Almost exactly ten years ago, I left the Toronto Star to become the commissioner of official languages—a move from being a reporter to being an agent of Parliament, from almost four decades of managing little more than a keyboard to heading an organization of 170 people. At one level, it was a huge and improbable transition, and a fish-out-of-water story: Everything I Didn’t Know about the Federal Government and Forgot to Ask, or The Front Page Meets Yes Minister.
On another level, though, it was smooth and logical: six months earlier, I had published a book on language policy in Canada, Sorry, I Don’t Speak French: Confronting the Canadian Crisis That Won’t Go Away. In some ways, the last decade has been a ten-year book tour.
Now, as the 150th anniversary of Confederation begins, and two years before the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Official Languages Act in 1969, it is worth reflecting on the impact that five decades of federal language policy has had on the country.
One of the questions that I was asked most often, in various ways, was how one could reconcile linguistic duality and cultural duality. Was Canada’s language policy doomed as a result of immigration and changing demography? I responded that, rather than being contradictory, official bilingualism and multiculturalism were closely related. I suggested—and I have argued consistently over the decade—that Canada became transformed from a narrow, xenophobic, anti-immigrant country to one that welcomed immigration through coming to terms with the fact that it has an entire French-speaking society within its borders. In adapting to that reality, it became easier to accommodate newcomers.
In addition, I suggested that the law does not exist just to protect or promote bilingualism, but to protect the unilingual: to ensure that the four million unilingual francophones have the same level of service from the federal government as the 24 million unilingual anglophones. An officially bilingual country is one where citizens do not have to learn a second official language to deal with the state.
At the same time, however, this means Canadians who become bilingual do not lose their language rights as a result. It is the public service that is required to offer the citizen the choice of language; the citizen does not have to speak in the language of the public servant.
It was a debate I had followed long before becoming commissioner. As a reporter, I had covered the debates over Bill 101; I had watched a cycle of idealism and disillusionment with federal language policy, and had followed how language was spliced into the fabric of the country and its political debates. I had read at least some of the academic literature on French immersion, language planning, language learning and language loss. Since my adolescence, language had been a controversial issue in Canada—and I had followed the controversy closely.
The big gap in my knowledge of the issues was my knowledge of the state of minority language communities across the country. So in the first eight months of my mandate, I travelled to Vancouver, Halifax, Toronto, Montreal, Moncton, Regina, Sudbury and Quebec City. Every regional representative laid on a comprehensive introduction to the key figures, groups and institutions.
It soon became clear how different each community was, and how it reflected its historical context. It is worth remembering that the idea of separate French-speaking communities across Canada (with the exception of the Acadians) is relatively recent. Prior to 1967, French Canada was seen as covering the whole country. But a gathering of the États-Généraux decided that the focus of French-Canadian nationalism would be Quebec. Following that, provincial associations formed what was first called la Fédération des francophones hors-Québec, and then, when the idea of defining themselves in terms of being Not Quebec became awkward, la Fédération des communautés francophones et acadiennes du Canada.
In British Columbia, well over 80 percent of French speakers come from somewhere else. As a result, there is little sense of historical grievance. In Saskatchewan, reflecting the social democratic traditions of the province, the association is democratically elected. In Manitoba, the memory of the hanging of Louis Riel is still vivid, just as the deportation still has powerful resonance in New Brunswick. And in Ontario there are really three different communities: in Northern Ontario, Eastern Ontario and the southern part of the province. All of them have made great strides over the last 20 years as a result of provincial legislation.
Then there are the English-speaking minorities in Quebec. They remain, in some ways, the most misunderstood minority-language communities in the country. Memories of a dominant English-speaking elite still linger, which make it hard for many to realize that the English-speaking communities that are scattered across Quebec are poorer, less educated and less employed than their French-speaking neighbours. In addition, Quebec is the only province that does not have a minister and a department charged with responsibility for the linguistic minority. Every other province has a minister of francophone affairs and officials with responsibility for ensuring that government policies take account of the needs of those communities. In Quebec, the historical memory of the English economic power is so strong that creating such an office remains politically difficult.
Like the auditor general, the chief electoral officer, and the privacy and information commissioners, the commissioner of official languages is an agent of Parliament. Agents of Parliament are guardians of values—from the auditor general’s checks on the value of respect for appropriate government spending to the chief electoral officer’s protection of fair elections to official bilingualism, and so on. Each office was created because parliamentarians wanted an independent agent that would play an ombudsman’s role, investigating complaints and reporting to Parliament on whether the government is living up to its responsibilities.
In watching how federal departments and their executives performed, I also came to understand that mastery of both official languages is a leadership competency. This is not a news flash for members of political parties: ever since 1968, every prime minister has been bilingual, not coincidently because Canadian political leaders have to participate in televised debates in both English and French. But it is also true for managers and executives in the federal public service.
Since 1988, federal government employees in designated bilingual regions (the National Capital Region, Montreal, parts of Ontario, parts of Quebec and parts of New Brunswick) have the right to work in their preferred official language—which means that some 100,000 French-speaking public servants have the right to work in French: to write their documents, speak at meetings and have their performance appraisals in French.
In retrospect, it was a radical act to grant that right. Consider how much in a public servant’s working life is decided by someone else: the policy of the government of the day, the priority of the minister, the directions of the supervisor, the terms of the collective agreement—even the size of the workspace is carefully regulated. But one thing an employee in a bilingual region can do is decide what language he or she wants to work in and be supervised in.
It is not surprising that many, if not most, people in a minority situation—and it is just as true for English-speaking employees in Quebec as for French-speaking employees in Ottawa—choose to go with the flow, and speak the language of the majority rather than embarrass the manager or cut out some colleagues.
But granting that right meant that being able to advise, direct, manage, listen and respond effectively in one’s second language became a critical leadership skill for public service leaders as well as for politicians. Not to mention that ministers have the right to be briefed in their language of choice.
As a journalist, I had heard a lot of complaints about Canada’s language legislation: from anglophones that it was discriminatory, unfair, rigid and unnecessary, and from francophones that it was still hard to get the same level of service in French as in English. It was only as commissioner that I began to meet public servants who were proud of having learned their second language, and proud of working for a bilingual institution.
And similarly, I was struck by Stephen Harper’s discipline in using both French and English in all his public appearances.
The job is two-fold: part ombudsman, part promotion. Or, as I put it when I first appeared before Parliament, part cheerleader, part nag. During the ten years I was in the job, we received more than 7,000 complaints from citizens whose language rights had not been respected—and I delivered more than 500 speeches, explaining the policy and encouraging public servants, students and community activists.
Along the way, I reached a number of conclusions. First, it is often more effective to inspire respect for Canada’s official languages than to require it. Bureaucracies naturally transform values into burdens—rules, regulations and requirements—and language policy becomes much more acceptable as a value to be embraced than as a burden to be endured.
It also became clear that success is invisible and failure is obvious. When both languages are present in the public square—audible, visible, accessible in announcements, signs, advertisements and services—they become taken for granted.
But the use of both languages by federal officials is also symbolically important. When all the signs, announcements, brochures and services—including ads for Coke—at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics were in English and French, it was partly because French and English are the two official languages of the Olympics, but also because they are our official languages. When Nik Wallenda arrived on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls on a tightrope in 2012, the border services agent who said “Welcome to Canada, Bienvenue au Canada” did not do so because she thought he wanted to be served in French. It was a way of saying, “You are in Canada and we have two official languages.”
There was once a discussion of aboriginal languages at a panel on aboriginal issues at the University of Ottawa with former Grand Chief Phil Fontaine, Georges Sioui of the University of Ottawa and Jennifer Rattray of the University of Winnipeg. In answer to a question, Rattray replied, “Unlike Dr. Fontaine and Dr. Sioui, I do not speak my language.” The idea that a language belonged to her even though she did not speak it was a powerful one. I think that, increasingly, Canadians see the presence of both languages as part of our national identity, as something that belongs to all of us—even if we are not bilingual.
And yet there are still areas where the idea that bilingualism is essential stirs up debate and controversy. Before the 2011 election, after the Opposition united to pass a private member’s bill in the House of Commons that would require judges on the Supreme Court to be able to hear testimony in either English or French without interpretation, there were cries of outrage from the Conservatives in the Senate, and conservatives in the press. This was elevating bilingualism over legal competence, many said. It was discriminatory. Unfair to the unilingual. All the arguments, in fact, that were made against the Official Languages Act itself in 1969.
This overlooked a number of key elements. All our laws are drafted in both languages, and when there is a difference in nuance, the Supreme Court needs to decide on the intention of the legislator. This is not new—in 1935, the Supreme Court ruled on a case on the basis of the greater precision of the French version of the law in question. Some 30 percent of the provincial cases before the Supreme Court have come from Quebec, where they were argued in French at every stage, and where all of the legal factums are in French. (This is also true for some cases that have been argued in other provinces as well; any accused person has a right to a trial in the official language of choice, everywhere in Canada.) A unilingual judge needs to depend on a short summary by a law clerk, and simultaneous interpretation. And a lawyer who has argued a case in French in the lower courts has to make a strategic decision about how best to frame the argument knowing that one or more of the judges will be fumbling with an earphone for the interpreter’s interpretation.
Perhaps most importantly, the presence of a unilingual English-speaking judge among the nine means that all the French-speaking judges are obliged to work in their second language. Again, this was precisely the injustice that led Prime Minister Lester Pearson to establish the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in 1962, which recommended the introduction of the Official Languages Act in its first report in 1967.
Yet when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made it clear that bilingualism would be a prerequisite for appointment to the Supreme Court, a distinguished law dean suggested that it would be valuable to have a Chinese-speaking judge on the court. Certainly, that would broaden the experience on the court—but Canada’s legislation is not drafted in Chinese, factums are not written in Chinese, cases are not argued in Chinese and there is no Canadian jurisprudence in Chinese.
Knowledge of French and English for a Supreme Court justice is not just a symbol of representivity and inclusiveness. It is an essential professional competency. And when the court becomes completely bilingual, and the legal profession understands that bilingualism is a prerequisite, no one will notice it. Success is invisible; failure is obvious.
The proof of this was when Newfoundland judge Malcolm Rowe was named to the Supreme Court in 2016. His name had not been part of the speculation; in fact, it was widely reported that there were no bilingual judges in Newfoundland. His appearance before a parliamentary panel made it clear that he was perfectly able to respond to questions in French, and that he was eloquent and witty in both official languages. Whatever controversy he may stimulate as a member of the Supreme Court, his mastery of the two languages of Canadian jurisprudence will not be one of them.
Things have improved dramatically over the 48 years since the law was passed, and significantly over the last decade. Thanks to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, there are minority language schools in every province. Political leaders are now expected to be bilingual so they can participate in televised election debates. More than 90 percent of the public service positions that require bilingualism are filled by people who meet the requirement of the job. Technological innovation has meant that Canadians can apply for passports, pensions, unemployment insurance online, pay their taxes online, and can check in for their flights and, in some airports, order their meals in their official language of choice.
So what challenges lie ahead for my successor?
To begin with, continuing public education. With 250,000 newcomers coming to Canada every year, it is essential that this element of our identity be explained and understood. There is also the continuing transformative impact of new technology. Technology is transforming how we work, how we communicate and how we use language. Each new innovation adopted by government needs to take language into account. Ensuring that Canadians continue to have their language rights respected and that English and French have equal status in the digital world will be a continuing challenge.
And how has the country changed? There is a series of small but revealing indications that the country has become more open to difference, more welcoming and more inclusive. The introduction of bilingual signs provoked graffiti and vandalism in the 1970s; when the corporate sponsors of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics advertised in French and in English, the ads were untouched. Foreign journalists marvelled to see political leaders speaking French as well as English during campaign stops in Vancouver and Mississauga. The singing of a bilingual version of the national anthem is now taken for granted at national events. And year in, year out, 300,000 Canadian students are enrolled in immersion—and the graduates of immersion 30 years ago now fill cabinet positions and senior public service jobs. There will be no magic moment when the goals of the legislation are achieved and the struggle can be forgotten; it will continue to be an ongoing challenge. But striving to meet the challenge of accommodating two official language communities is, in itself, part of Canada’s identity.