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Dealing with Dualism: Language, Culture and Identity in Canada – a Public Lecture at Glendon to Celebrate York at 50


Among the events marking York University’s 50th birthday, the College Masters’ Public Lecture Series has been launched on March 11th, with the first lecture in the series given at Glendon by Political Science Professor and Glendon‘s Principal, Kenneth McRoberts.

Hosted by Glendon’s Associate Principal, Student Services Louise Lewin, the lecture’s title: Dealing with Dualism: Language, Culture and Identity in Canada reflects McRoberts’ lifelong focus and scholarly work on Canada’s issues of bilingualism and biculturalism.

Born in Vancouver, B.C., McRoberts went to university in Santa Barbara, California in the early 1960s at an exciting period for young people, especially those interested in politics. It was a time of great optimism with John Kennedy in the White House – not unlike the hopes and dreams invested in the current Obama administration. During a summer job in Ottawa, McRoberts became fascinated with the open political debate on the nature of state, language, loyalty, culture and spent the summer of 1966 learning French at Laval University. He developed a keen interest in the topics of identity and language and his ideas were strongly shaped by the mandate of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, established in 1963 by the government of [then] Prime Minister Lester Pearson, fondly referred to as the Bi-Bi Commission.

“Canada is shaped by the dualism of its official languages”, said McRoberts. “These two linguistic groups [the French and English] are real communities which have, for all intents and purposes, been mutually exclusive.” McRoberts traced the changes in the foundations of this dualism, based in the 19th century on religion, while in the 20th century on language. He followed this trajectory to the arrival of multiculturalism in the 1970s, pointing out that for the diverse racial and ethnic groups now comprising Canadian society, the binding force is based on language. “At the time of Confederation in 1867, the Canadian state was based on the notion of federation rather than dualism. For French Canada the important thing was to have a province, where its language and culture were protected.”

l-r: Glendon Principal Kenneth McRoberts withLouise Lewin, Associate Principal, Student Services

McRoberts outlined the impact of the Trudeau years, with the emphasis on freedom of individual choice and equal access to opportunities. Trudeau stated that while dualism divided people, bilingualism united them. His goal was to lead Quebeckers to identify with Canada rather than with Quebec alone. Since that time, the restructuring of the federal public service’s bilingual mandate and the language rights defined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 have ensured that Francophones across the country are now guaranteed the availability of government services in their own language.

“Much has changed over the years, with respect to French-language representation across the country”, said McRoberts. “Today, all national parties [of Canada] recognize Quebec as a nation and only politicians with a reasonable competency in their second official language, whether French or English, can aspire to positions as leaders of the major parties.

McRoberts pointed out that over the last two decades there has been a decline in Anglophones learning French. Bilingual and French-language universities across the country could have a significant role in filling this language gap, but additional resources needed for offering a bilingual education are currently unavailable. “Glendon is exceptional in being able to establish a truly bilingual environment for its students.”

“Glendon’s trajectory [from its beginnings] parallels the history of Canada’s progression from dualism to bilingualism, and the ideas of the Bi-Bi Commission”, said McRoberts. “Our crest displays the two founding communities of the country and the spirit of the ‘60s pervaded Glendon’s early activities.” Today’s focus on the Glendon campus continues to be on second-language training and opportunities for French-language education for Francophones from every part of Canada. “Glendon is also the training ground of many bilingual leaders of Canadian society and should be regarded as a centre of Canadian dualism.”

In his closing remarks of thanks, Glendon Professor of Sociology Marc Lesage pointed to the fact that Kenneth McRoberts is one of the few among Anglophone academics, researchers and thinkers in this country who is fully accepted and respected in Quebec by his Francophone peers. Moreover, he is one of the few who lives his convictions and dedication to bilingualism both on the professional level – by promoting it in every way available to him, as well as personally – by choosing to teach and function in both languages on a daily basis. Lesage concluded his remarks by stating that Ken McRoberts’ acceptance of the position of Principal at Glendon demonstrates his commitment to the idea that a truly bilingual existence continues to be a real possibility.

More about Kenneth McRoberts

Kenneth McRoberts holds a B.A. in Political Science from the University of California, Santa Barbara (1964), and an M.A. (1966) and Ph.D. (1975) from the University of Chicago. He became Principal of Glendon in 1999, prior to which he had been Professor of Political Science in York University’s Faculty of Arts and had also served terms as Director of the Graduate Programme in Political Science. He was Director of the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies and gave the Sixth Annual Robarts Lecture at York University, entitled Avoiding the Issue: English Canada and Quebec. He had completed a six-year term as Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Canadian Studies and is Past-President of the Canadian Political Science Association. Currently, he is also the Director of Glendon’s new Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA).

Kenneth McRoberts has published books, articles and book chapters on a variety of topics including Quebec politics, Canadian federalism, and constitutional questions. He is the author of several books published in English and French, including Quebec: Social Change and Political Crisis (1st. ed. Mc­Clelland & Stewart, 1976), Misconceiving Canada: the struggle for national unity (Oxford University Press, 1997) and Catalonia: Nation Building Without a State (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2001). In addition, he has edited Beyond Quebec: Taking Stock of Canada (McGill-Queen’s University Press) and co-edited (with Patrick J. Monahan) The Charlottetown Accord, the Referendum and the Future of Canada (University of Toronto Press). A complete list of his publications exists on his webpage.

In June 2004, the French government named Kenneth McRoberts an Officier de l’Ordre
des Palmes académiques. He received an Honorary Doctorate from Laval University in
September 2004.

More about the College Masters’ Public Lecture Series

Kenneth McRoberts’ lecture on Dealing with Dualism: Language, Culture and Identity in Canada was the first of nine lectures within the College Masters’ Public Lecture Series, conceived to celebrate York University’s 50th anniversary. This series is intended to offer an opportunity for each of York University’s colleges to present on a topic of relevance to them and to the university at large. Hosted by Glendon’s Associate Principal, Student Services Louise Lewin, the Glendon event was unique in having this bilingual lecture given by the Principal himself.

The next lecture in the series will be given by Professor Emeritus Paul Swarney of Vanier College on March 18th with the title The War on Terror in the First Century.

Submitted by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny

Published on March 17, 2009