Archived - Notes for a round table on 50 years of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism: The teaching of history and relations between Anglophones and Francophones

This page has been archived on the Web.

Information identified as archived is provided for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. It is not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards and has not been altered or updated since it was archived. Please contact us to request a format other than those available.

Bromont, Quebec, October 17, 2013
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages

Check against delivery


Beginning of dialog

Good afternoon.

Thank you very much for inviting me to take part in this round table to mark the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. As Commissioner of Official Languages, I am honoured to be here.

First of all, what is a Royal Commission?

My late brother once had a political science professor at McGill who, in the early 1950s, described it this way: “What is a Royal Commission? I’ll tell you what a Royal Commission is—$100 a day plus expenses!”

The late Allan Blakeney described it as “the most traditional form of consultation,” adding, “indeed, a case can be made that for at least the last half-century, Royal Commissions and their reports have been a dominant force in shaping public policy in Canada.”Footnote 1

Jane Jenson described Royal Commissions as institutions that represent ideas, that have been “locales for some of the major shifts in the ways that Canadians debate representations of themselves, their present and their futures.” She said that “they set out the terms of who we are, where we have been and what we might become.”Footnote 2

The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was a special case. I would like to describe the social and political context that led to its creation, the tensions that marked the Commission’s deliberations, and how those tensions have been reflected, half a century later, in the current debate over language policy and the teaching of history in Canada.

The idea of a royal commission on bilingualism and biculturalism was first proposed in January 1962 by André Laurendeau in an editorial in Le Devoir. In December 1962, Lester Pearson, then leader of the Opposition, gave a speech calling for the creation of a royal commission, the speech—he said in his memoirs—of which he was the proudest. In July 1963, the Royal Commission was announced.

André Laurendeau and Davidsdon Dunton were co-chairs, but the real debate, intellectual and emotional, linguistic and national, was between Laurendeau and Frank Scott, the Commission’s only representative of Quebec’s English minority. Both men had subtle minds, political idealism, personal charisma and poets’ sensibilities. As Université Laval political scientist Guy Laforest puts it in his essay on the two men, both were “éminences grises,” intellectual leaders of Quebec and English-speaking Canada, respectively.Footnote 3

Scott’s view was that, although French Canada could legitimately be considered a nation, Quebec was—or should be—a bilingual society. After a private meeting of the commissioners in 1964, he wrote: “In further conversation about the two-nation theory, I said ‘Quebec is a unilingual, unicultural society, while English Canada is a unilingual, multicultural society.’ Laurendeau agreed.”Footnote 4

His ideal was that the bilingual model should be extended to Canada as a whole, so that the limited rights defined in the British North America Act would be extended and the language rights that had been extinguished in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta would be restored.

It took Scott some time to come to terms with Laurendeau’s view of the need for two unilingualisms—a view that had been adopted by one of the researchers, William Mackey.

Laurendeau’s view, eloquently expressed in the blue pages of the first volume of the Commission’s report, was that the survival of French in Canada and North America depended upon a strong, French-speaking society in Quebec and, as he wrote in his journal, two unilingualisms.

But both men were appalled by the ignorance and prejudice they encountered toward French in Canada during the Commission’s visits to Western Canada. Both were also taken aback by the degree to which separatists were dominating public discussion in Quebec.

But what emerged as the essential debate, and the source of critical tension within the Commission, was the conceptual model that should be developed for Canada.

André Laurendeau felt that the central problem was Quebec’s fragility as a French-speaking society, and that this should be the primary consideration. Frank Scott, on the other hand, felt that Quebec was, legally, constitutionally and practically, a bilingual province—and that bilingual status should be extended to the rest of Canada.

Both agreed that the status quo—which Pearson had described in his December 1962 speech as “an English-speaking Canada with a bilingual Quebec”—was unacceptable. But their ultimate visions of what the future should be were quite different. Paradoxically, both felt that they had lost.

It is easy to forget how controversial the Commission was, and how much it was criticized. In retrospect, the controversies vanish, and the conflicts become smoothed over. What remains are the observations, the recommendations and the studies.

In the Commission’s report on education, the commissioners deal specifically with identity and the teaching of history: “National identity is always an elusive concept and it is even more so when the national boundaries include two major cultural communities,” they wrote. “The nature of the Canadian partnership depends on what one group believes about the other.”Footnote 5

They also described the difference between the way history was taught in English Canada and in French Canada, and how there was very little overlap between the two visions. These differing approaches echo the contrasting points of view Laurendeau and Scott often brought to the discussions on bilingualism and biculturalism.

I would argue that the subsequent public debate over the Commission’s recommendations and the passing of the Official Languages Act was every bit as passionate then as today’s debate over Quebec’s Charter of Values.

Back in 1992, in a piece I wrote for The Globe and Mail, I expressed my concern that Canadians did not know their country and were learning different versions of their past. “The academic discipline of history had changed,” I wrote, “and those changes were reflected in what is taught in high school.”

The result was very different textbooks—though textbooks, I felt, didn’t tell the whole story. Teachers were using them to varying degrees, but the differences between the publications showed why it wasn’t surprising that the same generation of Canadians did not have the same interpretation of the past.

Looking at a random selection of three textbooks used in high schools in three provinces showed three quite different views of the country and its history. The versions of the past these books described didn’t overlap. There were three references to Quebec in the Saskatchewan text and one reference to Saskatchewan in the Quebec text. The Ontario text discussed the country’s past in a much less regional way.

Although textbooks have come a long way from the absolute certainty of their predecessors, which conveyed a single version of what happened, regional and linguistic differences were certainly not new then.

Interestingly enough, the commissioners themselves had “no intention of suggesting any specific reforms in the teaching of Canadian history.” However, they did state that their “research on Canadian history textbooks has shown the need for revising the versions of Canadian history now taught in the schools.”Footnote 6

In 1944, 24 years before the Commission released its report on education, Senator Athanase David had proposed the adoption of a single history textbook for Canada, and Senator Damien Bouchard’s spirited endorsement of the idea provoked a storm of controversy in Quebec. In the 1960s, Bernard Hodgetts of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education tried to bring together historians from Quebec and the rest of the country to reach a consensus on a version of Canada’s history that could be taught across the country. The project failed. The visions of the country were too different.

As I mentioned in my opening remarks this morning, a 1970 study for the Commission recommended that there be a joint work of Canadian history that would set forth not one, but several interpretations of our past, which would help English- and French-speaking Canadians to embrace what the authors called a more objective view of their shared history and lead to better mutual understanding.

When I was a journalist, I spoke with a number of historians about this. Some complained that political history had been marginalized in high schools in favour of social history; others bemoaned the fact that high schools were offering more courses in other social sciences—like economics, law, family studies and social change—all at the expense of history courses.

University of Toronto historian Michael Bliss linked historians’ declining interest in the big questions of Canadian identity and the country’s political and constitutional fate in the 1970s and 1980s with what he called “rising levels of national disunity, constitutional debate and political uncertainty.” Footnote 7

Since the 1976 election of the Parti Quebecois and the first referendum, the patriation of the Constitution, the death of the Meech Lake Accord, the second referendum and the Clarity Act in 2000, it is interesting to note that little progress has been made to increase contact between Quebec and the rest of Canada. In all those years, no Quebec Studies programs were established in the rest of Canada to teach English-Canadian undergraduates about contemporary Quebec and, at the same time, attract young Quebec academics to study and work in English universities.

Even today, it is easier for English-speaking Canadian teachers to participate in exchanges with Australia than with Quebec, and for French-speaking Quebec teachers to have more opportunities for exchanges with France than with other provinces in Canada. French continues to be taught as a foreign language in Canadian universities, and regional narratives in many cases continue to trump an overarching national history at the high school level.

When national identities are involved and gaps are noticed in public knowledge, the school system is often blamed and scapegoats are sought, including departments of education, textbook authors, teachers and parents.

As the commissioners rightly point out in their report on education, “A knowledge of the second language is only a beginning; some knowledge of the other society is required before ideas and attitudes can be shared.”Footnote 8

Today, 50 years after the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, encouraging signs of this sharing are appearing because of our immersion programs. We are seeing the commercial advantages of bilingualism in New Brunswick and a subtle, unofficial growth in bilingualism in Ontario. More and more Montrealers are equally at ease in both official languages. And newcomers to Canada are embracing linguistic duality for their children because they say it makes them feel more Canadian.

I would like to finish on this positive note by commending all of the educators and academics here today. Your interest in the issue of identity and the relations between Anglophones and Francophones gives me great hope that all Canadian students, regardless of their language or culture, will continue to discover and appreciate the common bonds that connect us.

Thank you.


Footnote 1

Allan Blakeney and Sandford Borins, Political Management in Canada, University of Toronto Press, Second Edition, Toronto, 1998, p. 187.

Return to footnote 1 referrer

Footnote 2

Jane Jenson, “Commissioning Ideas: Representation and Royal Commissions,” in Susan D. Phillips, ed., How Ottawa Spends 1994-95: Making Change, Ottawa, Carleton University Press, 1994, pp. 39-40.

Return to footnote 2 referrer

Footnote 3

Guy Laforest, “The Mesh Lake Accord: The Search for a Compromise between André Laurendeau and F.R. Scott” in Trudeau and the End of a Canadian Dream, Montréal, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995, p. 65.

Return to footnote 3 referrer

Footnote 4

F.R. Scott Journal, p. 149; Eighteenth Meeting of Full Commission in Ottawa, July 2-3, 1964.

Return to footnote 4 referrer

Footnote 5

A. Davidson Dunton, André Laurendeau, et al., “The Teaching of Canadian History,” Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, Book II: Education, Ottawa, 1968, pp. 271 and 272.

Return to footnote 5 referrer

Footnote 6

Dunton and Laurendeau, “The Teaching of Canadian History,” p. 284.

Return to footnote 6 referrer

Footnote 7

Fraser, Graham. “Interpreting the past” The Globe and Mail, February 6, 1992.

Return to footnote 7 referrer

Footnote 8

Dunton and Laurendeau, “The Teaching of Canadian History”, p.270.

Return to footnote 8 referrer

Date modified: