Archived - Notes for an appearance before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages – Celebration of the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017
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Ottawa, December 4, 2012
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Mr. Chair, ladies and gentlemen, honourable members of the Standing Committee on Official Languages,
I am very pleased to appear before you today in preparation for the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017.
I am accompanied today by Ghislaine Charlebois, Assistant Commissioner of Compliance Assurance; Sylvain Giguère, Assistant Commissioner of Policy and Communications; and Johane Tremblay, General Counsel.
Let me begin by saying that Canada’s commitment to both official languages is rooted in our history, and anniversary celebrations are very important in reinforcing our understanding of ourselves as Canadians. Every anniversary is an opportunity to tell our national stories to all Canadians, regardless of whether they have heard them before.
The history of language relations in Canada since Confederation is complex. In fact, there are two stories: one that includes the hanging of Louis Riel, the Manitoba schools crisis, Regulation 17, and the two conscription crises; and another, more positive account that includes under-recognized acts and gestures of conciliation and cooperation.
Linguistic duality is an integral part of Canada’s history and identity, and it needs to be a part of all of the celebrations. It is important to reflect on the fact that the Fathers of Confederation, and those who inspired them, saw the question of language in terms of a founding principle of respect.
The first key steps toward Canadian democracy were taken by Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine in the 1840s. John Ralston Saul wrote that 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 1
That understanding is an important thread that has run through the fabric of our history ever since, and should be reflected in every aspect of the celebration of the 150th anniversary of Confederation.
We remember Lord Durham, but we forget the fact that not 10 years later, his successor, Lord Elgin, read the speech from the Throne in French and English, thus marking the return of French as an official language of Parliament. On the last night of the Confederation Debates, on March 10, 1865, John A. Macdonald responded to a question about the status of French in the new political arrangement that was being developed. He said that “the use of the French language should form one of the principles on which the Confederation should be established.”Footnote 2 George-Étienne Cartier immediately rose to add that it was also necessary to protect the English minorities in Lower Canada with respect to the use of their language.Footnote 3
Wilfrid Laurier spent his whole political life trying to promote harmony between English and French Canadians. William Lyon Mackenzie King, himself committed to Canadian unity, managed to keep the tensions between the two groups from tearing the country apart. John Diefenbaker introduced simultaneous interpretation to Parliament. Lester Pearson introduced the principles of official bilingualism, and Pierre Trudeau translated those principles into legislation. Conservative leader Robert Stanfield ensured that linguistic duality became a value transcending partisan debate, and Brian Mulroney rewrote and strengthened the Official Languages Act in 1988.
These stories need to be told—they are part of our heritage. The new Canadian Museum of History will be a great vehicle for telling the stories.
Historian H.V. Nelles, in his book The Art of Nation-Building on the 300th anniversary of the founding of Quebec, said that how we celebrate says a great deal about who we are. Historian Matthew Hayday made the same point in his work on Canada Day celebrations, and goes a little further by saying that “elements such as languages, [displayed flags, and the media’s use of a rhetorical ‘us’] continually naturalize and reinforce feelings of nationalism.”Footnote 4
As the federal government prepares for the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Confederation, it is important to ensure that both official languages are visible and audible in public spaces, in many different ways.
As I mentioned to you when I presented my annual report a few weeks ago, Canada’s linguistic duality too often remains incognito. When everything runs smoothly, bilingual services go unnoticed. 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.
I would like to say a word about Canada’s Centennial. The high point of the 1967 celebrations was Expo 67, which took place in Montréal at the same time as the B and B Commission was preparing its report. I am convinced that Expo laid psychological groundwork for acceptance of official bilingualism and the Official Languages Act. For more than 50 million Canadian and international visitors, visiting Expo 67 meant taking part in a public space where both official languages were equally audible and visible. It was a first in terms of presenting an environment that respects both official languages. In his opening remarks at Expo 67 in Montréal, Lester B. Pearson said, “Our own country’s existence has always depended upon achieving unity of human purpose within the diversity of our linguistic cultural and social backgrounds.”Footnote 5
Expo 67 was an event that spotlighted Canada’s French-speaking community. It showed the whole world, and also the rest of Canada, that French was an integral part of the country’s make-up. Fifty years later, we need to do it again.
Another monument built around the same time to celebrate the country’s centenary and showcase Canada’s linguistic duality was the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. In the words of the NAC, it was “[b]uilt to both produce and present music, opera, theatre, and dance . . . [I]t was also bilingual, designed to reflect Canada’s linguistic duality – the first, and still the only performing arts centre in the world with such a complex mandate.”Footnote 6
One thing these initiatives had in common was the promotion of English and French as official languages—Canada’s linguistic duality—two years before the vote on the Official Languages Act. How can we make sure that one of our nation’s fundamental values is represented in the celebrations of 2017?
Giving young Canadians more opportunities to experience the other official language is an excellent way to help Canada celebrate its shared heritage.
In my 2011–2012 annual report, I made two recommendations to promote second-language learning in order to increase the number of Canadians who speak our two official languages.
- I recommended that the Prime Minister take the necessary measures to double the number of young Canadians who participate each year in short- and long-term language exchanges at the high-school and post-secondary levels.
- I also recommended that the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages work together with provincial and territorial governments as well as post-secondary institutions to increase the number of programs in which students can take courses in their second official language.
The 150th anniversary celebrations are an ideal occasion to follow through on these recommendations.
Social media was not part of our communication landscape when we celebrated our centennial in 1967 and the 125th anniversary in 1992. These platforms are an excellent way to promote Canada’s linguistic diversity and start a conversation in both official languages.
We can use social media to connect local celebrations with the general spirit of the 150th anniversary of Confederation, and to promote the history and heritage of our official language communities across the country.
However, promoting linguistic duality doesn’t happen by itself. It requires planning, effort and a bilingualism reflex, without which it will go unnoticed.
This is true as much for communicating with the public in virtual spaces as it is for serving the public in physical spaces.
While there is substantial bilingual capacity for visitors to Canada’s capital, it is often invisible. Canadians have the right to obtain services of equal quality from the federal government in the official language of their choice.
The celebrations in 2017 will be an opportunity to encourage Canadians to travel throughout their country, and every effort should be made to ensure that they are welcomed in both languages.
Institutions or offices providing services to the travelling public have to make more of an effort to respect the language rights of the public they serve—and to keep doing it even after the tourists have gone home.
Canadians need to have a better understanding of the country’s official language communities, including their culture and their institutions. They need to have more exposure to the advantages of linguistic duality and the values it represents.
And so it is very important to make sure that the content of the 150th celebrations reflect the common history of Canada’s Anglophones and Francophones.
To help organizers of large-scale events improve their knowledge and understanding of official languages, my office published a publication called Organizing a Major Sporting Event in Canada: A Practical Guide to Promoting Official LanguagesFootnote 7. This guide was developed for organizers of major national and international sporting, cultural and artistic events in Canada and for the federal institutions involved in their organization.
The purpose of the guide was not to replace the expertise of the organizing committee or the federal institutions involved, but rather to remind them to take official languages and language obligations into account right from the initial planning stages. My staff and I are already using it to work with the organizing committees of the 2015 Pan-American Games in Toronto and the 2013 Canada Games in Sherbrooke. We will continue to encourage organizers of major events in Canada to integrate linguistic duality into their activities.
I hope that the 150th anniversary of this country’s Confederation will be a highly successful event, and one that present and future generations of Canadians will remember as reflecting both the English and French cultures of Canada.
- Footnote 1
John Ralston Saul, Reflections of a Siamese Twin: Canada at the End of the Twentieth Century, Toronto, Viking, 1997; p. 175.
- Footnote 2
Richard Gwyn, John A.: The Man Who Made Us, The Life and Times of John A. Macdonald, Volume One: 1815–1867, Toronto, Random House Canada, 2007, p. 323.
- Footnote 3
Parliamentary Debates on the Subject of the Confederation of the British North American Provinces, 3rd session, 8th Provincial Parliament of Canada, Quebec, Hunter, Rose & Co, 1865, pp. 944–945.
- Footnote 4
Matthew Hayday, “Fireworks, Folk-dancing, and Fostering a National Identity: The Politics of Canada Day,” The Canadian Historical Review, vol. 91, no. 2, June 2010, pp. 287–314.
- Footnote 5
Lester B. Pearson, Notes for the Prime Minister’s remarks at the opening of Expo ’67, Montreal, April 27, 1967, Ottawa, Office of the Prime Minister, 1967, p. 3. On-line version (www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/primeministers/h4-4029-e.html) accessed November 29, 2012.
- Footnote 6
Sarah Jennings, The NAC in a Nutshell, http://nac-cna.ca/en/about.
- Footnote 7