ARCHIVED - Montréal, November 21, 2012

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Notes for an address at the Discussion Forum on the Perspectives of Canadians of Diverse Backgrounds on Linguistic Duality  

Opening remarks

Graham Fraser – Commissioner of Official Languages

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Good morning.

First, I would like to welcome you all to the Discussion Forum on the Perspectives of Canadians of Diverse Backgrounds on Linguistic Duality. Thank you for accepting my invitation. Your participation here today will help us to improve our knowledge and understanding of your perspectives on, and your experiences with, linguistic duality and cultural diversity.

This is the fourth forum of its kind that my office has organized. Building on the success of the first three forums, which were held in Toronto, Vancouver, and Halifax, we decided to pursue this initiative in Montréal.

The fact that Canada has two dynamic languages and cultures is a source of creativity, innovation and ongoing dialogue. It can also be, from time to time, a source of tension and disagreement. But the fact that the two language groups must constantly work together has helped Canadian society develop its values, which include respect, compromise, empathy and acceptance.

Exploring the links between cultural diversity and linguistic duality in Canada would not be complete without input from Montréal. Montréal is a buzzing, vibrant multicultural Canadian city and has become an international centre of attraction for a whole series of cultural phenomena, like the independent music and film scenes and the high-tech creative industries. People from all over the world, with all kinds of linguistic backgrounds, are attracted to Montréal because of its cultural vitality, its energy.

Quebec is the only province in Canada where French is the official language, and where English-speaking Canadians are in the minority—the complete opposite of the situation in the rest of Canada, except for New Brunswick, which, as you know, has two official languages—English and French—just like Canada. This can be confusing because of the contradicting messages coming from the Canadian government, which is promoting linguistic duality, and the Quebec government, which emphasizes the importance of using French only.

There has been a long-standing tradition of suspicion in Quebec that learning another language, particularly English, is a slippery slope towards assimilation. I don’t think that’s true. I think this reaction stems from a profound misunderstanding. Montréal has the highest rate of bilingualism in the country, according to the 2011 Census figures, with more than half of the population claiming to be able to have a conversation in both English and French. The Census also revealed that a growing number of immigrants who don’t speak English are becoming bilingual by learning French. In fact, the fastest-growing language group in the province is made up of Quebecers that speak French and another language that is not English, rising from 3.8% of the population in 2006 up to 5% in 2011.1

In short, although French is the common and official language of Quebec, both languages have a place in this province and both are part of the common heritage of Quebecers. Personal bilingualism—although not an obligation—is to be encouraged for all Quebecers in all spheres of their lives. Quebecers of all backgrounds are responding well to that: the province is the most bilingual in Canada.

English and French are Canadian languages, not foreign languages. There is no question that the French language has to be protected in Quebec, but it has to be done while respecting the rights of the English-speaking minority. There is a fundamental difference between the undisputable rise of English—an international language of communication used by industries, businesses, researchers and tourists—and the needs of Quebec’s English-speaking communities.

Gérald Godin, former Quebec minister of cultural communities and immigration, who passed away in 1994, understood this distinction well. Thirty years ago, he stated quite clearly that Quebec’s Anglophone community was very much a minority and posed no threat to French. The threat, he said, came from elsewhere. Three decades later, the impact of globalization shows how right he was.

I knew Gérald Godin personally, and I remember very clearly the role that he played in terms of reaching out to the various cultural communities. He saw the government’s commitment to multiculturalism and ethnic diversity as a chance to articulate deeper goals for Quebec society, and thought that what was missing in Quebec was a social project that was stimulating for the mind and that referred to values that are not materialistic, like fraternity, generosity to others, openness and solidarity.2

I think cultural diversity and linguistic duality are two key Canadian values—values that complement each other. Canada’s cultural diversity is a direct result of the steady growth of its diverse population over the past few decades. Canada’s openness and spirit of accommodation, which are the result of the development of the two major language groups in Canada, have helped to encourage immigration and diversity in the Canadian population. The fact that there are two official languages in Canada helps convey this difference.

It is important, however, not to be led astray by the somewhat idealistic values we convey to our newcomers. In a workshop on Canadian values during the forum in Halifax, I heard an account given by a man originally from Colombia. The participants were all referring to typically Canadian values, good values—tolerance, inclusiveness, cooperation. But when the man from Colombia spoke, he said that this was not at all what he had found when he arrived in Canada. What he noticed was competition, individualism, materialism. Only when he left the city for a small community did he discover that those “good” values, such as solidarity and inclusiveness, really did exist in Canada.

That led me to think about the way in which we welcome new immigrants. We repeat fine words about Canadian values. We promote an idealistic version of Canada as welcoming and inclusive, without necessarily acknowledging that the reality is at times entirely different and that there is enormous variation from province to province and from city to city. Comparing ourselves favourably with other countries can sometimes blind us to what needs to change here.

This is why it is particularly useful for us to hear about your experiences directly from you, which may be quite the opposite of what we want to hear. We like to think of Canada as a welcoming country, but it is often useful to be told that this is not always the case. Only you, who have personal experience, can tell us that, so we can gain a better understanding of the challenges that we must overcome in order to live up to our image as a country that truly embraces its diversity.

Linguistic duality and cultural diversity are central elements in Canada’s history, and now constitute two fundamental values of Canadian society. Canadians of diverse backgrounds adopt one – or even both – of the official languages and contribute to the vitality of linguistic duality, and this allows people of all backgrounds to participate fully in Canadian society and to enrich it in all respects.

In the coming decades, Canadian society will continue to see significant socio‑demographic changes. Recent projections by Statistics Canada show that, by 2031, between 25% and 28% of the population will have been born outside Canada,3 which means we can expect to see an increase in the proportion of Canadians whose mother tongue is neither English nor French.

Linguistic duality will also continue to evolve. All English- and French-speaking Canadians, regardless of their origins, must have the opportunity to learn the other official language, and federal government services need to be available in both official languages in many regions of the country.

In reality, there are still some obstacles to overcome before we can take full advantage of the complementary nature of our linguistic and cultural diversity policies. One of these obstacles is most definitely the disconnect between our aspirations for linguistic duality, as expressed by our laws and political discourse, and our present reality, in which linguistic duality is absent from the day-to-day life of many Canadians. By participating in this forum, you can help bridge that gap.

As we have witnessed in other parts of the country, newcomers and cultural communities seem to have a complex relationship with Canada’s official languages. The discussions you are about to take part in are about the future of Canada as a multicultural country where the national dialogue takes place in two languages.

Before you start, I would like to remind you of a few historical facts.

In 1963, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism proposed a new partnership between English- and French-speaking Canadians. In the future, the Government of Canada would function more effectively in both official languages.

In 1969, the Trudeau government passed the Official Languages Act. This legally established the obligation of the federal government to serve Canadians in English or French, as they wished.

Just two years after the Official Languages Act, in 1971, the Government of Canada developed a multiculturalism policy within the general framework of linguistic duality. This led to the adoption of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act in 1988.

The main goal of today’s discussion is to get a better understanding of your perceptions of linguistic duality and the links that exist between linguistic duality and cultural diversity. We want to connect with you in order to continue and enrich the dialogue we began a few years ago with the Vancouver, Toronto and Halifax forums.

I encourage you to share your experiences and perceptions in your own communities, and to discuss your role in relation to Canada’s linguistic duality. Feel free to make suggestions and propose action plans. Your point of view counts, and I would like to thank you in advance for sharing it with us.

I look forward to hearing what you have to say, and will be happy to answer any questions you might have.

Thank you.


1 site

2 Graham Fraser, “Godin leads the push for a Quebec open to diversity,” The Gazette, September 1, 1981.

3 Statistics Canada, Projections of the Diversity of the Canadian Population: 2006 to 2031, Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 99-551-X, Ottawa, 2010, p. 16 ( site).