Plain language

The first murmurs of a constitutional debate that lasted three decades

André Laurendeau and Davidson Dunton would begin each public hearing of the royal commission that became identified with their names by asking three questions: “Can English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians live together, and do they want to? Under what new conditions? And are they prepared to accept those conditions?”

What would follow was dramatically different across the country: confusion about the question in large parts of the country, and barely contained outrage in Quebec. Was this process going to produce a Band-Aid for a wounded country, or a rethinking of its essential nature?

Whatever its intent and ultimate result, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was a remarkable phenomenon. An eight-year existential examination of Canada, from 1963 until 1971, it was a lengthy series of public hearings that revealed the gaps in understanding and conviction about the nature of...