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Taking Stock of Forty Years of Official Bilingualism


Glendon hosted a conference on March 29th and 30th, assessing the state of official bilingualism in Canada forty years after the publication of the report of the Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. It was within this framework that the Commissioner of Official Languages, Graham Fraser (pictured below) delivered the Avie Bennett Historica Lecture in Canadian History, honouring the former York University Chancellor.

Fraser has had a long and distinguished career straddling the language divide as a journalist, author and public servant. Among his numerous publications and several books, he has written Sorry I Don't Speak French, published in 2006, which has helped stimulate renewed public discussion of language policy in Canada. Prior to his appointment as Commissioner of Official Languages in 2006, Fraser worked as a National Affairs writer with the Toronto Star. He is the first recipient of the Public Policy Forum's Hyman Solomon Award for Public Policy Journalism.

Following Glendon principal Kenneth McRoberts’ welcoming address, which revealed his friendship and professional connection with Fraser going back forty years, Fraser outlined the historical context leading up to the creation of the so called “Bi-Bi Commission” by the federal government in 1963. He pointed out that the Commission’s first report was published at a historic moment, 1967 being the centenary of Canada’s birth as a country. It was also the year of Expo ’67, which put Canada “on the international map” and of De Gaulle’s now famous “vive le Québec libre” exhortation and the creation of the Parti Québécois.

The Bilingualism and Biculturalism Commission’s mandate on was to assess the state of the French language within Canada and to offer recommendations in order to provide Francophones and Anglophones, the two founding language groups within the country, with equivalent linguistic rights. These included the right of all Canadians to receive the services of the federal government in their choice of English or French, as well as the right of federal public servants to work in the official language of their choice. Other proposals included the creation of French immersion education, aimed at increasing functional bilingualism across the country, and the creation of the Commission of Official Languages itself. Following its 1967 report, the Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism published several others in years to come, including the recommendation that provincial governments should provide their services in both official languages if the number of Francophones and Anglophones in their population warranted it – a recommendation that Ontario and several other provinces went on to adopt.

Fraser pointed out that while the Bi-Bi Commission made a real difference for the state of the country’s official languages, the fact that such a commission came into being at all at that particular time was a clear indication that Canada was concerned with this issue and was serious about equalizing the status of English and French.

The second day of the conference presented three sessions featuring panelists with illustrious careers in academe, political research, public service, linguistics and the law. Topics included an overview of the development of linguistic policies, a review of the effect of pressure groups on linguistic policies, and taking stock of the results. Participants in the debate featured among others Normand Labrie, OISE’s associate dean of research and graduate studies; former top Ontario public servant Don Stevenson; McGill professor of law Julius Grey; Gérard Lévesque, president and founder of the ‘Association des jurists d’expression française de l’Ontario’ (Association of French-speaking Jurists of Ontario); and Dyane Adam, former Commissioner of Official Languages and former principal of Glendon from 1994 to 1999. Glendon’s current principal, Kenneth McRoberts, a long-standing and prominent participant in the dialogue on official languages also participated in the debate.

L-r: Prof. Michel Bock (History Dept. Ottawa University, and Research Chair, History of Canadian Francophonie); Glendon Principal Kenneth McRoberts; Dyane Adam, former Commissioner of Official Languages and former Principal of Glendon; André Braën, Professor of the Faculty of Law, Ottawa University; Raymond Mougeon, Chair of the discussion panel and Director of the Centre for Research on Language Contact (CRLC) at Glendon.

An interesting idea was presented by a member of the audience, positing the question of whether Canada should not rethink the idea of official bilingualism, given the broad multicultural nature of the country today and the emerging importance of such international languages as Chinese.

There was great interest in Graham Fraser’s Historica lecture, as well as in the sessions of the following day, with many members of the Glendon community and others participating in the discussions. This high-profile conference was the initiative of history professor Marcel Martel (York Faculty of Arts), in collaboration with Martin Paquet, professor of history at Université Laval. They worked closely with the Glendon organizing team under the leadership of Glendon research officer Alexandre Brassard.

This article was submitted by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny

Published on April 23, 2007