Taking stock of 40 years of official bilingualism

The state of official bilingualism in Canada was the subject of a conference at Glendon featuring Canada’s commissioner of official languages, Graham Fraser.

The conference, held March 29 and 30, examined the state of the French language in Canada 40 years after the publication of the report of the Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. Fraser delivered the keynote address as part of the University’s annual Avie Bennett Historica Lecture in Canadian History.

Glendon Principal Kenneth McRoberts’ welcoming address revealed his own 40-year friendship and professional connection with Fraser. As a journalist, author and public servant, Fraser was able to effectively demonstrate during the lecture how he had straddled the language divide by delivering his lecture in both official lanaguages. He provided a comprehensive overview of 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 pivotal moment in Canadian history because 1967 was the centenary of Canada’s birth as a country. It was also the year of Expo ’67 which put Canada on the international map, of French President Charles De Gaulle’s now famous "vive le Québec libre" exhortation and the creation of the Parti Québécois.

Right: Graham Fraser

In his lecture, Fraser provided an overview of the Bilingualism and Biculturalism Commission’s mandate, which was to assess the state of the French language within Canada and to offer recommendations in order to provide francophones and anglophones, the two majority 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. Fraser explained that 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 offered three sessions featuring panellists with distinguished 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 included: McRoberts: Normand Labrie, the Ontatio Institute for Studies in Education’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.


Above: Panel session featuring Michel Bock (left) , professor of history, University of Ottawa; 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 at Glendon.

The conference was the initiative of history Professor Marcel Martel of York’s Faculty of Arts, in collaboration with Martin Paquet, professor of history at the University of Laval, Que. They worked closely with the Glendon organizing team under the leadership of Glendon research officer Alexandre Brassard.

More about Graham Fraser

Among Fraser’s numerous publications, 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.

This article was submitted to YFile by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny.