[lg policy] CanadaL Fraser: Pearson's dream of bilingualism, 50 years later

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Wed Apr 6 20:50:24 UTC 2016

 Fraser: Pearson's dream of bilingualism, 50 years later
Graham Fraser
More from Graham Fraser <http://ottawacitizen.com/author/graham-fraser>
Published on: April 6, 2016 | Last Updated: April 6, 2016 6:00 AM EDT
[image: Former prime minister Lester B. Pearson.]

Fifty years ago today, Lester Pearson articulated a vision for a bilingual
public service that would bring Canadians together. Toronto Sun Files

Fifty years ago, Prime Minister Lester Pearson rose in the House of Commons
to articulate his government’s language policy. It was a remarkable
statement, delivered a year before the first volume of the report of the
Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was published and three
years before the Official Languages Act was passed.

Pearson began by framing the issue of bilingualism in the public service in
terms of attracting the most competent and qualified Canadians, stressing
what he called “the fundamental objective of promoting and strengthening
national unity” by establishing the equality of rights and opportunities
for both English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians.

“In a diverse federal state such as Canada it is important that all
citizens should have a fair and equal opportunity to participate in the
national administration and to identify themselves with, and feel at home
in, their own national capital,” he said.

Then Pearson moved directly to the heart of the policy. He said that “the
government hopes and expects that, within a reasonable period of years,”
the federal public service would reach a state of affairs in which:

“(a) it will be normal practice for oral or written communications within
the service to be made in either official language at the option of the
person making them, in the knowledge that they will be understood by those
directly concerned;

“(b) communications with the public will normally be in either official
language, having regard to the person being served;

“(c) the linguistic and cultural values of both English speaking and French
speaking Canadians will be reflected through civil service recruitment and
training; and

“(d) a climate will be created in which public servants from both language
groups will work together toward common goals, using their own language and
applying their respective cultural values, but each fully understanding and
appreciating those of the other.”

That was 50 years ago today. Anyone parsing that statement can see the
framework – and the spirit– of the Official Languages Act and, later, parts
of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

At times, I think that the language policies of the federal government
would be better understood if, instead of talking either admiringly or
dismissively of “Trudeau’s dream” or referring to Part IV and Part V of the
Official Languages Act, which remain abstract and technical even for public
servants, people asked themselves the questions that Pearson’s speech still

Do English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians feel equally at home in
Ottawa? Do public servants communicate with the public in the official
language of their client’s choice? Is it normal practice for public
servants to speak and write in the official language of their choice,
knowing that they will be understood? Are linguistic and cultural values of
both official language groups reflected in public service recruitment and
training? Is there a climate that encourages English- and French-speaking
public servants to work together, using their own language and applying
their own cultural values, but fully understanding and appreciating those
of the other?

 Huge progress has been made over the past half-century in the area of
language policy. But my office continues to get complaints from citizens
who have not been served in the official language of their choice. Public
servants usually use the majority language in meetings and in their written
work. The culture of the federal public service is often the culture of the
majority. And the manager or executive who actively encourages public
servants to use the official language of their choice in meetings, briefing
notes and performance evaluations is too often the exception rather than
the rule.

As Canadians prepare to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Confederation,
we should remember that the ideals that Lester Pearson articulated so
clearly a half century ago today are still a challenge to achieve. But in
striving to meet the goals that Pearson set, we are building a stronger,
fairer and more inclusive country.

*Graham Fraser is Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages.*

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