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“The Role of the Media in Bridging the French-English Divide”
Remarks to the Ottawa Chapter of the Canadian Association of Journalists


Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Thank you for the invitation to speak to you today. This is my first time I making a presentation to a group of former colleagues since I became Commissioner of Official Languages three months ago.

I have a warm spot as far as the CAJ is concerned – but a slightly wistful feeling as well. I was part of a group of journalists involved in the early discussions that led to the creation of the Centre for Investigative Journalism – the CIJ – the precursor to the Canadian Association of Journalists – the CAJ. Let me tell you a bit about how the Association got started.

In 1978 and 1979, I was part of a group of journalists who decided that it would be worthwhile to set up an organization of both English-speaking and French-speaking journalists. During a book tour to promote his investigative work on Montreal real estate manoeuvrings entitled City For Sale, Henry Aubin of The Gazette met Jock Ferguson, then a CBC-TV reporter. That encounter, and their common concerns about the state of investigative journalism, led to a wider continuing discussion that included Nick Fillmore of CBC Radio and Jean-Claude Leclerc of Le Devoir. A little later, I joined them, as did Gérald Leblanc of La Presse, Richard Cléroux of The Globe and Mail and a number of other colleagues. Several Quebec journalists doubted the relevance of a new association; they already had La Fédération professionelle des journalistes du Québec (FPJQ), and they did not want to join a parallel organization, nor to see one develop that would siphon members from the Féderation.

What was agreed upon was that the new organization would focus on investigative journalism – investigative in its broadest sense – and as a result the Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ) was created. Several annual conferences generated considerable enthusiasm; the contact between English-speaking and French-speaking journalists who were wrestling with many of the same issues seemed constructive. But the original idea did not survive longer than a few years: English-speaking journalists wanted a broader focus for the organization than simply investigation, no matter how that was defined.

Somewhere around 1986, there began to be pressure to change the Centre’s name and its mandate and, after much debate at several conventions, the changes were made. The CIJ became the CAJ. With a sense of regret and of lost opportunities on the part of some of the original organizers of the CIJ but no bitterness or hard feelings, the CAJ and the FPJQ ran along parallel tracks, with amicable but distant relations.

“The FPJQ run their show and we run ours,” Robert Cribb, who was president of the CAJ from 2001-2003, told me, adding “there’s not a hint of ill-will between us.” Alain Gravel, president of the FPJQ, told me that there are almost no day-to day interactions between the two organizations. “They are almost non-existent; we have very very little to do with one another,” he said. “I have no contact with the CAJ, there is no follow-up. It’s a shame. We have contacts with Reporters Without Borders, and we are members of many international organizations; we have connections with groups almost everywhere, but very little contact with the CAJ. It’s a pity; the same laws apply to us, but there is no connection, nobody calls from either group. Mind you,” he added thoughtfully, “I work at Radio-Canada, and it’s the same situation with CBC.”

But when it matters, the two organizations do work closely and effectively together. “Occasionally, issue-based relations bring us together,” Robert Cribb said, describing how the CAJ and the FPJQ worked together when CanWest imposed a single editorial policy on all the members of the newspaper chain. The two groups co-ordinated their efforts, put together a package of material in both languages and sent it to all Members of Parliament. Along the same vein, Alain Gravel recounted that when a reporter for The Hamilton Spectator was fined for refusing to reveal a source, the FPJQ got involved and sent a member of the executive to the CAJ conference in Winnipeg. “Major, overarching national issues bring us together,” Robert Cribb stated. “In such instances, we effectively represent the whole country.”

But the language that English-Canadians use to describe Canadian organizations usually does not reflect the fact that those groups that purport to be national in scope are in fact English-speaking organizations. The CAJ is a good example: its name appears in English and French on its Web site – a stylized lower case caj beside “Canadian Association of Journalists/L’association canadienne des journalistes” – but the rest of the site is entirely in English. In its mission statement, the CAJ says, “The CAJ promotes excellence in journalism, encouraging investigative journalism. We serve as the national voice of Canadian journalists, and we uphold the public’s right to know.” The bilingual title exists as a claim of national representativeness, but there is nothing in the mission statement, the goals, the caucuses or the Web site of the organization that would suggest that journalism in Canada might occur in French.

The FPJQ has a larger membership than the CAJ – over 1800 as compared to 1500 – due to the fact that the employees of a number of media organizations become FPJQ members automatically, while every CAJ member is a member by choice. On its Web site – which is in French only – the FPJQ has a link to the CAJ site, which it describes as “a kind of equivalent to the FPJQ, whose 1500 members come, in the great majority, from English Canada.”

It is, in fact, a form of sovereignty-association: two groups that have evolved with different cultural approaches and different structures, but come together on occasion when their common interests are affected.

Over the past 21 years, since I moved to Ottawa and joined the Press Gallery, I have observed a similar kind of “linguistic divide.” In these two decades, every Prime Minister was from Quebec: Brian Mulroney until 1993, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin from 1993 until 2006 – with the exception of Kim Campbell’s summer and Stephen Harper. During that time, a remarkable number of members in the Gallery (including senior columnists) at times have been unable to cover the Prime Minister speaking to Canadians.

I remember when I first started working at the Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau, that when Mulroney would fly to Baie Comeau to visit his constituency, or elsewhere in the province, a small group of reporters would gather at Hangar 11 to cover his departure. We were always the same ones – and we used to quip that the fact that we were able to cover the Prime Minister speaking French was a kind of employment insurance.

Things have improved somewhat – I don’t think we would see a repeat of the scene captured in a documentary on the 1979 federal election campaign, where Pierre Trudeau’s press secretary, Suzanne Perry gave a running simultaneous translation of what the PM was saying to a group of unilingual Ottawa reporters.

Brian Mulroney used to take advantage of the unilingualism of the English gallery. When Lucien Bouchard was given responsibility for looking at party practices and fundraising when he was sworn into cabinet in March 1988, Mulroney only mentioned it in French. As a result, there was almost no mention of this in the English media.

Similarly, during the 2000 election campaign, while campaigning in southern Ontario, Jean Chrétien made a highly provocative remark about Stockwell Day, saying that the latter wanted to destroy Canada. A wire service representative transmitted this information immediately – and two hours later, all the reporters on the campaign bus got calls from their editors, asking about the comment. Most of them had neither reacted to Mr. Chrétien’s remarks nor considered including them in their stories – because he had been speaking French, and they hadn’t understood him.

Need I remind you of the embarrassment, in the fall of 2005, when CTV reported that Lucien Bouchard had died? A network staff member had come across the documentary on the 1995 referendum, “Point de Rupture,” when it was playing on RDI – and thought that it was a live report on the former Premier’s death.

Given the current context of a Parliament where an English-speaking Prime Minister is able to deliver clear messages in French to Quebec voters, and where the leaders of the other parties are all bilingual – Stéphane Dion, leader of the Liberal Party, as well as Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe and NDP leader Jack Layton both in key positions to affect the future of a minority government – shouldn’t the members of the Press Gallery reflect on their ability to explain the thinking, the influences, the friends and acquaintances of Canada’s political leaders? Without putting too fine a point on it, I think one of the primary requirements for any national reporter is to be able to understand the Prime Minister when he speaks to Canadians. Unfortunately, that standard, which I see as fundamental, is still not always met.

I can tell you that the particular importance Stephen Harper places on meeting with reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons – where there is no simultaneous interpretation – has proven problematic for some members of the Gallery. However, in terms of his public behaviour, Stephen Harper has been exemplary in his respect of linguistic duality. In all parts of Canada, on foreign visits, and in international gatherings, he has taken care to use both French and English in his oral communications.

However, his government has given conflicting messages on language policy. It is thanks to the support of the Conservative Party, under his leadership, that Parliament passed the amendments to the Official Languages Act in December 2005. Josée Verner, the minister responsible for official languages, was truly proud when she appeared before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages last spring.

But last September, the Harper government abolished the Court Challenges Program and the Innovation Fund. When I assumed my present job as Commissioner of Official Languages, dozens of complaints had already been filed on this subject; we have now received over a hundred. We are conducting a full investigation into these complaints, and I don’t want to say anything that would compromise the integrity of that investigation – but as I said when I appeared before Parliamentary Committees that were assessing my suitability for the job, I have trouble reconciling the words of the Harper government with its acts.

I have talked about the need for journalists to be able to understand the Prime Minister – but what about public servants?

The language policy in the public service – which was first announced by Lester Pearson 40 years ago, in 1966, before Pierre Trudeau was even in the federal cabinet – was based on the principles that the federal government should be able to serve Canadians in the official language of their choice, and that federal public servants should be able to work in their choice of English or French.

A year later, when he was Justice Minister, Pierre Trudeau described language rights as two-fold: the right to learn a language and the right to use it. The entire edifice of language rights that has been built since then – the Official Languages Act of 1969, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms of 1982 and the amendments to the Official Languages Act in 1988 and 2005 – are based on those two pillars. Linguistic policy in Canada has two essential goals: to protect the rights of the unilingual – to ensure that the 4 million unilingual French-speaking Canadians have the same level of service as the 20 million unilingual English-speaking Canadians – and to help the growth and development of Canada’s minority language communities.

As Commissioner of Official Languages, I want to build bridges – and to make Canadians aware that French and English are Canadian languages, not foreign ones – and remind them that these languages belong to all Canadians. Mastery of both languages is already a key factor in political leadership; I think it should be understood as a core value and a key factor in leadership throughout the public sector.

I have only been in this job for three months but already I’ve learned that under the influence of bureaucracy, a value can easily become a burden. So if transparency creates a burden on access to information, and if responsible management of taxpayers’ dollars creates a burden on internal auditing, linguistic duality creates a burden associated with levels, imperative staffing, training and testing.

Our challenge is to shift linguistic duality from being a burden to being an asset. There are only four reasons for a public servant to speak both languages: to serve the public, to manage people who have a right to work in both languages, to serve a minister who has a right to be briefed in the language that he or she chooses, and to understand the country as a whole.

In some ways, that last reason is the most significant one for journalists to consider. We have a French-speaking community in this country of some 8 million people. Over 60% of the Francophones in Quebec speak no English. There is a dynamic, exciting French-speaking culture, society and economy in this country – and I don’t know how we can claim to understand Canada as a whole if we don’t understand the two official languages of its people.

Thank you.