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North Hatley's particular role in Quebec’s literary tradition—and English-speaking Quebec 

Notes for an address at the North Hatley Library

Graham Fraser – Commissioner of Official Languages

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Good evening.

It is always a pleasure to be back in North Hatley. My parents first brought me here when I was only a few months old—I was born in April—and transformed a bureau drawer in the cottage they rented into a crib. Later, when I was told about this as a child, I imagined that they had simply pulled the drawer out from the bureau, popped me in, and then closed it again!

I spent a month here every summer until I was 14, and have been returning since 1986. This library is an important resource, not just for the community, but for me and my family. In the more technical language that I have learned since becoming Commissioner of Official Languages, it plays an important role in maintaining “community vitality.”

Let me say a few things about my job. As Commissioner of Official Languages, I try to make sure that the federal government lives up to its obligations under the Official Languages Act: that it delivers services in both English and French; that public servants in designated regions, like the Eastern Townships, can work in the official language of their choice; and, more recently, that the federal government and its institutions take positive measures for the growth and development of minority-language communities, and promote the use of English and French.

I do this in a number of ways: by responding to complaints, by producing report cards, audits and studies, by reporting to parliamentary committees and by presenting an annual report.

For the past 18 months, I have devoted a lot of time and energy to the Vancouver 2010 Olympics to make sure that Canada hosts the Games in both languages. Earlier this week, I published a follow-up study on the matter. Since the original study was published last fall, we have seen some improvements on behalf of the Vancouver Organizing Committee and government institutions. However, problems continue to persist in terms of volunteer recruitment and training, signage, cultural programming and translation.

Through my work on this file, I have also been appearing regularly before the official languages committees of both the House of Commons and the Senate in order to inform them of progress and shortcomings.

Another major file from the past year is second-language education at the university level. Although it is possible to study one’s second language throughout most of Canada, it is nearly impossible to study in one’s field of interest in the other language. Furthermore, Francophones wishing to continue studying in their mother tongue must, in many cases, choose to study in English as courses are not offered in French in their area, or at French universities that are within reach.

Many of our children participate in French immersion or core French programs. However, the continuum is broken once they get to university. This is disheartening to me since many jobs now require two, three and sometimes four languages. The public service alone is Canada’s biggest employer, and new graduates who wish to access jobs within it will find they need such language skills, particularly if they want to work in Ottawa or other designated bilingual regions. If they eventually want to become supervisors, the need for these skills is even greater.

What we call “active offer” is a key element in the federal government's language obligations.

This means that when you go to a federal office—or an office of an organization that falls under the Official Languages Act, like Air Canada or Canada Post, you should not have to insist on being served in the official language of your choice. The person behind the counter should offer you the choice by saying "Bonjour, hello."

The bad news is that very few federal institutions have made active offer part of their culture. The good news is that the post office here in North Hatley is, in my experience, a model in providing active offer.

These simple actions are helping to bring together Canada’s two official language communities.

It was just over 60 years ago that Hugh MacLennan’s novel Two Solitudes added an indelible phrase to the language. It was published in 1945, and its sweeping epic of linguistic and ethnic tension suddenly became the permanent template through which English Canadians perceived French Canada.

I am not a literary scholar. But I would like to use this opportunity to take a brief look at a group of English-speaking intellectuals who summered in North Hatley beginning in the 1940s, as well as some of the more recent residents and their contribution to this community, to Quebec and to Canada as a whole.

Hugh MacLennan, Mason Wade, I.M.B. Dobell and F.R. Scott were all friends, and all of them spent their summers in North Hatley and had a profound influence on modern Quebec and Canada. Their books are in this library, on the local authors’ bookcase—which is itself a testimony to the creativity in this community.

MacLennan came to Montréal as an adult; I heard him once say, in the defiantly provocative way he sometimes had, “I am not a Canadian, I am a Nova Scotian.” He was a deeply passionate man, fascinated by the contact between French and English, the impact of history on society, the relationships between fathers and sons, and the tectonic plates of social change. Two Solitudes entered the language—sometimes in a distorted fashion—as a description of the relationship between French and English in Canada. Writing during the conscription crisis of World War II, he drew a character—Marius Tallard—who was a nationalist campaigning against conscription in World War I.

Mason Wade—an American who became fascinated with French Canada after writing a biography of Francis Parkman—was a large man, with an excessive appetite and a dark mixture of gloom and enthusiasm. Tall, loud, sometimes cheerfully abrasive, he had a surprisingly gentle seriousness with children.

In 1942, when he was working on his history of French Canada (The French Canadians 1760–1945), Wade would bring his friends to Bloc populaire rallies, opening a window on Quebec nationalism that had been hitherto unknown to them.

After Wade’s death, Ibby Dobell told me: “He would never say so, but he had an understanding of Quebec that we often could not grasp.” She remembered accompanying him to hear Henri Bourassa speak at a rally in Granby in the early 1940s.

She also said: “He sensed, as we did not, that there was a possibility that the country might be torn apart by the problem. He could see what was coming.”1

Dobell herself was a historian, author and, most importantly, curator of the McCord Museum, transforming a collection that had been left to moulder in a forgotten corner of McGill University into a dynamic display of material objects reflecting Quebec’s evolving history.

In August 1943, Wade told his friends in North Hatley that Henri Bourassa was speaking in Magog on behalf of a Bloc populaire candidate in the Stanstead by-election. Bourassa was about to turn 75, and it would be one of the last opportunities to hear him speak.

So, a group headed over to hear him.

“Bourassa was introduced by a man with blazing eyes, a lock of hair, a high voice filled with passion and hatred,” MacLennan told me almost 40 years later. “I said to Wade, ‘Who in the hell is that?’ ‘That’s André Laurendeau.’ ‘I just put him in a book and mailed him to New York a week ago.’”2

To MacLennan, it was the shock of recognition: his character Marius Tallard in the flesh. The two men did not meet then, but five years later, Laurendeau sent MacLennan a copy of a children’s book he had written, inscribed “D’une solitude à l’autre.” And 20 years after the speech in Magog, Laurendeau became co-chair of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism—with Scott as a member.

MacLennan did not only write about Quebec in his fiction. In a number of essays in the 1950s and 1960s, he wrote about the changes that were underway in Quebec society, and how the rest of the country should respond.

In 1960, when only three percent of English-speaking Canadians outside Quebec spoke French, MacLennan made an impassioned plea for bilingualism. “The matter is so important to our national existence that the most radical plans should be considered for improving the situation,” he wrote, noting the twofold benefit of learning French.

“On the one hand, the study of a language like French is rewarding in itself and gives a superlative training to a student in the precise handling of his own language,” he wrote. “On the other hand, an interest in bilingualism may well be the sole measure which can save Canada from absorption by the United States. This country of ours is a dual one or it is nothing: the essence of Canadian nationhood lies in this very fact, that it is a political fusion of the two elements in North American history which refused to belong to the United States.”3

In 1966, he called for the creation of minority French-language schools in English-speaking provinces, and the creation of a federal public service where French-speaking Canadians could use their language and be understood. “It is essential in the interests not only of justice according to the B.N.A. Act, but also of an efficient partnership,” he wrote. “A great deal of a man’s ability is left behind him if he has to do business and be judged in a language not native to him.”4

At the same time, his friend and North Hatley neighbour Frank Scott was wrestling with the debates of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism, which came to exactly the same conclusion.

Laurendeau was co-chairman with Davidson Dunton, but his real counterpart on the Royal Commission, his intellectual and emotional counterweight from English-speaking Canada, was Frank Scott. Like Laurendeau, he had a subtle mind, political idealism, personal charisma and a poet’s sensibility; also like Laurendeau, he had only reluctantly joined the Commission. As Laval political scientist Guy Laforest puts it in his essay on the two men, “While both were intellectuals involved in the political debates of their society, they were also artists, two figures endowed with a remarkable aesthetic sensibility.”5 Laforest traces the parallels: both men engaged in the arts and were politically involved, both withdrew from political life somewhat at the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s, and, at the end of the decade, both were éminences grises: intellectual leaders of Quebec and English-speaking Canada respectively.

They shared an erudition, intellectual rigour and sensuality—but while Laurendeau had an almost therapeutic sensitivity, listening to people without judging them, Scott had a cutting sense of humour. “I can still hear that great laugh that made you know he was there at a party even when he was two rooms away,” wrote Michael Oliver in 1997—12 years after Scott’s death. He observed that everyone knew a different Frank Scott. “For me he was myth incarnate: the co-author of the Regina Manifesto, the vanquisher of Maurice Duplessis, the man whose name the Montreal Star would not publish, the magician who could put social as well as personal passion into the frame of verse.”6

Born in Québec City in 1899, Scott was a Rhodes Scholar who, on returning to Montréal, became engaged not only in English-speaking political and cultural life, but also with French-Canadian traditions. “I could understand Stendhal reading the Code Napoleon to improve his prose style,” he wrote. “One summer to occupy my spare time as a student in a Montréal law office I translated the whole of the Coutume de Paris, the principal source of the Civil Law in Quebec prior to the adoption of her own Civil Code of 1866. The continuity of Quebec’s traditions with old France, and through the civil law with ancient Rome, has always seemed to me a fascinating part of our Canadian heritage.”7

Scott was a socialist and a wit in conservative English Montréal when to be a socialist was an outrage and to be witty was outrageous. His laugh was unforgettable; he was a tall, handsome man, and his mouth often curled with what seemed to be the effort of keeping in the laughter. When it burst out, often loud and raucous, it would fill a room and linger like pipe smoke. His best-known commentary on bilingualism was in a poem first published in 1954, Bonne Entente:

The advantages of living with two cultures
Strike one at every turn,
Especially when one finds a notice in an office building
‘This elevator will not run on Ascension Day’;
Or reads in the Montreal Star:
‘Tomorrow being the Feast of the Immaculate Conception,
There will be no garbage collection in the city’;
Or sees on the restaurant menu the bilingual dish:


What did these four extraordinary people have in common? They were brash, outspoken, provocative intellectuals. They had a deep knowledge of Quebec and Canadian history. They had a profound sense that the future of Canada depended on a creative, dynamic relationship between French-speaking and English-speaking Canada—and each, in their different ways, worked to bridge that gap. But they also lived in a particular era, while the English community in Quebec was still psychologically part of the English-speaking majority, and did not yet consider itself to be a minority.

Two events changed that—and changed their views: the October Crisis of 1970 and the election of the Parti Québécois in 1976. Scott and MacLennan both supported the War Measures Act. “Democracy has to be able to protect itself,” said Scott. “These hooligans are holding up our government, threatening our civil rights. They have to be stopped. And so do the hotheads who are encouraging them. People are afraid, the situation is volatile, and the War Measures Act is the only instrument we’ve got, however clumsy, to restore some sense of order.”9

For Scott, it meant an irreparable breach with French-speaking writers and poets: nationalists who had previously been friends, including his North Hatley neighbour, sociologist Marcel Rioux.

Then, as a result of a nasty brush with two cars near North Hatley in the fall of 1970, MacLennan became convinced that he was an FLQ target.10

During the last 15 years of his life, Scott became increasingly bitter about the fact that his dream of a bilingual Quebec in a bilingual Canada was fading... and what he feared, a unilingual Quebec provoking an anti-French backlash in the rest of Canada, seemed to be on the increase.

He was bitterly disappointed that Pierre Trudeau did not use the power of disallowance to strike down Bill 22 and Bill 101.

But in the 25 years since his death, the Supreme Court has corrected some of the injustices that so outraged Scott. The Blaikie decision by the Supreme Court re-established that laws must be enacted in English and in French in Quebec, and that regulations must be in English and in French. It made clear that the right of “persons” to use English and French in the courts extended to corporations. Then, in 1988, in the Ford case, the Supreme Court ruled that while it was permissible to insist on having French on signs, it was unconstitutional to forbid the use of a language, thereby the right to have English on signs in Quebec.

And North Hatley has continued to attract many who have been fascinated by Canada's linguistic duality. In the 1970s and 1980s, Marcel Rioux, Gérald Godin and Pauline Julien all spent time here. Sheila Fischman began her career as a translator here in North Hatley. Bob Keaton, one of the founders of the Montreal Citizens' Movement, a model of linguistic collaboration, continues to come every summer, as do Norman and Pat Webster. Norman continues to be a trenchant analyst of language issues, and Pat was one of the founders of Canadian Parents for French. Ronald Sutherland virtually created the field of comparative studies in Quebec and Canadian literature.


I think that this community continues to reflect the cultural energy that so many of its residents, permanent or temporary, have brought to the region.

Thank you very much.

1. Quoted in “Solitary U.S. scholar wrote seminal work on French Canada,” The Globe and Mail, January 18, 1986.

2. Quoted in “The Last Saga of Hugh MacLennan,” The Globe and Mail, May 18, 1985, p. B1.

3. “French is a must for Canadians,” in The Other Side of Hugh MacLennan: Selected Essays Old and New, edited by Elspeth Cameron, Toronto, Macmillan of Canada, 1978, p. 164.

4. “An English-Speaking Quebecker Looks at Quebec,” in op. cit., p. 234.

5. Guy Laforest, “The Meech 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.

6. Introduction, McGill Law Journal, special issue, Vol. 80, No. 1.

7. Introduction, Poems of French Canada, Blackfish Press, 1977.

8. First published in Events and Signals, Toronto, Ryerson Press, 1954.

9. Quoted by Ron Graham in The French Quarter, Macfarlane, Walter and Ross, Toronto, 1992, p. 204.

10. See The Globe and Mail, May 18, 1985, and the National Film Board documentary by Robert Duncan: Hugh MacLennan, Portrait of a Writer, 1982.