Archived - Notes for an address at the Association Richelieu Fondateur's annual conference
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Cornwall, Ontario, September 27, 2013
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Good evening, and thank you for that very warm Association Richelieu Fondateur welcome.
I am greatly honoured to be at your annual conference in this place “Where Ontario Began,” as the municipal slogan says here in the United Counties of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry. I thank Association Chairman Gilles Ménard for inviting me to say a few words on the subject of bilingualism in Ottawa.
First, I must say that not only is our location today alongside the St. Lawrence strikingly beautiful, but this part of Ontario is the hub where two official languages in Canada were established. With 400 years of Francophone history and its sizeable French-speaking population, Cornwall is a fitting place for the Association to come together.
As Commissioner of Official Languages, I wholeheartedly commend organizations such as yours that are actively aiding the development and growth of Francophone institutions in this region and beyond. There's something to be said for Canada's contribution to promoting La Francophonie at the community level internationally through Club Richelieu, with its chapters here in Canada and across the border in the United States, as well as in Europe and Africa.
The Association has a storied history as a community builder in which all members can take great pride. Throughout eastern Ontario and western Quebec, your 18 chapters have steadfastly championed the use of French in our public institutions, and your leaders are involved in countless efforts to promote the use of French. Your fight for the Montfort Hospital is one example of this heritage.
In my view, it is vitally important to recognize members whose positive contributions and tireless engagement make a difference in our local communities. I would like to congratulate the late Hugette Burroughs for being awarded this year's Prix de la Promenade d'honneur du Club Richelieu. Inspiration comes in many forms, and here in Cornwall the Monument de la Francophonie is one touchstone where we can celebrate the achievements of the Francophone community and its leaders who have made exceptional contributions to the development of the community.
I know that Association leaders are involved in championing the use of French in our national capital. Your Chairman Gilles Ménard, for instance, currently serves as Bilingualism Committee Vice-Chair of the États généraux de la francophonie d'Ottawa, a consortium of organizations working to advance the use of French in our country's capital.
I thank M. Ménard for his involvement, because his efforts could one day make my job, or my successor's job, easier. You see, the preamble to the Official Languages Act calls on the Government of Canada to be committed to enhancing the capital's bilingual character.
Now I am sure you know, the City of Ottawa is a municipality and as such is not subject to federal laws governing language. This means that the City calls the shots when it comes to the degree to which it embraces linguistic duality (unless the province wishes to intervene). This presents something of a challenge for the federal government and for the Commissioner of Official Languages striving to uphold the spirit of the Act.
Ottawa is a city like none other in Canada. From the very beginning, its two founding language communities—Anglophone and Francophone—have always lived and worked side by side. Ottawa is the seat of our federal government, the crossroads of our identity and the source of our international influence.
Linguistic duality is a fundamental Canadian value that should be visible in all aspects of our capital, including in stores and businesses, even though they are not subject to the Act.
English and French are Canadian languages. I learned both in Ottawa, where I was born and lived until the age of 14. I returned 25 years later, after spending seven years in Québec City. Returning to Ottawa, I kept wondering how unilingual Francophones would feel walking along Sparks Street, where the only words of French were on federal government buildings, and how they could feel that this was their national capital.
I can't stress enough how businesses in Ottawa only stand to gain by including linguistic duality in their business plans, in order to benefit from a diverse workforce and clientele. I communicated this message last year to the Regroupement des gens d'affaires de la Capitale nationale.
When the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism wrapped up in 1971 after seven years of work, the commissioners had already published an entire volume on the federal capital, Book V, in which they recommended “that the French and English languages have full equality of status [in the capital], and that the full range of services and facilities provided to the public be available in both languages throughout the area.”Footnote 1
Thus, we see that it was not through lack of vision that many businesses and services in the capital still struggle to live up to this ideal. I know this because the observations in my most recent annual report outline where bilingualism thrives in the capital—at the National Arts Centre, in our museums, in the banks—as well as where there are gaps in service and opportunities to strengthen linguistic duality.
As an agent of Parliament, I can make recommendations to the private sector on the importance and advantage of using both official languages. After that annual report was published, my office met with several business associations to discuss the findings and encourage the use of bilingual greetings.
The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism had more to say about the capital. In its report, it also stated that Ottawa “should be regarded the property of neither Francophone nor Anglophone Canadians, but as the product of the fruitful collaboration of both, as a symbol of the things they have in common.”Footnote 2
Commissioners also stressed that “citizens from across the country who visit their capital should find in it a fuller understanding of their country's traditions and a pride in personal identification with it. Similarly, visitors from other countries should be able just as readily to find tangible expression of Canadian values.”Footnote 3
While our bilingualism is partly visible to visitors to Canada's capital, much of our linguistic duality is invisible. And in some cases, it's non-existent. Few employees of businesses in Ottawa's tourist spots use the hello-bonjour bilingual greeting to show customers they are proud to provide service in both official languages.
According to a survey that my office published in the 2012 annual report, only 26% of restaurants had French-language or bilingual menus,Footnote 4 though service in French was available about 7 times out of 10 in restaurants and stores in the ByWard Market, at the Rideau Centre and on Sparks Street.
In some parts of Ottawa, it's relatively easy to obtain services in French from businesses that serve the public, although employees did not systematically make the in-person active offer of services in the visitor's choice of official language.
Even in the downtown Ottawa headquarters of the Office of the Commissioner of Office Languages, we have observed a lack of active offer from the commissionaires at the security desk.
I believe that in order to create a truly bilingual capital city, it is necessary to raise awareness among Ottawa's business community about the importance of using both official languages. We need to encourage businesses to make their corporate bilingualism visible and audible to demonstrate that bilingualism is an intrinsic part of our service principles.
I suggest working with allies such as the États généraux and the Regroupement des gens d'affaires to remind businesses in the capital that serving clients in both official languages can provide considerable economic spinoffs.
It's a simple message: being able to serve clients and customers in the official language of their choice is good for business. And few things in business drive change more than the prospect of increasing revenues. In addition, speaking the other language is also an act of hospitality and respect.
To see how language issues are becoming more important in industrialized countries, we need only to look at National Centre for Languages statistics that show that small and medium-sized businesses in Europe are losing €100 billion a year for lack of language skills.
Meanwhile, here at home, a June 2013 Conference Board of Canada study on bilingualism and tradeFootnote 5 claimed that the use of both official languages provides a significant economic benefit for the entire country.
In recent years, Americans have been travelling less. They have reduced the frequency of their visits to Canada for economic and security reasons. This makes our ability to welcome domestic and international tourists in both official languages an even more valuable asset.
To succeed in an increasingly competitive and risk-filled business environment, businesses must be concerned with more than strategic considerations, finances, marketing plans and human resources. They must also consider language, because it is crucial to all activities — especially for businesses that provide services to individuals.
My office's study of linguistic duality in Ottawa revealed that many local retailers genuinely want to improve their services in French but lack the necessary expertise or resources.
In my view, Ottawa is more than capable of serving as a bridge between English and French Canadians and of realizing its potential to become a truly bilingual capital. But it will become fully bilingual only when people demand it.
In a few years, Ottawa will play a significant role in the celebrations of Canada's 150th anniversary of Confederation. The Government of Canada and its partners must continue paving the way linguistically so the capital can rise to this historic occasion.
I must add that the Office of the Commissioner and the federal government haven't been working in isolation to promote the use of both official languages in Ottawa. It is worth nothing that since his election, Mayor Jim Watson has demonstrated leadership on linguistic duality in practical terms.
His administration has invested some $15 million in a new bilingual announcement system on a thousand OC Transpo buses. The City has also hired a bilingual Chief of Police Services and a bilingual Integrity Commissioner.
The Francophone community in Ottawa makes up about 15% of the city's population, yet it punches well above its weight. It is a testament to the community's success that Francophones who started out in Vanier and Orléans are now moving out to the west end to communities such as Kanata and south to Barrhaven, where a fourth French-language elementary school opened this month.
We are also seeing new Canadians from diverse communities wanting to send their children to school in French. Parents have told me that having their kids being able to speak both official languages makes them feel more Canadian. This bodes well for the future of bilingualism in Ottawa, though I am convinced more can be done.
Right now, businesses in Ottawa have no moral obligation to function in both languages. Nor does the City have a moral obligation to declare itself officially bilingual. But the Francophone community continues to ask for this distinction. I believe it will happen only when everyone—bilingual and unilingual citizens alike—can agree that it's a distinction worth adopting.
Allow me to pose a question. What is the difference between Ottawa's bilingual service policy and the City of Moncton's bilingual declaration of 10 years ago?
Even though Moncton has the same obligations to its citizens as does any other city in New Brunswick, it declared itself officially bilingual because it was felt that this was the right thing to do and it gave Moncton a unique branding advantage.
A similar bilingual declaration for Ottawa is not a current priority for Mayor Watson. I say this not to discourage, but only to remind you that for him to be convinced of the value of such a declaration, all players in the region must push together, including the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce, Ottawa Tourism, and the Public Service Commission of Canada (as the city's largest employer).
Even though Le Droit just celebrated its 100th anniversary, another op-ed on its pages is not what will convince the Mayor to champion Ottawa as an officially bilingual capital. He needs to hear it from your Association, yes—but also from the États généraux and from the players who represent the city's business interests.
For me, the issue of bilingualism in our nation's capital took on added urgency recently when I was called to chair the new International Association of Language Commissioners network. At our next meeting, in March, I am anticipating a lively discussion on this issue as I attempt to explain that the capital city of our officially bilingual country is not officially bilingual. At our last meeting, this came as a shock to my counterpart from Sri Lanka, who had asked if I could arrange a meeting for him with Mayor Watson to discuss best practices on the issue of bilingual capitals.
One of the continuing challenges I see in Ottawa is that many of its residents are federal public servants, and many of them hail from different parts of Canada. They consider language to be a municipal issue and assume that their influence as individuals is minimal. They seem to feel: “I live in Ottawa but it's not my city. I'm from Saskatchewan. It's not really my issue; it's not my business.”
Still, Ottawa has come a long way on linguistic duality since those days when transcontinental trains stopped at the old Union Station across from the Château Laurier and announcements were made in one language—English.
I feel strongly that anything we can do to make Ottawa proud of its bilingualism, anything to make unilingual and bilingual citizens alike embrace linguistic duality as a value, is effort well spent. And yet, as Commissioner of Official Languages I am still frustrated on occasion by what I call symbolic bilingualism, where Francophones and bilingual Anglophones are invited to participate in public events but speak only in English.
I believe it's worth finding allies on this journey toward official bilingualism in the city of Ottawa. In Moncton for example, bilingualism is an expression of civic pride that informs the dialogue as well as the character of that city. It found further expression last year in the creation of a bilingualism committee composed of elected officials and residents who meet six times a year to make recommendations to city council on how to improve linguistic duality at the municipal level.
Millions of Canadians believe that there is an advantage to speaking English and French, and for good reason. It's good for business. It's good for trade. It's good for tourism. It's good for the brain. With support from organizations such as the Association Richelieu Fondateur and other stakeholders throughout the National Capital Region, I am certain that Ottawa will one day proudly be Canada's officially bilingual capital.
Congratulations on your 65 years of service to French-language life in eastern Ontario. Thank you, merci.
- Footnote 1
Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, Book V, p. 41.
- Footnote 2
Ibid., p. 31.
- Footnote 3
Ibid., p. 3.
- Footnote 4
Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, Annual Report 2011-2012, p. 21.
- Footnote 5
Conference Board of Canada Study, reveals that the knowledge of both official languages is an asset to the Canadian Economy, June 19, 2013.