Federal language law often misunderstood: commissioner

Ensuring every Canadian speaks English and French was never the goal, Official Languages Commissioner Graham Fraser says. It's actually almost the opposite. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press.
Ensuring every Canadian speaks English and French was never the goal, Official Languages Commissioner Graham Fraser says. It's actually almost the opposite. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press.

This summer, we spoke with Canada’s officers of Parliament. We profile each in an eight-part series. Read them all here.

Describing “the Canadian identity” is never an easy feat. For one man, there’s no question linguistic duality is at its heart.

But believing that bilingualism is at the core of Canadian identity doesn’t mean, as some may think, every Canadian should be able to speak both English and French, says Graham Fraser, Canada’s commissioner of official languages and one of the eight officers of Parliament.

“That has never been the purpose of the policy,” he said recently. “This is something that is fundamentally misunderstood.”

Rather, enshrining French and English as Canada’s official languages was meant to achieve almost the opposite, Fraser says.

He described the misunderstanding as the “paradox of official bilingualism.”

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“The purpose of the policy is to ensure that the state becomes bilingual and can serve Canadians in their official language of choice so that citizens don’t have to be bilingual,” Fraser explained.

The success of the Official Languages Act therefore, should not hinge on whether Canadians are able to speak and write in both languages, he says. It would have to be considered an abject failure if so, as a large majority of Canadians remain unilingual.

However, those individuals are able to receive services from the federal government in either language. This is where Fraser measures the success of the legislation, and where he says it becomes entwined with Canadian identity.

Languages Commissioner Graham Fraser in Ottawa, ready to release his 2009 annual report. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand. Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press

Versions of history

Whether Canadians agree with Fraser’s picture of the Canadian identity is another question, and even he admits he is uncertain.

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For those who don’t, it may be that they don’t fully comprehend this country’s history, he offers.

“I think one of the things that’s happened over the last few years is that Canadian history is not taught as much or as systematically as it used to be in previous generations,” he says. “And we’re a country that welcomes 250,000 newcomers every year who, by definition, haven’t studied Canadian history, haven’t gone to school in Canada.”

One storyline, oft recited by Quebec nationalists, Fraser says, offers a negative narrative of language relations through Canada’s history. That storyline frequently hits on the conquest of Lord Durham, the hanging of Louis Riel and the conscription crises, among other low points.

But there is an often-neglected, positive narrative that dates back just as far, Fraser says before recounting a history so familiar to him he may as well be reciting the names of his family members.

The negative storyline, Fraser noted, ignores the fact that a decade after Lord Durham moved for the assimilation of French, Lord Elgin, Canada’s governor general in the late 1840s, helped reintroduce French to the national legislature, even giving part of a throne speech in French.

Nor does it mention, as Fraser’s narrative continues, Sir John A. Macdonald’s careful balancing of French and English interests, after realizing that establishing positive relations between the two groups was the only way the government and country could survive.

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And lost in the story of the conscription crisis of the First World War is the fact the government, with the help of a French Canadian entrepreneur, established the Royal 22e Régiment, a solely French Canadian regiment.

“There has been this constant desire within the country to have positive relations between the English and French,” Fraser says after speeding through the history lesson. “Many Canadians don’t necessarily understand.”

Of course, Fraser is intimately familiar with it.

Official Languages Commissioner Graham Fraser responds to questions in Ottawa following the release of his 2009 annual report. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand.

A gloriously asymmetrical system

As commissioner, Fraser is responsible for overseeing federal language laws. Each province, however, decides independently the language in which services will be offered. This discrepancy has created, in Fraser’s words, an “odd, asymmetrical, but nevertheless quite powerful and quite effective language policy.”

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The hodge-podge, Fraser says, is the result of another of the Royal Commission’s recommendations: in order for French-speaking culture to survive, the government needed to ensure it remained prominent in Quebec, rather than try to extend bilingualism across the rest of the country.

“So now we have a gloriously asymmetrical language system in Canada, in which we have one officially bilingual province, which is New Brunswick and one officially unilingual French-speaking province, Quebec,” Fraser says.

Ontario, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have French-language service laws, while Manitoba has a language policy that is not yet legislated.

In Saskatchewan and Alberta, meanwhile, guarantees of French services on the provincial level were essentially wiped out in the early 20th century; Alberta now has a languages act that specifies English as the official language.

And in British Columbia, a provincial court ruled it would not accept documentation in French—a decision that was upheld in the Supreme Court.

“So we go from one end of the spectrum to the other,” Fraser says. “But I think what that means is that it is very important that the federal government take every measure it can to ensure that both languages be present on the national scene.”

The federal government has come under fire for breaching the spirit of the law after appointing a unilingual anglophone as auditor general in late 2011.

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“As agents of Parliament, we are accountable to parliamentarians, and I think any parliamentarian should feel they can have a private meeting with me or any of my colleagues and speak in their language of choice,” Fraser says, reflecting on the controversy. “They should not have to learn a second language to be able to speak to one of us.”

The immediate outcry from Canadians, evidenced in newspapers across the country, demonstrated just how strong the spirit of the law actually is, Fraser says. As a consequence of that appointment, the official Opposition tabled a bill requiring officers of Parliament nominees be able to speak and understand English and French at the time of their appointment. The bill received support from all parties.

Fraser’s term was recently extended three years, until 2016. With the extra time, he said, he hopes to move in three key areas: laying the groundwork for the 2017 celebrations commemorating 150 years since Confederation, examining the ongoing challenge immigration presents for language issues, and developing a means for Canada to share what it has learned with other countries where language is an element of social conflict.

“You have to remember that when the royal commission was launched, there were terrorist bombs going off in Montreal,” he says. “It was developed as a policy that would ease deep-rooted social discontent and serious conflict.”

While those tensions have waxed and waned throughout the decades, Fraser says he believes Canadians are finally beginning to understand that linguistic duality is part of being Canadian.

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“I think increasingly there’s a sense that this other language belongs to us as a Canadian, even if we don’t speak that other language,” he says. “It’s part of what it means to be Canadian.”

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