Notes for an address at the third annual Multidisciplinary Approaches in Language Policy and Planning Conference

Rozsa Centre, University of Calgary

Calgary, Alberta, September 5, 2014
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

Good evening, bonsoir.

To begin, I would like to thank Tom Ricento for inviting me to speak with you, and to congratulate him for once again bringing together such a broad international selection of language, sociolinguistics and language planning scholars.

At previous conferences, I talked about Canada’s experience with language planning through the history of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, the passage of the Official Languages Act and the creation of the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages.

As you know, Canada is a bilingual country with two official language communities, each of which is predominantly unilingual. Canada’s language regime is vastly asymmetric, with an officially bilingual federal government, one officially bilingual province, one officially unilingual French province, five provinces with policies on French-language services, two provinces that have legislated English as the predominant language with some protection for French, and one province that has no language policy but whose courts will not accept affidavit evidence in French.

As Commissioner of Official Languages, it is my job to tell Parliament whether federal institutions are living up to their obligations under the Act, to investigate complaints and to promote the use of both languages. I have four Canadian colleagues: the Commissioner of Official Languages for New Brunswick, the French Language Services Commissioner of Ontario, the Languages Commissioner for Nunavut and the Languages Commissioner of the Northwest Territories. We are all language ombudsmen.

Tonight, I would like to put the Canadian experience in an international context and tell you about the new International Association of Language Commissioners.

As former Canadian Supreme Court Justice Michel Bastarache has pointed out, while the protection of language rights is primarily a matter of domestic policy and national law, nearly 160 states provide for the legal protection of linguistic groups; there is an international legal context. “The international protection of minorities can be traced back to the nineteenth century, at the time when the theory of nations became prevalent,” he wrote in 2003. “Nation, people and State being one, nationalism appeared to form identities. The end of the First World War and the creation of the League of Nations marked the need to deal with minorities to safeguard peace and security. Treaties adopted under the aegis of the League of Nations in fact spoke of minority rights as fundamental.Footnote 1

Language rights became a more significant part of international charters and covenants in the years following the Second World War. Article 27 of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is a notable example of this:

In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language.Footnote 2

In the 1960s, when the members of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism were looking at international examples of bilingual countries, they looked at the creation of bilingual states. “The bilingual state as such is a solution which has often followed a demographic regrouping as the result of war, revolution, or federation,” they wrote. “In most cases, under conditions of modern communication, it requires that the authorities establish a linguistic policy, even if it be one which reduces to a minimum or rules out a vigorous role for the public authorities in language matters. Failing some definite official protection, the linguistic integrity of the smaller group almost inevitably suffers.Footnote 3

They pointed out that the bilingual state is not intended as an instrument for the creation of a state full of bilingual individuals, explaining, “For if everyone in a bilingual state becomes completely bilingual, one of the languages is rendered superfluous, since everyone will be able to communicate in the other language. In all such cases, the dominant language usually grows more dominant and the other gradually disappears, sometimes in a matter of generations. This has been the fate of many minority languages, such as those of the immigrant minorities of the New World.Footnote 4

It is worth noting that today several languages in bilingual states are thriving, despite the absence of a unilingual core group.

The commissioners went on to say, “The bilingual state is characterized by a wide variety of bilingual institutions, designed to guarantee that citizens are not disadvantaged because they belong to a minority linguistic group. Such institutions may include the legislature, the courts, the civil service, and the schools; but these institutions can have many different forms in different bilingual countries.Footnote 5

To illustrate the range of languages and countries involved, they referred to Welsh in the United Kingdom, Romanche in Switzerland, Maori in New Zealand and Arabic in Israel; these countries recognized statuses short of full equality for the minority languages. Other countries, like Belgium, Finland, Switzerland and South Africa, recognized the relative equality of their official languages; the Commission looked at these last four countries in detail. Interestingly, both Belgium and Finland had a high concentration of unilingual citizens, as did Canada, with a small minority, about 12%, being bilingual. (Today, 17% of Canadians are bilingual.)

Both Belgium and Switzerland primarily followed the territorial principle. In Switzerland, language was the responsibility of the canton, and the commissioners observed that 17 of the 25 cantons were unilingual German, three were unilingual French, one was unilingual Italian and four were bilingual.

However, at the federal level, service was to be provided in the language of the individual, wherever he or she might be in the country. Language did not appear to be a source of conflict; as former president of the Swiss Confederation Pascal Couchepin once told me, “On s’entend bien parce qu’on ne se comprend pas.” (We get along well because we don’t understand each other.)

In contrast, in that pre-apartheid era, South Africa had adopted the personality principle, which meant that its two official languages—Afrikaans and English—had equal status everywhere in the country.

The commissioners decided that Canada was too large and its linguistic majorities too concentrated to adopt the personality principle, and that its minority communities were too scattered and important for the territoriality principle to apply. So they looked to the Finnish compromise: a bilingual capital, bilingual regions, unilingual Finnish-speaking regions and a unilingual Swedish-speaking region.

In 2007, 40 years after the Royal Commission, I visited Finland when I was asked to address the Parliament of Finland as part of its centenary celebrations. I was struck by the visual indications of official bilingualism—bilingual street signs, and even Finnish and Swedish subtitles to English-language movies.

This has been maintained, even though the Swedish-speaking population has dropped below 5%. I also visited the Åland Islands, an autonomous, Swedish-speaking archipelago in the Baltic Sea off the western coast of Finland. The people of Åland achieved their autonomy after a referendum in 1920, in which they voted to become part of Sweden. The League of Nations was not happy with the idea of regions unilaterally choosing which country they would belong to and decided in 1920 that the islands should remain part of Finland, but with a guarantee of their autonomy and their unilingual status. It is a status that the 28,000 residents proudly maintain, and that the government of Finland respects.

In some ways, Finland’s demolinguistic situation resembles that of Quebec. The Swedish minority consists largely of either the remnants of the previous economic elite or of small coastal communities.

In 2008, a year after my visit, I had dinner at the Embassy of Finland in Ottawa with Pär Stenbäck, a former minister of Education and minister of Foreign Relations who went on to become General Secretary for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Geneva. In the course of our conversation, he said, “You know, you should have an international association of language commissioners.” He planted an important seed.

Despite the guarantees in Finland’s constitution as well as its language act, there are concerns among the country’s Swedish minority. As the Swedish Assembly of Finland put it, “The problem has proven to be the poor implementation of the acts in practice, especially regarding public services in Swedish. Finland has also lacked a long-term language planning policy.Footnote 6

To address this problem, a steering committee chaired by Martti Ahtisaari was established in 2010; it made 25 recommendations intended to strengthen the delivery of services in both languages and increase second-language learning. One of the recommendations was to create a language ombudsman. I find it intriguing that after Canada looked to the Finnish example, the Swedish minority in Finland is looking to Canada as a model.

One country that followed Canada’s lead is Ireland, which created an office of an independent agent reporting to Parliament on how the language law is being respected. Ten years ago, the position of Irish Language Commissioner was created, and Seán Ó Cuirreáin became the first Coimisinéir Teanga.

Again, the problem is not legislative or structural; it is a matter of political will and demolinguistics. While Irish is an obligatory subject in secondary school and 32% of the population speaks the language, only 3% speaks it every day, and polls show that less than 5% speaks it with any fluency.Footnote 7

Earlier this year, Seán Ó Cuirreáin stepped down from the position of Coimisinéir Teanga, and eloquently told a parliamentary committee why:

I had, in essence, come to the firm belief that in the two years which remained in my term of office, there would be little else that I could personally achieve in relation to language rights for Irish speakers and Gaeltacht communities. […] “I believe that the language is continuously being edged aside, pushed towards the margins of society and that includes much of the public sector. I would not support the premise that the fault lies primarily with politicians but it appears to me, notwithstanding those within the State sector who support the language, that there are stronger and more widespread forces in place who have little or no concern for the future of our national language.

He acknowledged that some progress had been made over the past 10 years since the introduction of the Official Languages Act, particularly in the use of Irish on public signage, in stationery and in publications. He also noted a greater awareness of language rights.

However, he argued that the neglect in promoting the language schemes in the Act resulted in severe restrictions on that progress, and that there was no possibility that the plan to increase the number of civil servants fluent in Irish would succeed. He said,

A commitment that State service through Irish be provided in Gaeltacht areas without terms and conditions is not forthcoming and consequently, the practice will persist where the State sector is effectively saying to Gaeltacht communities: “Speak Irish among yourselves, but don’t speak it to us!

He pointed out that two years had gone by since the beginning of a review of the Official Languages Act, with no sign of amendments. The decision had been taken to merge his functions with that of the Office of the Ombudsman, without consultation or discussion.

He went on to say, “For those who believe in language rights for Gaeltacht communities and for Irish speakers in general this is a time of great uncertainty. I have always held the opinion that the support required for the Irish language within this country’s public service should not and could not be viewed as an optional extra. Language rights are permanent rights; they are not concessions or privileges granted at times of prosperity.Footnote 8

It was an eloquent statement about language rights and the fragility of minority languages in the face of government inaction. After he stepped down, 10,000 people demonstrated in Dublin in support of Irish language rights.

One of Seán Ó Cuirreáin’s lasting achievements—at least, I hope it is lasting—was to take Pär Stenbäck’s idea and give it a launching pad. In 2013, he invited language commissioners from Canada, New Brunswick, Ontario, Nunavut, Wales, Catalonia, Kosovo and South Africa to a conference on language rights in Dublin. At that meeting, guided by Pär Stenbäck’s experience with international organizations, we drew up the basic principles for the International Association of Language Commissioners. It is an association that allows those of us who are independent from government and who report on how our respective language laws and policies are being followed to share information and best practices.

Last May, we had our first meeting as a constituted association in Barcelona; Rafael Ribó, the Catalan Ombudsman, was our host. As we were preparing for the conference, I was concerned that we might be drawn into the debate over Catalonia’s constitutional status in Spain, since the government of Catalonia was planning a referendum. However, this did not happen. Instead, I was asked about Catalonia’s requirements concerning the language of instruction.

Since the death of Generalissimo Franco in 1975 and the restoration of democracy in Spain, the regional government of Catalonia has acted to support the Catalan language by requiring that all instruction in primary and secondary school be in Catalan, with Spanish being studied as a secondary language.

This has been the result of a series of legislative initiatives, the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia of 1979, the Law of Linguistic Normalization in 1983 and the law on linguistic policy of 1998, resulting in a series of decisions by the Spanish Constitutional Court, some of which challenged the preferential use of Catalan.

The degree of success in ‘Catalanising’ the educational system is especially surprising because of the very high level of ethno-linguistic heterogeneity in the region,” observed Roberto Garvía and Thomas Jeffrey Miley. “Indeed, at the time of the transition to democracy, the native Catalan-speaking portion of the population constituted little more than half of the overall population, and today it makes up barely a third of the general population.Footnote 9

As Garvía and Miley point out, “the Catalan model explicitly prohibits the ‘segregation’ of students according to mother tongue,” in contrast with Quebec, where the right of the English-speaking minority to send their children to English-language schools is guaranteed. (Even if that school is often a French immersion school!)

Catalonia thus represents an exceptional case in Europe,” they write. “It is the only government in Europe that has chosen not the majority, but the minority language as the language of instruction in the school system. The Catalan language is a minority language in a double sense—not only is it the first language of a minority of the population in all of Spain, but also it is the ‘mother tongue’ of under half the population in the region itself.Footnote 10

When asked, as I often was, what I thought of Catalonia’s policy on the language of instruction, I repeated the anodyne comment that we were in Barcelona to learn, and that it was for each society to find its own solutions to these issues. I also mentioned that, in Canada, access to minority schools is defined in section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which grants that right to the children of families in which one parent has been educated in the language in question in Canada (English in Quebec, French in the rest of Canada).

The complexities of the issue made me all the more convinced that the International Association’s role is to share information rather than to make pronouncements on the legislative framework and legal debates in member jurisdictions! There is no one-size-fits-all solution to language issues.

Another complex language situation exists in Sri Lanka, where, as part of the reconciliation process following two decades of civil war, the government established a Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration, and an Official Languages Commission. The goal of the National Languages Project, which is supported by the Canadian International Development Agency (now part of Foreign Affairs), is to help Sri Lanka strengthen its language policies as part of a broader policy of reconciliation. I am hoping that, at future conferences of the International Association of Language Commissioners, our Sri Lankan colleague, along with, perhaps, our colleagues from Kosovo and South Africa, talks about how language policy can be used to reduce tension in a post-conflict environment.

At our conference in Barcelona, we heard Welsh Language Commissioner Meri Huws discuss the challenges of developing a bilingual workforce in Welsh. We also heard about how the school systems in Ireland and New Brunswick are strengthening the minority languages, how the investigation of complaints led to an improvement in Irish-language service at a police station in the Gaeltacht city of Guidor, how a bilingualism policy has been developed for health messages in Ontario, and how a lack of health services in Inuktitut is affecting the Inuit people in Nunavut.

The range and the commonality of issues across our nine jurisdictions has confirmed to me the importance of an international organization of independent officials who investigate complaints, and report on the successes and failures of our respective language policies.

It is an organization with enormous potential for sharing information, research and best practices. I am honoured and excited to be a part of it.

Thank you.


Footnote 1

Michel Bastarache, Language Rights in Canada, “Introduction,” Michel Bastarache (ed.), Cowansville, Éditions Yvon Blais, 2004, pp. 10–11.

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Footnote 2

Adopted December 16, 1966, 999 U.N.T.S. 171; quoted by Bastarache, op. cit., p. 7.

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Footnote 3

André Laurendeau and A. Davidson Dunton (co-chairs), Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, “Book I : General Introduction– The Official Languages,” Ottawa, Queen’s Printer, 1967, para. 29, p. 11.

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Footnote 4

Ibid., para. 33, p. 12.

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Footnote 5

Ibid., para 34, p. 12.

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Footnote 6

Swedish Assembly of Finland Action Plan to Strengthen the National Languages in Finland, March 2011.

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Footnote 7

Official Languages and Bilingualism Institute, “Bilingualism in Ireland and Language Promotion,” Site for Language Management in Canada, University of Ottawa, accessed July 2, 2014.

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Footnote 8

An Coimisinéir Teanga, Seán Ó Cuirreáin, at the Houses of the Oireachtas Sub-Committee on the 20-Year Strategy for the Irish Language, translation of speaking notes,  January 23, 2014.

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Footnote 9

Roberto Garvía and Thomas Jeffrey Miley, “‘Linguistic immersion’ and political conflict in contemporary Catalonia,” European Journal of Language Policy, volume 5, number 1, April 2013, p. 6.

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Footnote 10

Ibid., p. 34.

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