Archived - Notes for an address at the Discussion Forum on the Perspectives of Canadians of Diverse Backgrounds on Linguistic Duality – Bridging Event
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Montréal, November 21, 2012
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Thank you once again for participating in my office’s fourth discussion forum on linguistic duality and cultural diversity. We have organized this event as part of our mandate to promote the Official Languages Act and ensure its implementation in federal institutions, to protect the language rights of Canadians, and to promote linguistic duality and bilingualism in Canada.
For several years, my office has sought to improve our understanding of how Canadians from diverse backgrounds perceive linguistic duality. To accomplish this, we have organized discussion forums on linguistic duality and cultural diversity in Toronto in 2007, in Vancouver in 2008, last year in Halifax, and this year in Montréal. We have met with members of various cultural communities, and we have learned a great deal.
We are now halfway through the forum. Today, we met with English-speaking participants. I want to thank them all for their energy and enthusiasm, which made the discussions such a success. Tomorrow, we will see the same energy and enthusiasm when we repeat this exercise with our French-speaking participants.
The idea of linguistic duality highlights the concepts of sharing and dialogue between Anglophones and Francophones. Building bridges between what are often called the “two solitudes” is not an easy task. It takes time and effort. Tonight, we hope you will benefit from this opportunity for discussion with other participants. We may come from different cultural or linguistic backgrounds, but we are building our society together. Putting our heads together and sharing ideas is a step in the right direction.
The latest Statistics Canada census results show that the number of people whose first language is French is almost the same as the number of people whose first language is one of what Statistics Canada calls “immigrant languages.”Footnote 1 In recent weeks, there have been repeated warnings that French is in decline, especially outside Quebec. I do not entirely share this view, however, and I will tell you why.
The number of Francophones outside Quebec is currently increasing, and there are now a million Anglophones in Quebec—more than a million. We also have to remember that “other languages” means a whole host of languages. People do not speak “allophone,” a common “other” language, like Spanish in the United States, for example. We also have to keep in mind that, over three generations, people will adopt the majority language of the province they live in. In 1951, more than 450,000 Canadians reported speaking Ukrainian at home. Thirty years later, in 1981, the number had dropped from 450,000 to 45,000. This happens naturally to immigrant languages. It is not happening with French.
Many French-speaking Montrealers are moving to the suburbs. That’s not a sign of failure, it’s a sign of prosperity. The families who are leaving east-end Montréal are being replaced either by immigrants or by young English-speaking Canadians and Americans who are attracted to Montréal because of its cultural vitality, its energy. They’re not coming to Montréal instead of going to Winnipeg or Regina. They’re coming to Montréal instead of going to Berlin, London, Paris or Singapore. Montréal has become an international centre of attraction for a whole series of cultural phenomena, like the independent music and film scene, and the high‑tech and video game industries. You can feel the enthusiasm created by the international success of local creative talent like Arcade Fire, Cirque du Soleil and Ubisoft Montréal.
Our language skills are not being fragmented, they’re being multiplied. Learning a second language does not make you less proficient in your first language. It does not prevent you from learning other languages, or learning about other cultures. It is simply a bridge.
Our society’s cultural diversity is a direct result of the steady growth of its immigrant population over the past few decades. It is in part Canada’s openness and spirit of accommodation, which come from the development of its two major language groups, that have encouraged immigration and diversity in Canada. Having two official languages in Canada helps to express this diversity.
Cultural diversity and linguistic duality are two fundamental, complementary Canadian values that are wonderfully personified here at Montréal’s Monument-National.
Built between 1891 and 1893, the Monument-National is the oldest theatre still in use today in Quebec. It opened on June 24, 1893, and is located on Saint‑Laurent Boulevard, the historical juncture of Montréal’s English-speaking neighbourhoods (to the west) and French-speaking areas (to the east). The location is highly symbolic, symbolizing a crossroads where Montrealers from all linguistic backgrounds come together.
Today, linguistic duality and cultural diversity are important values and symbols in Canadian society that shape how Canadians see themselves and are perceived around the world. While linguistic duality is not always apparent throughout the country, a large majority of Canadians support official bilingualism.
Montréal boasts Canada’s highest level of bilingualism. According to 2011 census figures, more than half of Montrealers report being able to hold a conversation in English and French. Despite some unfortunate—even tragic—events recently, most Quebecers are not looking for a language fight. This was evident from the reaction to the attack that took place at the Metropolis in September. A swift and widespread response from the English-speaking community condemned the act of violence, and both English‑ and French-speaking artists came together in a gesture of solidarity between Montréal’s Anglophone and Francophone communities to stage a benefit concert for the families of the victims.
We need to focus on the respect that exists between English- and French-speaking Montrealers. You can see it on the streets and at public events. People do not want confrontation; they want harmony and understanding. At the Metropolis benefit concert, Arcade Fire’s lead singer Win Butler reiterated the collective desire for unity among Montrealers of all linguistic backgrounds, saying, “We’re not separate, we’re together.”Footnote 2
As Gérald Godin said 30 years ago, Quebec’s Anglophone community does not pose a threat to the French language. In fact, Godin saw the Quebec government’s commitment to multiculturalism and diversity as an opportunity to establish more meaningful objectives for Quebec society. Of course, the vitality of the French language in Quebec is a key issue in the current North American context. What we need is to talk about language in a way that embraces Montréal’s linguistic diversity and plurality, while supporting the objective of a shared language.
Quebec author Pierre Nepveu raised the issue in an article that appeared in Le Devoir in September, and I agree with what he says. We need to find another way to talk about the French language in Quebec rather than to keep repeating that it is “threatened” by English or other languages. We need to talk about diversity—the wonderful diversity of French-speaking Montréal, with its Caribbean, African, Asian and Middle Eastern accents and intonations. We need to talk about bilingual Anglophones who speak French on the street, in the stores and in government offices. We need to show the multifaceted reality of our linguistic duality.
The world is changing so rapidly that it is essential to have flexible tools and policies to help us adapt to the current linguistic reality. As communities continue to diversify more and more quickly, the media continue to claim that French is disappearing. Alarmist reports about the latest census results warn that the number of Montrealers whose first language is French is decreasing. Now, you can’t expect Canada to welcome a quarter of a million new immigrants every year without affecting the proportion of Canadians whose first language is English or French or who speak one of our two official languages at home. Yet these same assertions keep popping up over and over again—they have been for the past two centuries—and they have always turned out to be wrong.
Laws and policies have been established to protect the French language in Quebec, and they work. Quebec is primarily French, and has the means to stay that way. French will not disappear. It is true, though, that the face of French is changing and that it will continue to change. More and more people are speaking two, three or four languages. Linguistic identities are becoming more fluid and complex. But one thing that is not changing is the fact that the national conversation is happening in French in Quebec and in English in the rest of Canada. Our linguistic duality is alive and well, and will continue to be the hallmark of our society.
All Canadians contribute to the diversity of our country’s identity. As Commissioner of Official Languages, I am deeply moved to see you all participating in an event that helps us to put linguistic duality at the heart of our aspirations as Canadians, regardless of our backgrounds. Together, we are engaging in a national dialogue that continues to take place in English and French, without any of us feeling left on the sidelines. Our two official languages are the filters through which we can talk to each other as Canadians.
At a time when language issues are re‑emerging on the Canadian political landscape, it is especially important to remember that the future of Canada’s linguistic duality depends on our ability to foster a linguistic environment where we are not divided into two solitudes, where there is a place for both English and French in every region of Canada.
This evening, we are very pleased to welcome Josh Freed as our guest speaker. Josh writes a humorous Saturday column for the Montréal Gazette. He has won two National Newspaper Awards for best Canadian columnist (in 1997 and 2002), as well as the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour for Fear of Frying, a collection of his columns.
In addition to his weekly columns, Josh’s work as an award-winning documentary filmmaker has taken him to Mongolia, Russia and even the North Pole. He has also written several successful books, including Vive Le Québec Freed and The Anglo Guide to Survival in Québec.
Without further ado, please welcome Mr. Josh Freed.
- Footnote 1
21.7% and 20.6%, respectively.
- Footnote 2
Alain de Repentigny, “Concert-bénéfice au Métropolis : au-delà des langues,” La Presse, October 1, 2012.