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Speaking notes for the Annual General Meeting of the Regional Association of West Quebecers

Graham Fraser – Commissioner of Official Languages

Check against delivery

Good evening to all,

I would like to thank Noel Gates for his invitation to speak to you at this annual meeting. It is always a pleasure to address Quebec’s English-speaking community and discuss its vitality and role in the province. The vitality of the English-speaking communities in Quebec is always relevant, especially during times when linguistic tensions seem to be reappearing.

I lived in Quebec for a decade—three years in Montréal and seven years in Québec City—and I’ve spent weekends and holidays in the province. The English-speaking community is the minority-language community that I know best; it was here that my interest in language developed and deepened.

There is no question that Quebec’s English-speaking community has a role to play in this province. You have greatly contributed to Quebec society—and still do. Today’s community is bilingual, well integrated and diverse. Each of your families’ generations is more bilingual than the last. Your ability to speak your neighbour’s language is not only an economic necessity, but also a sign of openness and respect.

In 1969, the Official Languages Act was adopted as Canadians yearned to reinforce our commitment to openness and respect for one another, to linguistic duality and diversity, and to the bridges that can be built between English- and French-speaking communities.

The 1960s and the 1970s were difficult times for English-speaking Quebecers. The English-speaking community was—and is still—sometimes mistaken as an obstacle to a Francophone society seeking a new status.

Over the years, many of you have watched family members resettle elsewhere in our vast country, from Toronto to Calgary to Vancouver.

However, most of you chose to remain in Quebec and were joined by others who were drawn to the unique linguistic and cultural strength of your communities. I believe that the way English-speaking communities have adapted to the new social climate and successfully recovered is one of the great Canadian success stories.

Despite the challenges your community has faced—the difficulty in getting provincial recognition as a minority-language community, political marginalization, the aging of your population, the decline in enrolment in your schools and youth exodus—you have accepted your evolving society with grace and respect. You have adapted to the social changes around you. You are finding your place in this new society. And you continue to be active, committed participants in your communities.

It is important that your community maintain its own language, culture and identity in Quebec. It’s a question of social balance—your community is an integral part of this province and its history. Having two dynamic languages and cultures provides a source of creativity, innovation and ongoing dialogue—it’s not just a source of tensions and disagreement. Two language groups working together has helped Canadian society develop its values, which include respect, compromise, empathy and acceptance.

For Anglophones in Quebec, it is the vitality of your collectivity, and not of your language, that is at risk. Because English is the majority language in the rest of Canada—and in the bordering United States—English will be spoken in Quebec for a long time to come. Many Francophones are bilingual in Quebec, and they recognize the importance of speaking English in today’s world. This is not in question. What is at stake is merging the collective rights of the English minority with the collective rights of the French majority in Quebec, and the feeling of belonging.

But it is true that Quebec’s English-speaking communities face a specific demographic challenge. The older generation lived and worked in Quebec at a time when it was not necessary to speak French to function. Now, as they are no longer in the workforce, they are vulnerable and need health and social services at a time when these services are not always available in English.

For the past 43 years, English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians, whether unilingual or bilingual, have been able to communicate with the federal government in the language of their choice. This has helped create a unique Canadian linguistic space within which citizens expect to be able to communicate with their elected officials in either official language.

A linguistic space is a place where a citizen can see, hear and receive services in the minority language. It is, therefore, present, visible and audible on the radio, on signs, in businesses, and in the delivery of government services. You must work together as a community to develop an approach that meets the needs of both language communities and leaves no one behind.

Here in the Outaouais, the linguistic space is a model of this—close to 60% of the population is bilingual. And though Gatineau is the Francophone core of the National Capital Region, 63% of its inhabitants speak both official languages—it’s the most bilingual city in Canada.

The City of Gatineau has made genuine efforts to respond to your community’s requests for appropriate services in English. For example, its Web site and phone service for citizens are available in both official languages. This is a testament to the leadership of the elected officials who recognized the principles on which our Canadian society is built. The municipal councillors respect their constituents and want to talk to them directly; some of them offer meetings in English with their sector’s residents.

I encourage you to continue to communicate with your municipal councillors and to seek federal government support under its Official Languages Act obligations. I expect the next phase of the Roadmap for Linguistic Duality to help communities build and maintain the capacity of institutions—in the same way the first Roadmap made great strides in health care for English-speaking Quebecers.

There will always be an exchange of views on language within Quebec and across Canada. Unfortunately, the media like to push the linguistic insecurity button from time to time, which causes tension on both sides. This is why your community needs positive, inspiring leaders—like Noel (Gates) and Heather (Stronach).

But to be a leader—whether organizational or personal—you have to know how to inspire your community. And to be a source of inspiration, you have to understand why you do what you are doing. If the “why” is not clear, the outcome will fall short.

When it comes to linguistic duality, whether across Canada or in the public service, as long as the “why” is “because it’s the law, because we have to,” people’s behaviour will not change, and neither will their perceptions. The answer to “why” has to be “because I believe in it.”

Unfortunately, sometimes there is a disconnect between aspirations for linguistic duality—as expressed by our laws and political discourse—and reality, which shows little linguistic duality in the day-to-day lives of many Canadians who live in minority communities. The “why” is ambiguous.

Look at the recent controversies about the appointment of a unilingual judge to the Supreme Court of Canada and the hiring of a unilingual auditor general. These appointments were criticized in the country’s major newspapers, which shows that Canadians have higher expectations. The government must show leadership in protecting our language achievements, especially if we say that they are an intrinsic Canadian value.

But in Quebec, this debate has not always been framed constructively over the last 15 months. Between L’actualité’s cover showing a frog holding a sign saying “Ici, on parle English” and Don Macpherson’s article in The Gazette on the social acceptability of “anglobashing” and “the new angryphones,” the recent language uproars are stirring up negative sentiment that helps neither community, majority or minority. Even matter-of-fact statements about the usefulness of speaking more than one language have generated week-long media storms. As an inclusive society, we need to stop feeling threatened by the others’ desire to live in their language—one doesn’t hinder the other!

There is a confusion that needs to be addressed.

English has emerged as the international lingua franca. At a recent academic conference in Israel, I heard presentations by researchers from France, Russia, Italy, the Czech Republic, Germany, the United States, Canada and Israel. All spoke in English.

This reality is putting pressure on French as a language of business research and international communication—and many in Quebec resent that shift. But it has nothing to do with the English-speaking minority in Quebec!

Last year, Concordia University held a seminar entitled “What place should Anglophones have in Quebec’s collective narrative?” It addressed the issue of revisiting Quebec’s historical experience by including Anglophones in the collective narrative without ignoring the weight of past events, thus permitting this province’s diverse society to move into the future.

Quebec should learn about forgotten parts of its history through the experiences and stories of its English-speaking communities. Revisiting the positive aspects of your community’s role in Quebec’s history would shed new light on social perceptions and move the province forward as a society. Quebec needs a positive narrative to relate to its Anglophones—these stories must be told. Who better than you to tell your stories and make them part of this province’s cultural references?

Quebec’s English-speaking community continues to be at the forefront of the dialogue on linguistic duality. Your youth are among the most bilingual in the country. Your culture continues to thrive, producing internationally recognized artists and authors. Your educational institutions attract students from all over Canada and the world.

Thirteen years ago, Garth Stevenson wrote one of the few academic analyses of the English-speaking community of Quebec, and the title eloquently expressed the community’s state of mind—Community Besieged: The Anglophone Minority and the Politics of Quebec. In his conclusion, Stevenson described how optimists and pessimists viewed the future of the community.

He found that optimists pointed to the adaptability of young Anglophones living in a French-speaking society, the strength and economic value of the English language in North America, McGill University’s continuing international reputation, and what he saw as “the apparent decline of extreme nationalism and xenophobia in Quebec” and “the usefulness of a bilingual minority to a Quebec that wishes to participate fully in the continental economy.”

Pessimists, on the other hand, emphasized the absence of jobs for young Anglophones, the exodus of the young Anglophone middle class, the declining enrolment in English-language schools, the pressure on immigrants to adopt French rather than English as their language, and the perception that English Canadians are no longer moving to Quebec.

Stevenson cautiously considered who would be proven correct.

After reviewing the points raised by both sides, he concluded that the Anglophones “who have remained seem to have adapted reasonably well to the new order.”

Now, more than a decade later, I think that the optimists have the upper hand.

Thank you.