Canada's language czar preaches importance of both official languages

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Nov 23 15:08:56 UTC 2006

Canada's language czar preaches the importance of respecting both of our
official languages


Graham Fraser, Canada's sixth Commissioner of Official Languages, spoke to
a mostly student audience in the Senate and Board Chambers last night.
Fraser spoke about the history of the French language in a predominantly
English-speaking country and the challenges associated with supporting the
rights of a French population. Fraser is a well-known and highly regarded
journalist with over 40 years of experience writing for various
publications such as the Toronto Star, Macleans and the Globe and Mail.

He began the lecture with a history of language rights in Canada since the
time of Laurier, a time when the French language was under threat of
extermination by the English elite. Regardless of these attempts at
suppression, from then on Canada found itself dealing with an increasingly
French and multicultural society. The interests of French society came to
a boiling point in the early sixties, as Fraser explained, when an
important culminating point was reached. In September 1962, Maurice
Lamontagne, one of Pearsons ministers, handed him a short but very
important memo regarding the state of the French language, the rest of
Canada and the relationship between the two. As Fraser explained, the memo
set forth three agendas which were up to the Liberal party to set out and

These were the patriation of the constitution, the creation of a national
flag and anthem and the creation of an officially bilingual country.
Shortly after, the commission of bilingualism and biculturalism was
created, which today still seeks to answer important questions regarding
Canada and its two official languages. Theres a tendency to think of
French language laws in Canada as a Pierre Trudeau dream, says Fraser. In
fact it was Maurice Lamontagnes proposal that did this groundwork.
Language policy in Canada has come a long way since then, after
experiencing a few bumps in the road along the way.

One such bump was the Jean Delaire Affair which was a battle fought by
French-speaking pilots over their right to communicate in French to air
traffic controllers. It was such a contentious fight that Trudeau lost two
cabinet members over it. Today, the situation is much different as the
French language is more prominent within most parts of Canada. As Fraser
pointed out, it is almost unthinkable these days to have a unilingual
Prime Minister. He wasnt so quick to dismiss Canada's language policy as a
problem solved, however.

There continue to be seriously dysfunctional elements in Canada's language
policy, he says. There are seven million French-speaking Canadians, four
million of whom do not speak English. Here Fraser points to the importance
of bilingualism in Canada. That vibrant and culturally diverse population
has so much to offer the rest of Canada but it all goes to waste if we
cannot comprehend their message. How can it be that English Canada cannot
understand their films, their plays, their music, their debates? he posed.

Fraser reminded the audience of just how close the issue of language is to
Canadians. "Language remains at the core of the country just like race in
the United States and class in Britain," he said. He concluded by saying
that French, although a minority language, is not to be treated as an
alien one, which it is by many Canadians.

"English and French are Canadian languages, not foreign languages, and
they belong to all Canadians."


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