiousness.
In order to get a broader sense of the English-Canadian narrative of respect, let me skip ahead a few decades. In December 1940, during World War II, Quebec premier Adélard Godbout spoke to the Canadian Club in Toronto. In his speech – which was reprinted in Le Devoir and praised by both L’Action nationale and The Globe and MailFootnote 13 -- Godbout singled out a group of English Canadians who, in his words, “
have responded to our gesture of brotherhood.”Footnote 14 The names on his list are barely known today, including W.H. Moore, Arthur Hawkes, P.F. Morley and Lorne Pierce.
I came across this speech and wondered: Who are these people? Why would they be singled out then – and why should I mention them now, six decades later? I believe they laid the foundation for a Canadian identity which includes linguistic duality – an element that has been critical to defining Canada as a country and has made tolerance and the acceptance of others one of our basic values.
In 1916, during World War I, several of them established what was called the Bonne Entente, an attempt to reconcile the growing rift between Ontario and Quebec. In concrete terms, it resulted in a group of Ontario professionals and business people visiting Quebec, and a Quebec delegation visiting Ontario. The organization fell apart over the first conscription crisis, and in later decades, the phrase “
bonne entente” became almost a joke, evoking images of businessmen piously singing “
Alouette” as a clumsy gesture of goodwill following their after-dinner speeches. But the original Bonne Entente had significant long-term positive effects.
Let me start with W.H. Moore.
William Moore was an improbable defender of French-language rights in Canada. He was, as he listed proudly in his biography, of United Empire Loyalist descent, and a farmer in Pickering, Ontario. He was a graduate of the University of Toronto in 1894, and studied law at Osgoode Hall. Later, he would be chairman of the House Banking and Trade Committee. In 1918, when World War I was still raging and in the aftermath of Regulation 17, which abolished French-language education in Ontario, Moore wrote a remarkable book entitled The Clash: A Study in Nationalities. In the book, he argued that British traditions called for bilingualism and inclusion, and shrewdly contrasted them with what he called the rigid Prussian approach.
Moore also set the record straight on English-Canadian hypocrisy, which stressed corruption in Quebec politics while ignoring it in Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. “
We English Canadians have habitually had our good eye upon French-Canadian faults and our blind eye upon our own,” he wrote.Footnote 15
Referring to Regulation 17, Moore contrasted Ontario’s move to eradicate French with Quebec’s tolerance of an English and Protestant school system, and evoked the famous contract in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, where Shylock had the right to take a pound of flesh if Antonio defaulted on a loan: “
[Ontario] has taken fifteen of the sixteen ounces of flesh to which it is entitled under the British North America Act; Quebec has never drawn the knife.”Footnote 16
This was not a popular view at the time. During the election campaign of 1917, cartoonists showed Laurier (who opposed conscription) cavorting with the Kaiser, and a map of Canada in imperial red except for Quebec, which was black. One MP called Quebec “
the spoiled child of Confederation,” and another English-Canadian political activist called it “
the plague-spot of the entire Dominion.”Footnote 17
Twenty years later, in a book of profiles of Canadian political figures, Léopold Richer, a parliamentary correspondent, saluted Moore – by then a Liberal MP – for his convictions, calling him “
Liberal, profoundly liberal, the most complete and the most typical representative of true liberalism, in the philosophical and political meaning of the word.” Moore’s liberalism, Richer wrote, “
gives him an armour of tolerance that protects him from aggressive doctrines.”Footnote 18 What a delightful phrase: “
an armour of tolerance.” The memory of Richer’s book lived on. Unusual for the time, it was translated into French.Footnote 19 Richer concluded his profile by observing that French Canadians were in Moore’s debt.Footnote 20
Arthur Hawkes was a journalist and previously a publicist for the Canadian Northern Railway. (As a journalist he wrote an eyewitness account of the fire that burned the Parliament buildings.) Concerned about poaching along the Minnesota-Ontario border, he successfully lobbied for the creation of Quetico Park, which was created by the Ontario government in 1909. In his 1919 book The Birthright,Footnote 21 he attacked prejudice: against Quebec, against French Canadians, and against immigrants. He denounced the fact that French was not recognized as an official language in Ontario.
With Toronto lawyer J.M. Godfrey (the grandfather of Toronto Liberal MP John Godfrey), Hawkes was one of the founders of the Bonne Entente organization, which was established to develop better knowledge, contact and understanding between French- and English-speaking Canadians.
A third book was published that year making some of the same arguments: Bridging the Chasm, by P.F. Morley. Like Moore, Morley argued that the British tradition was one of respect and inclusiveness, pointing to “an Empire in which the Welsh, the French of Jersey, the natives of Malta and the Sikhs of the plains of the Punjab are equally at home and equally respected in their language rights.”Footnote 22 Morley argued for recognition of French-language education rights in Ontario. He also attacked the often-repeated views that Ontario was an English province, and that for many English Canadians the very term Canadian was synonymous with English Canadian. “
Why should not English and French Canada each preserve its identity and regulate its life in the way that seems best?” he asked.Footnote 23
The three authors had an impact on the sense of vulnerability and suspicion among French-speaking Quebecers, who were otherwise confronted with what must have seemed a steady flow of hostility from English Canada. When Jean-Charlemagne Bracq, a literature professor at Vassar College, wrote The Evolution of French Canada in 1924 – translated and published in French in 1927 -- he concluded on a positive note, mentioning in particular the work of Moore, Hawkes and Morley. “
Decidedly, the English Canadians have come to see their French-speaking compatriots from a broader and truer angle,” he wrote. Footnote 24Footnote 25
Similarly, Lorne Pierce, the publisher of Ryerson Press, developed a view of a bicultural Canada in his essay “
Toward the Bonne Entente,” published in 1929. He consistently wrote about the linguistic duality of Canadian culture. In some ways, his most important contribution was as publisher of textbooks – and as a patron of the illustrator C.W. Jeffreys – which gave a visual image of French-Canada’s history to thousands of pupils in English Canada.
As Robert Craig Brown and Ramsay Cook pointed out, for all its good intentions Bonne Entente failed, despite organizing several reciprocal visits to Ontario and Quebec and attracting prominent Quebecers (including a young Quebec City lawyer named Louis St-Laurent). “
French Canadians appear to have hoped that Bonne Entente would aid in a satisfactory resolution of the language issue in Ontario; English-Canadian members expected it would convert their French-speaking compatriots to a greater enthusiasm for the war,”Footnote 26 they wrote. By 1917, the movement had died, unable to withstand the hostilities that exploded during the conscription crisis.
No matter how short-lived, Bonne Entente was somewhat like the Group of Seven. In its case it helped motivate writers to define Canada as a country that was inspired by British traditions, but independent; North American, but carving out an identity separate from the United States. A key part of that identity involved respect for and co-existence with a French-speaking society. That sense of respect became part of the definition of Canada as a society that would welcome those of other cultures and languages.
I have never denied the importance of Quebec nationalism in sparking the remarkable pride, growth and development of a French-speaking society in Canada over the last half-century.Footnote 27 But there is a tendency to misstate or misunderstand the role that English Canadians have played in supporting, encouraging and enabling this transformation. Canada’s Official Languages Act and policy of linguistic duality would not have been possible without the support of English Canadians.
I have often spoken about the misconception of Canada’s language policy as “
Pierre Trudeau’s dream.” The essential groundwork for an official languages policy was set by Lester Pearson, well before Trudeau became prime minister.Footnote 28 It was Pearson who established the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in 1963 and who, in 1966, even before the Commission reported, set out the principles of a bilingual public service.Footnote 29
But Pearson was not alone. Davidson Dunton was co-chair of the Royal Commission, Frank Scott one of its key members, and Michael Oliver the co-director of research – another jewel in McGill’s crown.
The Official Languages Act was passed in 1969, and led to the creation of the position I now hold. Both the first and second Official Languages commissioners, Keith Spicer and Max Yalden, were English-speaking Canadians, born in Toronto and educated at the University of Toronto. Both played an enormously important role in winning support in English Canada for the official languages policy.
That policy is often seen, for better and for worse, as one of the major achievements of Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government, and as one of the legacies of the Liberal Party. While that is undoubtedly true, the interpretation tends to overlook the crucial role that Conservatives played in supporting the legislation.
When the Official Languages Act was introduced, Robert Stanfield was the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, and his leadership was strongly contested by a small group of Western Canadian MPs who were die-hard supporters of John Diefenbaker. The bill was unpopular; only 56 per cent of Canadians supported it, and in Western Canada, 70 per cent were opposed. It is always difficult for the leader of the opposition to support the government on a signature piece of legislation; the parliamentary system is designed to give representation to those who oppose what the government wants to do. In an act of real political courage, Stanfield supported the Act – and paid an enormous political price. The debate in the House of Commons brought out what Stanfield’s biographer Geoffrey Stevens called “
all the latent bigotry in English Canadians.” In the final vote, 17 Tories broke ranks, and another 14 stayed away.Footnote 30 But Stanfield and his generous, inclusive view of the country and language policy prevailed, and proved critical to future Conservative political successes.
In 1981 and 1982, when the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was being debated, Joe Clark used his parliamentary skill to delay a quick vote – to ensure that the Charter got proper parliamentary scrutiny. Like Stanfield, Clark paid a price for his unwavering support of the Official Languages Act. Like Stanfield, he can say that his broader vision prevailed.
It was under a Conservative prime minister, Brian Mulroney, that the Official Languages Act was amended for the first time. In bringing the Act into compliance with the Charter, it was immeasurably strengthened. The right of public servants in certain parts of the country was enshrined in the Act, which was given additional legal force because of the Charter. Those amendments were passed into law in part because of Mulroney’s determination, but also because of the political management skills of his deputy prime minister, Don Mazankowski, who ensured that there would be no caucus revolt. Mazankowski had come a long way: 19 years earlier, as a young Alberta MP, he had voted against the Official Languages Act. In 1988, he made it possible to strengthen the Act.
Similarly, the only other amendment to the Act occurred in 2005 – with the support of the Conservative Party led by Stephen Harper and without controversy. By then, in contrast to 1969, there was – and there is now – an overwhelming consensus in support of the official languages policy, with between 72 and 80 per cent of Canadians expressing their support. As Prime Minister, Harper has been exemplary in his personal behaviour in terms of respecting linguistic duality. We have come a long way in four decades.
Part of what happened during the 40 years since the first report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was a new, three-way conversation about language. André Laurendeau began that conversation in the famous blue pages of the report, spelling out the importance of language. “
Language itself is fundamental to activities which are fundamentally human,” he wrote, adding that individuals fulfilled their capacity for expression, achieved communion with others and ordered their thoughts coherently through language. It is “
the core of the intellectual and emotional life of every personality.”Footnote 31
Before I leave, let me add a hopeful note: half a century after the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, we have learned to value more and better appreciate the linguistic duality that symbolizes and shapes our country, and that can be an inspiration to all of us.
- Footnote 1
French is a must for Canadians,” in The Other Side of Hugh MacLennan: Selected Essays Old and New, edited by Elspeth Cameron, Toronto, Macmillan of Canada, 1978, p. 164.
- Footnote 2
Le défi québécois, Montreal, Éditions de l’Hexagone, 1989
- Footnote 3
See also 15 février 1839 : lettre d’un patriote condamné à mort, Chevalier de Lorimier, by Marie-Frédérique Desbiens and Jean-François Nadeau, Montreal, Comeau & Nadeau, 2001.
- Footnote 4
Cited in “
The Hanging of Louis Riel” in As I Recall, Si Je me souviens bien: Historical Perspectives, with John Meisel, Guy Richer and Arthur Silver, edited by the Institute for Research on Public Policy, Montreal, 1999; pp 70-71.
- Footnote 5
Les Canadiens-Français face à la Confédération,” in Québec – Canada anglais: deux itineraires, un affrontement, Montreal, Éditions HMH, 1968, p. 168
- Footnote 6
Cette tentative hargneuse d’éradiquer le nationalisme québécois et de terroriser la société constitue en quelque sorte le coup d’envoi de «” Histoire du XXe Siècle, by George Langlois in association with Jean Boismenu, Luc Lefebvre and Patrice Régimbald, Laval, Beauchemin, 1999; p. 251
l’ère Trudeau», qui durera une quinzaine d’années.
- Footnote 7
René Lévesque: L’homme brisé (1980-1987), Pierre Godin, Montreal, Les Éditions du Boréal, 2005; pp 177 and 191.
- Footnote 8
Michel Brunet, La présence anglaise et les Canadiens, Montreal, Beauchemin, 1958, p. 142, quoted by Dufour, op. cit., p. 23
- Footnote 9
Quoted by W. H. Moore in The Clash: A Study in Nationalities, Toronto, J.M. Dent & Sons, 1918, pp 16-17
- Footnote 10
Quoted by Christopher Moose in 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal, Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1997; p. 70
- Footnote 11
Reflections of a Siamese Twin: Canada at the End of the Twentieth Century, by John Ralston Saul, Toronto, Viking, 1997; p. 175.
- Footnote 12
John A. Macdonald, The Young Politician, by Donald Creighton, Toronto, Macmillan of Canada, 1952, p. 227
- Footnote 13
Godbout, by Jean-Guy Genest, Sillery, Septentrion, 1996; pp 179-80
- Footnote 14
- Footnote 15/dt>
The Clash: A Study in Nationalities, by William Moore, Toronto, J.M. Dent & Sons, 1918. p. 305
- Footnote 16
The Clash: A Study in Nationalities, by William Moore, Toronto, J.M. Dent & Sons, 1918. p. 315
- Footnote 17
Canada 1900-1945, by Robert Bothwell, Ian Drummond and John English, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1987; p. 131
- Footnote 18
Silhouettes du monde politique, by Léopold Richer, Montreal, Éditions du Zodiaque, 1940; pp 187-190.
- Footnote 19
Le Choc : Étude de Nationalités, by William-Henry Moore, translated from the English by Ernest Bilodeau, Montreal, Librairie Beauchemin Ltée, 1920.
- Footnote 20
Silhouettes du monde politique, p. 145.
- Footnote 21
The Birthright: A Search for the Canadian Canadian and the Larger Loyalty, Toronto, J.M. Dent & Sons, 1919.
- Footnote 22
Bridging the Chasm: A Study of the Ontario-Quebec Question, by Percival Fellman Morley, J.M. Dent and Sons, Toronto, 1919, p. 83.
- Footnote 23
Bridging the Chasm: A Study of the Ontario-Quebec Question, by Percival Fellman Morley, J.M. Dent and Sons, Toronto, 1919, p. 11
- Footnote 24
The Evolution of French Canada, New York, Jean-Charlemagne Bracq, The Macmillan Co., 1924; in French L’évolution du Canada français, Jean-Charlemagne Bracq, Montreal, Librairie Beauchemin, 1927, p. 450.
- Footnote 25
About the three English-Canadian writers, Bracq wrote: “
The Clash de W.H. Moore est une étude du Canada français riche en inductions historiques, mettant au point la question des écoles françaises dans l'Ontario, et insistant sur la haute valeur du Canadien comme facteur de la vie nationale. Se plaçant sur une base sociologique et dominé par le plus pur libéralisme britannique, il démontre que les adversaires des Canadiens, dans le Haut-Canada, se sont détachés des traditions et idéals britanniques. Le Birthright de Mr Arthur Hawkes, protestant contre un impérialisme officieux qui ignore les droits du Canada, met incidemment en relief la valeur du peuple de Québec. The Bridging of the Chasm de Mr Percival Tellman Morley, est un noble plaidoyer en faveur d'un traitement plus impartial et bienveillant des anciens fils de la France."
- Footnote 26
Canada 1896-1921: A Nation Transformed, by Robert Craig Brown and Ramsay Cook, Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1974; p. 265
- Footnote 27
See PQ: René Lévesque and the Parti Qébécois in Power, Toronto, Macmillan, 1984; reprinted as René Lévesque and the Parti Québécois in Power by McGill Queen’s University Press, Montreal, 2002. Also: Vous m’intéressez…Chroniques, Montreal, Éditions du Boréal, 2002.
- Footnote 28
See Sorry I Don’t Speak French: Confronting the Canadian Crisis that Won’t Go Away, Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 2006.
- Footnote 29
See Sorry I Don’t Speak French: Confronting the Canadian Crisis that Won’t Go Away, Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 2006, p. 102.
- Footnote 30
Stanfield, by Geoffrey Stevens, Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1973; pp 230-231.
- Footnote 31
Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, General Introduction,” Book I: The Official Languages, Ottawa, Queen’s Printer, 1967; p. xxix.