A lawyer, Normand Grimard was appointed
to the Senate in 1990. He is author of L’indispensable Sénat : Défense d’une
institution mal aimée, Éditions Vent d’Ouest, Hull, 1995.
After thirty years the
Official Languages Act has enabled bilingualism to hold its ground in Canada,
and even extended it somewhat in Parliament, the public service, culture and
everyday life. Despite these benefits hostility has not diminished over
time. Furthermore, the government has been recently accused of
complacency because in transferring services to the provincial governments or
private enterprise, it has not always demanded the appropriate maximum
safeguards to protect the language rights of the minorities being served.
Recent debates over the survival of the Montfort Hospital in Ottawa and the
decision of the Ontario government to turn down political and popular pressures
to give the new megacity of Ottawa an initial bilingual statute as recommended
by a federal parliamentary committee have added more proof of the fragility of
the language issue for Francophones outside Quebec. In this article, Senator
Grimard offers a realistic, amusing and occasionally provocative look at
bilingualism in the National Capital Region.
I have been a Member of the
Senate of Canada for ten years now, and I have noted a number of things about bilingualism
in the National Capital. First, there is an unofficial mathematical formula: if
five francophones are talking together in French and one anglophone happens by,
the entire group will start speaking English. The majority is no longer
in the majority. It bows to the minority. Sometimes, the opposite effect
occurs: it is French that prevails. But that is a vastly rarer
phenomenon, usually shorter in duration, and usually premised on the anglophone
in question having taken language courses and consciously wanting to “practice”
his or her French.
Is an official publication about
to come out? The final touches will involve checking the quality of the
English so that it is perfect. Less attention is paid to the French
version. At meetings, when it comes to both oral communication and written
materials, English prevails over French. For instance, when an official report
is quoted during a debate in one of the two Houses of Parliament or in a
committee, which language will be used? The reason for this is a wholly
justifiable reluctance to complicate the discussion unnecessarily. Time
is a very precious commodity. In practice, what happens, however, is that the
version most often quoted is the one in the language of the majority, and
gradually the English expressions end up taking over, except in cases where the
vagaries of the language lead to wild interpretations.
For instance, unless one is an
inveterate entertainer, addressing “la chaise” or “le fauteuil” has no meaning
in French. In correct French, one does not speak to a chair or an
armchair, inanimate objects both; one addresses the Speaker or the chairperson
who presides over the debates of an assembly. Nonetheless, this peculiar
use of the expression “the chair” is perfectly acceptable in English – it is
encouraged, legitimised and hallowed by centuries of practice. A
committee on which I sat recently proposed that the French versions of
expressions such as “the chair” be corrected in the Senate Rules, the French
version of which dates from March 1996.
Francophone members of
Parliament often find they must upgrade their knowledge of English, or even
come to speak it as a reflex in order to be more effective in debate.
Speaking in one’s own language means having to use simultaneous interpretation
services, and the interpretation can be delivered by a man when a woman is
speaking, and vice versa.
Parliamentary speeches have much less impact
when experienced through a headset.
The ease with which francophones
are able to make their mark in Ottawa varies widely, depending on their place
of origin. In the ebb and flow of oratory, where facility in English carries
weight, Franco-Ontarians, Acadians or francophones from other provinces are
often more successful than francophones whose origins lie in Quebec, because
their ears are already attuned to the language of Shakespeare. They even
have the proper accent! That is an extremely important detail in a city
where eloquence is part of daily life, and where the opinions of the Globe
and Mail and the National Post count more than those of Le Devoir
or La Presse.
Because English is dominant, and
is still the language read and spoken most often (32% of the population speak
French in the national capital’s metropolitan region: 14% in Ottawa proper and
80% in Hull), we cannot count on Ottawa businesses, either on the Byward Market
or at the Rideau Centre, to breathe any new life into French in Ontario. French
has suffered setbacks in the last ten years, rather than experiencing growth.
When neither the Ottawa-Carleton police nor the Ottawa Hospital consider it
essential to include a full knowledge of French in the selection standards for
the Chief of the first or the President of the second, the uncertain standing
of French is apparent.
A Bit of History
Canada will never be as
bilingual as some dreamers would like. However, a look at history shows that it
is more bilingual than the Péquistes (and members of the Bloc Québécois) claim.
The arrival of the French in
1534 was followed by the founding of Quebec City in 1608. Sixty thousand
French settlers were living in Canada at the time of England’s conquest of New
France in 1760. A major breakthrough was created with the Quebec Act, 1774,
explaining in part the kind of Canada we have today. André Burelle writes
that the British Parliament conceded the right to preserve the French language,
the Catholic religion, the civil law and the seigniorial system “to distract
the newly conquered French Canadians from the revolution that was brewing in
its American colonies”.1 The Canadian federation of 1867 reinforced
these guarantees. It restored a portion of the rights that the 1840
Act of Union had tried to abolish: after a forced twenty-seven year merger
with Ontario, Quebec’s separate existence was restored and once again it became
the home of French Canadians. John A. Macdonald neither read nor spoke French2
but the partnership between Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier, Quebec’s
loyal mentor, led to Confederation in 1867 and sealed the deal between English
Canadians and French Canadians.
John Diefenbaker’s bilingual
cheques in 1962 may well have been laughable, but they were an important brick
in the building of our nation. Canada still dons its bilingualism hat,
particularly when it wants to differentiate itself from the United States,
where the “melting pot” concept smoothes out cultural differences with all the
finesse of a bulldozer.
In both Parliament and the
Quebec Legislature, the use of French was originally mandatory in statutes and
official journals. It was even possible to use either language in the
courts of both Canada and Quebec. The 1969 Official Languages Act
recognised that English and French are the two official languages of Canada,
and allows every Canadian to address the federal government in the official
language of his or her choice. The Constitution Act, 1982
strengthened those provisions and assigned “equal” status to the French and
English versions of statutes and other documents published by Parliament.
That Act also entrenched official bilingualism in New Brunswick.
However, those guarantees have never claimed to prescribe that everything
must take place in both languages in the federal capital or in the institutions
Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson
laid the groundwork for official bilingualism and his successor, Pierre Elliott
Trudeau, continued to expand on the policy and gave it its present form.
The Conservative government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney presided
over the rejuvenation and reconfirmation of the Act, in 1988. Since its
inception, it has been possibly one of the most misunderstood programs of the
federal government. The classic example of how bilingualism irritates
some English Canadians is bilingual advertising on their cereal boxes: “We
don’t want French shoved down our throats.” The other criticism that is
unfortunately heard at times is the belief that francophones, who make up 24%
of the population of Canada, will ultimately, if not imminently, take over the country,
according to the most obstinate opponents of language rights. In fact,
these kinds of advances are certainly not discernible in the day-to-day
activities of the federal public service, where many francophones still do not
have the option of working in their own language, without jeopardizing their
personal file or career plan.
One area in which there has been
noticeable change is the co-drafting of bills, which are now written
simultaneously in French and English. The objective of producing “two
original and authentic versions” is more consistent with the spirit of the Official
Languages Act. A 1995 Department of Justice publication states: “In
co-drafting, neither version is a translation of the other. In contrast
to the traditional approach of translation, one version is not unchangeable.
The two drafters often prompt each other to change or improve their
versions”.3 The growing popularity of legislative translation
programs in universities and the provision of more and better training for Francophone
drafters have eliminated anglicisms, which were formerly common, while the new
acceptance of the use of pronouns often simplifies and shortens the French
version of federal statutes. In English, however, the practice is to
continue repeating the nouns, regardless of how often, to eliminate any risk of
confusion, as is necessary in that language.
Some Demographic Facts
According to Statistics Canada,
the rate of French-English bilingualism rose from 13.5% to 17% between 1971 and
1996, an increase of not more than 3.5%. However, it should be noted that in 25
years the proportion of bilingual anglophones in Quebec has risen from 37% to
61%, bringing us close to the day when that percentage will have doubled.
The number of francophones who speak both languages rose from 26% to only
34%, in the same period. Thirty years of life under the federal Official
Languages Act has neither changed Canada beyond recognition nor perverted
its true nature! In 1996, Newfoundland still had a bilingualism rate
under 5%, and Nova Scotia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia
were all under 10%. Two provinces are above that mark by so little that
it may not be worth mentioning them: Prince Edward Island, at 11%, and Ontario,
at 11.6% – although the situation in that province is still unique
because its population is so large. Still, New Brunswick and Quebec bring
the largest contingent of bilingual individuals to Canada, with 32.6% and 37.8%
of their populations, respectively. On the other hand, 1971 saw the advent of
multiculturalism as another thread in the fabric of our national heritage, and
it has reduced the impact of the official recognition of French and English by
apparently giving all cultures, in law if not in fact, the right to be different.
While Canadians take pride in
rejecting the “melting pot” policy as it is practised south of the border the
shrinking Francophone population in Canada is quite properly a source of
concern for the people whose ancestors were the first to arrive in these frozen
lands, on sailing ships flying the flag of the King of France. In 1951,
there were four million francophones, accounting for 29% of the population of
Canada. In 1991, they totalled 6.5 million, but accounted for only 24.3%.
According to the 1996 census, the figure has since fallen below 24%.
Having made that assertion, I do
not think I would go so far as Prime Minister Jean Chrétien who in an
interview before the 8th Francophonie Summit held in Moncton in September 1999,
asserted that assimilation “is a fact of life. In a sense, there
are people who do not believe in it, so they get lazy. It happened
somewhat to the Catholic religion. These things happen.” The Prime
Minister went on: “On the other hand, there are new French speakers coming on
the scene. And still, there are seven million francophones in Canada, a
million of whom are outside Quebec, and that is not insignificant. I am
told that there are two million anglophone Canadians who use French on a daily
basis. That didn’t happen 25 years ago. That’s evolution.
There are ups and downs.”4
The numbers of French-speaking
Canadians in the other provinces fell for the first time, in absolute numbers,
in the 1996 census: from 976,415 to 970,170. While they represented 7.3%
of the total population of English Canada in 1951, in 1996 they accounted for
only 4.5% – or perhaps only 2.9%, if the language used in the home is
considered. Given the threat inherent in this kind of change, renewed
attention has recently been focused on the application of the Official
The Challenge to Francophone
Whether we like it or not,
industrialisation has made the survival of French-Canadian minorities outside
Quebec more complicated. Working on an assembly line in a plant presupposes
a higher level of use of a shared language than just tending to the crops on
one’s own land. Globalisation and the Internet intensify the changes occurring
in customs and cultures, and the share allotted to the French language has
shrunk a little more.
Keith Spicer was the first
Commissioner of Official Languages. In his 1970-1971 annual report, he
set the tone that is still followed in those reports: criticising places where
bilingualism is lacking with gentle irony, framing it all in an undeniably
literary style. However, he also reported pragmatically: “Perhaps it is
inevitable that in Ottawa, particularly, the climate surrounding bilingualism
should be far from serene: after all, in this administrative capital,
bilingualism is no distant matter of theory, it concerns jobs and careers right
now.” The same direct style was used in the reports of the Commissioners
who followed: Max Yalden, D’Iberville Fortier and Victor C. Goldbloom, who has
just been replaced, as this is being written, by Dr. Dyane Adam, a
Transfer agreements have not always been clear
about the scope of language rights.
Bilingualism has made progress
in Canada in the last thirty years, but the last decade has brought a new area
of concern for the Commissioner of Official Languages. The federal
government has withdrawn from a number of its responsibilities by transferring
them either to private enterprise or to the provinces, but without forcefully
insisting that services to official language minority groups be maintained.
It is even harder for the government, which was not doing a perfect job
of monitoring what went on in its own back yard, to maintain discipline in its
neighbour’s back yard.
In 1998, in view of the alarm
expressed by the Commissioner of Official Languages, the government formed the
Task Force chaired by Yvon Fontaine to investigate the effects of these
government transformations and their impact on official languages. In
January 1999, the Task Force presented its report to the Minister, Marcel
Massé, who was then President of the Treasury Board. Although the title, No
Turning Back, was intended to be positive, the somewhat negative content of
the document suggests that a more accurate title would actually have been
“Getting Back on Course”. The analysis reports the grievances of minority
groups, and charges that the authorities have been complicit in the lax
approach being taken, by giving the green light to privatizations and transfers
to the provinces without securing adequate guarantees. To remedy this
situation, the Fontaine Task Force concluded: “The relationship between the
government and linguistic minorities cannot rest on the efforts of a few people
or organisations with whom the government has chosen to work.” Further
on, it said: “all institutions of Parliament and of the Government of Canada
must be empowered and made accountable for their actions in support of
linguistic duality and minority official language communities.”
Senator Jean-Maurice Simard
recently raised a question in the Upper House denouncing what he calls the
gradual deterioration of services in French to Francophones outside Quebec over
the last ten years. Senator Simard, who comes from New Brunswick, drew
attention to the rapid rate of assimilation outside Quebec. He accused
the government of endorsing a form of cultural “ethnic cleansing”, as reported
in The Gazette on January 10, 1999. Senator Noël A. Kinsella
supported Senator Simard, and in a speech on May 13, 1999 he said it was
unfortunate that the demands of zero deficit targets and globalisation had been
set up as a bar to justify the erosion of services in French.
In a broader context, Canada’s
linguistic duality is under attack from another side: advocates of Quebec
independence who, for partisan reasons, regard French-Canadians in other
provinces as just a lot of bodies that, while they may still be warm, are
destined to be dragged toward Anglicisation. Peering through the same
narrow lens, they predict the disappearance of French in Montreal, and perhaps
even in Quebec as a whole, in the medium term. For their part, many
Reform MPs from the West would abolish the Official Languages Program and, to
save money, would halt all federal contributions to language courses and the
propagation of Francophone culture.
In December, 1999, the Ontario
government gave two more examples of how French is under attack. At that
time, that government created the amalgamated City of Ottawa without an
official bilingual statute. Queen’s Park discarded political and popular
pressures, a trend favourable to bilingualism in four of the 11 cities involved
and a local poll also supporting it by 88%.5 It also turned
down a recommendation in the same vein coming from the Standing Joint
Committee on Official Languages: confirmed on division in the House of Commons
and unanimously in the Senate. Another motion by Senator Jean-Robert
Gauthier was also adopted on December 16, 1999. The future Council of the legal
community of 750,000 inhabitants will determine its linguistic status.
The Ontario government has also
rekindled debate concerning Ottawa’s French language Montfort Hospital. The
government appealed a first level judgement upholding the survival of the only
French-speaking training medical hospital in Ontario, and went against the
recommendation of a commission which had studied health services earlier in the
year and proposed closing Monfort.
It is far off the mark to assume
that because a Member of Parliament can order his two eggs sunny side up with
bacon in French every morning in the Parliamentary cafeteria that bilingualism
in the national capital is in good shape. There are countless
difficulties that must be met for bilingualism to flourish and too many
examples where bilingualism has utterly failed. That, in my opinion, is
why Parliament and the government must continue to take the lead to ensure the
permanence of the Official Languages Act. We have been allowing
Canada’s reputation in this area to deteriorate, little by little over the past
1. Le mal canadien, p. 33
2. See Michael Bliss, Right Honourable Men, p. 14.
3. A Guide to the Making of Federal Acts and Regulations, p. 115.
4. See Le Devoir Week-end Edition August 28-29, 1999.
5. See the Ottawa Citizen, December 21, 1999.