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 the country. It was also a massive compendium of research, and a prescient internal debate between remarkable individuals that was a first glimpse of the linguistic and constitutional debates that would preoccupy the country for the next three decades. Valérie Lapointe-Gagnon, a historian at the University of Alberta’s Campus Saint-Jean, has, with her title, opted for the Band-Aid interpretation. Her book’s title, Panser le Canada, means “Bandaging Canada,” or, more loosely, “A Bandage for Canada”—but it is also a pun, sounding very much like penser le Canada—“Thinking Canada.” She has written a fascinating account of the interaction of personalities and ideas in this remarkable examination of the country.
Suggested by André Laurendeau in an editorial in Le Devoir in January 1962 and promised by Liberal leader Lester Pearson later that year, the creation of the commission was one of the first acts of the Pearson minority government, elected in 1963. The commission drew together a group of extraordinary figures: Laurendeau himself, an eloquent nationalist; the diplomatic Davidson Dunton, president of Carleton University; the labour leader and future cabinet minister Jean Marchand; the poet, socialist, and constitutional law professor F.R. Scott; the polemical former journalist Jean-Louis Gagnon; an Acadian priest and founder of the Université de Moncton, Clément Cormier; and the lawyer, broadcaster, and future Liberal senator Royce Frith.
There were three others, making a total of ten: four francophones, four anglophones, a Ukrainian-Canadian academic (J.B. Rudnyckyj) and a Polish-Canadian academic (Paul Wyczynski). In total, it had nine men, and one woman, Calgary academic Gertrude Laing.
It was, as Pearson recognized, unrepresentative even for its day. “Frank, trying to find a member of the Family Compact in Toronto who could speak French was utterly impossible,” he told Scott.
The mandate itself was food for thought and debate: the commission was set up to “inquire into and report on the existing state of bilingualism in Canada and to recommend what steps should be taken to develop the Canadian Confederation on the basis of an equal partnership between the two founding races, taking into account the contribution made by the other ethnic groups to the cultural enrichment of Canada and the measures that should be taken to safeguard that contribution.”
The mandate letter went on to talk about “the role of public and private organizations, including the mass communications media, in promoting bilingualism,” and it instructed the commission “to discuss with the provincial governments the opportunities available to Canadians to learn the English and French languages and to recommend what could be done to enable Canadians to become bilingual.”
The commission’s preliminary report warned that “Canada, without being fully conscious of the fact, is passing through the greatest crisis in its history.” That conclusion seemed self-evident in Quebec after several years of separatist bombings and massive student demonstrations, and wildly exaggerated in the rest of Canada, which the commission found was oblivious to the unrest let alone its causes. The commission generated a wealth of research by some of the finest academic minds of a generation. Its recommendations led to the Official Languages Act, the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages and the Multiculturalism Act.
While the commission wrestled with pressures from cultural communities—particularly the Ukrainian-Canadians—it did not reach beyond its mandate to look at Indigenous languages. As the commissioners point out in Book I, their terms of reference “mention neither the Indians nor the Eskimos.” After acknowledging that the “integration of the Native populations into Canadian society raises very complex questions,” they conclude that “everything possible must be done to help the Native populations preserve their cultural heritage, which is part of the patrimony of all Canadians” and add “the Canadian government, in close co-operation with the provinces concerned, should take the necessary steps to assist the survival of the Eskimo language and the most common Indian dialects.” That was it; only now, fifty-five years later, are these issues a priority, but in this too, the commission reflected quite vividly the tenor of its times.
As for those charged with carrying out the commission’s mandate, the intellectual calibre and level of literary talent were remarkably high: Laurendeau and Scott kept diaries, Gagnon wrote his memoirs, Laing wrote an account that is with her papers in Calgary, and Léon Dion, co-director of research, wrote about it. And there is a wealth of archival material produced by the commission itself: minutes, memos, and notes. Valérie Lapointe-Gagnon has pored over all of it with Benedictine diligence and imaginative flair.
The characters themselves are complex and, while often disagreeing, sometimes testily, they were remarkably civil, working hard to achieve consensus and smoothing their disagreements with drinks. Laurendeau had recently published his book on the campaign against conscription in Quebec, which described his sense of betrayal by the federal government for breaking its promise and imposing conscription, and had hesitated a long time before agreeing to become co-chair. He was deeply concerned by the threat to the French language in Quebec, and felt that Quebec’s powers needed to be reinforced in order for the province to thrive as a French-speaking society, and protections put in place for French-speaking minorities across the country.
Scott had a somewhat different perspective. In the famous Roncarelli case, Scott had successfully challenged Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis before the Supreme Court, forcing the compensation of a restaurant owner whose liquor licence had been suspended for paying the bail of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He had achieved a remarkable victory in constraining the power of an authoritarian premier, and had defended the publisher of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in a censorship case that also went to the Supreme Court, producing the memorable poem that began:
I went to bat for Lady Chat
Clad in my legal gown
The judges three frowned down at me
The priests patrolled the town.
Scott felt that Quebec was historically, constitutionally, and socially a bilingual province, and that bilingualism should be extended to the rest of the country. But he fought hard against proposals for more constitutional powers for Quebec, and also worried about the increasing tendencies toward a unilingual Quebec.
Scott’s view of the challenge for Canadian federalism was “to keep a strong central government to stand up to the economic challenges that face us, without denying to French Canada the necessary exercise of autonomy for cultural purposes…[S]ince to me French Canada means all the Canadians everywhere in Canada and not only those in Quebec, the solution of a strong central government becomes more plausible even from a purely cultural point of view.”
Laurendeau, on the other hand, while firmly rejecting the separatist option that was gathering momentum in Quebec, felt it was necessary for Quebec’s “distinct society,” as he described it in the blue pages of the first report, to have more powers to ensure its growth and development.
Paul Lacoste, who became a commissioner in 1965 (replacing Jean Marchand when he ran for office), argued for a dramatic overhaul of the Constitution. Meanwhile, Gagnon, while a strong nationalist in his youth, had become a fervent opponent of special status for Quebec, and joined Scott in opposition to Lacoste’s proposals for more powers for Quebec.
The result was a respectful but profound debate over the nature of the country and its future. As Gertrude Laing wrote, “By our composition and in our debates, we were re-living the whole Canadian experience, and if in the end we agonized to the point of deep distress to find an accommodation, it was because we truly represented the basic dilemma of Canada.”
Lapointe-Gagnon is not the first to highlight the tension between Laurendeau’s vision and Scott’s, but she discovered that Laurendeau was sufficiently concerned about Scott’s views that he asked his friend Léon Dion to write a paper to explain their two positions so he could understand them better.
Dion described Laurendeau’s vision as collectivist and pessimistic, and Scott’s as individualist and optimistic. Laurendeau, Dion pointed out, believed in unilingual regions that could communicate with a bilingual state, and “is not far from believing that the government of Quebec is the only guarantor of French culture in Canada.” He added “This contrast in views, quite clearly, comes from the fact that Mr. Scott, from his individualist point of view, ignores groups.” While there was a legalism to Scott’s approach that made him, paradoxically, a conservative socialist, it is exaggerated to say, as Dion did, that he “ignores groups.” He was a passionate defender of the English minority, and in 1949 had written that “Actually, the Canadian Constitution has more definite protection for groups—minorities—than it has for individuals. The guarantee for the use of the two languages, for instance, and for denominations schools, are group freedoms.” He was just not part of the Quebec nationalist consensus that Laurendeau and Dion shared.
However, as Lapointe-Gagnon observes, the two men favoured very different solutions.
“The Anglo-Quebec intellectual’s optimism led him to believe that minor reforms could enable (the country) to ‘overcome the present challenge,’ ” she writes. “Laurendeau’s darker conception leads him to think that deeper reforms are necessary to establish a better balance of power, so that certain groups are better protected to overcome inequalities.”
Scott foresaw the growing tendency towards a unilingual Quebec as an existential threat to the English minority in Quebec. When a student at a stormy meeting in Sherbrooke said that the English minority in Quebec should leave as quickly as possible, Scott quipped “J’y suis, j’y reste”—I’m here, I’m staying—and he did.
Lapointe-Gagnon suggests that Scott did not believe in biculturalism, in the sense that he did not recognize the existence of two nations within Canada. I would suggest—and I think Scott would argue—he did; he just did not believe that the Quebec government was the sole representative of one of them. As she quotes him writing in a note to his fellow commissioners in 1967, “We are not asked to make an equal partnership between governments but between the two founding peoples, and the government of Quebec is not the government of French Canada.” Again, from the vantage point of 2018, the absence of Indigenous peoples from the partnership in the terms of reference is glaring.
Lapointe-Gagnon adopts the common Quebec nationalist view that Canada was engaged in a constant process of centralization from 1867 onwards. She refers to John A. Macdonald’s preference for a unitary state without mentioning that he concluded that “such a system was impracticable. In the first place, it would not meet the assent of the people of Lower Canada…being in a minority, with a different language, nationality and religion from the majority.”
Similarly, she fails to mention that the judicial committee of the Privy Council in London, the final court of appeal in Canada until 1949, consistently took a provincialist approach with a series of decisions limiting federal powers in areas such as trade and commerce, much to Scott’s exasperation. She mentions that Scott’s belief in the need for a strong central government was a reaction to the powerlessness of the federal government to take strong action during the Depression, but does not refer to the legal context for his frustration.
Lapointe-Gagnon spends some time exploring the Greek term kairos—meaning the right time, the magic moment—concluding that there was a brief period between 1963 and 1968 when it seemed the stars were aligned in favour of constitutional change that would give special status to Quebec. Pearson was open to it, the New Democratic Party was in favour of it, and Laurendeau supported it, as did several other members of the royal commission.
But in 1968, Pierre Trudeau became prime minister, André Laurendeau died, Jean-Louis Gagnon replaced him as co-chairman, and Frank Scott dug in his heels at the royal commission, which failed to reach a consensus on recommendations for constitutional change. The window of opportunity closed.
It probably wouldn’t have mattered if the commissioners had all agreed on recommendations for new powers for Quebec: When the commission headed by Jean-Luc Pepin and John Robarts made such a recommendation in 1979, eight years after the Bi and Bi Commission ended, Trudeau dismissed it out of hand.
Nevertheless, the introduction of the Official Languages Act, a key recommendation of the royal commission, helped transform the linguistic landscape of the federal government. Laurendeau’s views and Scott’s are both woven through the report, and today’s political landscape reflects both Laurendeau’s profound sensitivity to group identity and Scott’s deep concern for individual rights as reflected in the Charter. The intellectual depth of the members of the Laurendeau-Dunton Commission and their passionate debates over a vision for the future of the country make this a rich and rewarding study and an important contribution to the understanding of Canada’s language debates.