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Bilingualism and Biculturalism – Contemporary Issues
Québec City, February 13, 2013
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
I would first like to thank Mathieu Ouimet for giving me the opportunity to speak to you.
Two years ago, I gave an address to Master of Public Policy students at the University of Toronto. I wanted to emphasize the importance of understanding and speaking both official languages when choosing to study public policy in Canada. It can sometimes be more difficult to convince Anglophones in other provinces of the need to speak French than it is to convince Francophones in Quebec of the need to speak English. Yet what’s important is having a country that is bilingual from one coast to another, and that is what I want to talk to you about. Today, students often speak more than two languages. This is highly valuable. But in the field of public affairs in Canada, it is essential to understand that our national dialogue takes place in English and French.
Being bilingual is not only important for a career within the government, however. You may be wondering how official languages policy affects you if you have decided on a career in education, in business, in research or in communications. You may have heard that your language skills will have no impact on your career.
Knowing both official languages is a critical element of leadership—essential if you want to understand and communicate with people both here and abroad, negotiate contracts, woo clients, manage employees and much more.
Being in tune with the society in which you live is an indispensable survival skill. What is important today? What will the big issues be tomorrow? To see the whole picture, you need to be aware of current topics and know how they are being presented—in English and in French.
The media is an imperfect mirror of our society, but it’s the best we have when it comes to examining current events. What they talk about gives us a sense of what’s going to be important in Canada’s immediate future.
Let’s look back at 2012 to see what influenced public opinion the most. If we use Canadian politics as an example, last year’s top five Canadian news stories will be instantly recognizable to all of youFootnote 1:
- Jim Flaherty delivers the federal budget;
- Thomas Mulcair becomes leader of the NDP;
- Senator Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu apologizes after talking about offenders’ “right to a rope;”
- Allegations surface of fraudulent “robocalls” during the 2011 federal election;
- Prime Minister Stephen Harper goes on a trade mission to China.
In Quebec politics, the following dominated media coverage in 2012Footnote 2:
- The minority Parti Québécois government in Quebec;
- The Quebec electoral campaign;
- The student strike and Bill 78;
- The Charbonneau Commission hearings, including testimonies from Martin Dumont and Luc Leclerc;
- The fatal attack at Metropolis during Pauline Marois’ victory speech.
To get a good sense of how Canadians felt about these events, you had to read or listen to the Quebec media—and the rest of the Canadian media—in English and in French.
Part of your job as policy analysts will be to understand reactions to events in different parts of the country. To do that effectively, you need to watch “Le Téléjournal” as well as the “The National,” “Tout le monde en parle” as well as CTV’s “Question Period” or “The Hour.” Should your minister go on “Tout le monde en parle?” If so, how should he or she be briefed? If you don’t watch, or can’t understand the program—which is one of the most watched programs in Canada overall, and not just the most watched program in French—or if you only watch television in French, it will be hard to give good advice to your minister. Being a public affairs professional in Canada—even in Quebec—and only speaking one language is what we’d call a “career-limiting move.”
Attitudes towards language policy are different depending on which language the conversation takes place in, and the challenges are different. In English-speaking Canada, the attitude towards what is happening in French-speaking Canada is often one of indifference, whereas in French-speaking Canada, the issue is linguistic insecurity: the fear that the French language is being threatened. These are two important challenges that you must be able to address if you want to work in public affairs.
These issues are intensified at regular intervals with the publication of census data showing dramatic population growth in Western Canada and the shrinking percentage Francophones represent of Canada’s population. This trend is natural; it is impossible to welcome 250,000 newcomers to Canada every year and maintain an equal percentage of French and English speakers. Similarly, we shouldn’t bemoan the fact that major centres in Quebec are anglicizing; Quebec welcomes between 40,000 and 50,000 immigrants every year, the majority of whom settle in Montreal! All these people do not become instant Francophones. While many of them already speak French, they have another linguistic and cultural background that they cannot leave at the airport! As the host society, we have to expect our linguistic landscape to change, just as Canadian society is changing. We adapt. Our linguistic identities become pluralistic by necessity. Public policies, and the people who create them to reflect the society we live in, must also adapt.
We currently have an increase in the number of allophones in the country, and of Francophones outside of Quebec; there are now more than one million Francophones outside of Quebec, just like there are one million Anglophones in Quebec. We also have to remember that “other languages” means a whole host of languages. People do not speak “allophone,” in other words, a popular “other” language, like Spanish in the United States, for example.
Although English is undoubtedly the lingua franca of the early 21st century, the attractive power of French has also risen. Francophones are no longer the only ones who want to keep French relevant. In fact, never in the history of the language have so many people learned or spoken French, both in Canada and around the world. And this trend is confirmed by the ever-increasing popularity of French immersion programs across the country.
In the early 1970s, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, concluded that there was still a lot to do before English and French would have “full equality of status” in Ottawa. Some 40 years later, even though there are still challenges, we can say that our current language regime has been built on the Commission’s recommendations.
Here is a brief overview.
After realizing that French speakers did not have their rightful place in the federal government, Lester B. Pearson, Canada's prime minister from 1963 to 1968, established the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in 1963.
The B&B Commission recommended in particular that English and French be formally declared the official languages of Parliament, the federal administration and federal courts. The objective was to give Canadians the opportunity to communicate in English or French with their government, give them equal opportunities to obtain federal government positions, enable them to work in the official language of their choice and strengthen the vitality of official language communities.
The B&B Commission’s vision of linguistic duality was based on the notion of two founding peoples and their equal status across the country.
While the B&B Commission was at work, Quebec’s society was going through a profound transformation. A strong nationalist movement resulted in a provincial government claiming greater autonomy within Canada. Both the French language and French speakers moved increasingly towards their rightful place in the province.
In the wake of the B&B Commission’s recommendations, and thanks to the leadership of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the Parliament of Canada adopted the first Official Languages Act in July 1969, giving English and French the status of official languages of Canada. The Act created the position of Commissioner of Official Languages, whose role was defined by the B&B Commission as “the protector of the Canadian public and the critic of the federal government in matters respecting the official languages.” I am the sixth.
Canada had a substantial number of bilingual citizens when the members of the Commission wrote their report. In 1961, more than 2.2 million Canadians, or 12% of the population, stated that they could speak both official languages. Today, the 2011 Census reports that this number is 5.8 million, which is 17.4% of the population.
However, at the time, the English and French mother-tongue communities were far from being equally bilingual. In 1961, Quebec’s Francophone majority and the Francophone communities outside Quebec accounted for 70% of the country’s bilingual population, even though they represented only 28% of the total population.
In light of these statistics, it is easy to conclude that, before the Official Languages Act came into force, the responsibility to be bilingual lay mainly with Francophones. Even in Quebec, the Francophone population often had to master English to be able to earn a living, communicate with storekeepers or deal with the federal government.
This situation has improved and, over the years, linguistic duality has become a Canadian value. Today, the place where English and French come into contact in Quebec is no longer what it used to be. Fifty years ago, this contact took place between Anglophone managers and Francophone foremen. For the past 10 years, the point of contact has been at a lower level in the corporate hierarchy. That is not because bosses refuse to speak French, but rather because Quebec companies are expanding: Jean Coutu now does business in the U.S., and Rona and Desjardins now have locations in provinces other than Quebec. Employees and managers who haven’t had to speak English for 20 years are now doing business in Boston, Toronto and Halifax. Mastery of the other official language is becoming ever more important, and for good reasons.
These days, knowing both of Canada’s official languages pays off personally as well as professionally. Being bilingual helps you overcome many challenges.
You are building the future of linguistic duality in Canada. And you have a very important role in Quebec’s future. The values you hold today will have an impact on the public policies of tomorrow. This is why linguistic duality must continue to occupy a privileged place among your values.
I have been arguing this since the beginning of my mandate: the ability to cross language barriers is a key leadership skill in a country like Canada.
To address the challenge of ensuring that there are more bilingual candidates in senior positions, the government could take steps to enlarge the pool. This might be done in various ways: by dramatically expanding current exchange programs, by creating scholarships for students to study in their second language and by offering language training programs for professional development in areas where there is a shortage. There are precedents for these kinds of initiatives; for example, when the government felt that there were too many talented students leaving the country and too many distinguished researchers working outside Canada, it created the Millennium Scholarships and the Canada Research Chairs.
Half a century after the creation of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, our language challenges are very different. Quebec society has developed successful music, television, film and publishing industries. To a greater extent than ever before, immigrants to Quebec are learning French, French-speaking immigrants are being attracted to official language minority communities across Canada, and hundreds of thousands of English-speaking students are doing their primary and secondary studies in French.
One reason that these facts are so little known is that there is so little effort made to publicize them. How many bilingual Anglophone ministers, generals and ambassadors have appeared on “Tout le monde en parle,” or spoken before the Trois-Rivières chamber of commerce? How many bilingual Francophone ministers, businessmen and filmmakers are invited to speak at Canadian Clubs across the country?
Similarly, recognizing that proficiency in both official languages is a critical leadership competency, ministers, members of Parliament and heads of federal agencies—just like thousands of public service employees—have worked hard to become proficient in both official languages. To what extent are they using those skills to communicate publicly with Canadians? For Quebec politicians, addressing the public in English is practically a violation of ethics, while expectations are high when it comes to the French-language skills of our federal politicians. Quebecers should have the same expectations of their provincial representatives.
Every community is too culturally rich to ignore. Making sense of Canada’s national dialogue is very difficult if we understand only half of it. It is imperative that Canada’s next generation of leaders are able to communicate proficiently in the country’s two official languages.
Demonstrating leadership in public affairs means knowing English-speaking and French-speaking communities, both across the province and across the country: the newspapers they read, the television programs they watch, the movies they see and the theatres they go to.
It means getting their jokes.
As Gérald Godin said 30 years ago, French is not threatened by Quebec’s English-speaking community. In fact, Godin saw the Quebec government’s commitment to multiculturalism and diversity as an opportunity to establish more meaningful objectives for Quebec’s society. Of course, the vitality of the French language in Quebec in the North American context remains a key issue. What we need to do is to talk about language in a way that embraces Montreal’s linguistic diversity and plurality, while supporting the objective of a shared language.
The world is changing so rapidly that it is essential to have flexible tools and policies that help us adapt to our current linguistic reality. Communities continue to diversify more and faster than before. Laws and policies have been established to protect the French language in Quebec, and they work. Quebec is primarily French, and has the means to stay that way. But in our globalized economy, no modern society has the means to ignore the lingua franca of its era. The future lies in versatility and bilingualism—or better yet, multilingualism. That is a measure of success. French will not disappear. It is true, though, that the face of French is changing and that it will continue to change.
Thank you. If we still have time, I’d like to answer any questions you may have, or hear about your own experiences with linguistic duality.