RCMP had files on everyone for or against bilingualism, says author

What few people realize when looking at French and English language rights issues across the country is that the RCMP were instructed to open files on individuals and organizations both for and against bilingualism in the 1960s and 1970s, says York history Professor Marcel Martel, co-author of a new book.

“It raises some serious questions,” says Martel, who holds the Avie Bennett Historica Chair in Canadian History. “What did they do with the information?”

Martel, along with co-author Martin Pâquet, a history professor at Laval University, cover 400 years of language issues in Canada – since the arrival of the first non-native – in their recently released book, Langue et politique au Canada et au Québec: Une synthèse historique (Boréal, 2010). About half of it deals with the last 100 years, including the Quiet Revolution and the Official Language Act. Martel and Pâquet received a two-year Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada Language Policy & Minority Rights grant from the Official Languages Issues in Canada Strategic Grants Program to research material for the book, which, at the moment, is only available in French.

“One of the reasons we wrote the book was to give a sense of where we’re coming from when we talk about language in Canada. It has characterized the way the country has developed since the arrival of the first non-native. This is not only about Quebec, the whole country has had to deal with this issue and it’s a very divisive issue,” says Martel. It’s reassuring to know that language issues have been with us for a long time, he says. They have not just appeared in the last 50 or so years.

But what surprised him was that the federal government felt it necessary for the RCMP to keep files on anyone involved in either side of the bilingualism debate during the 1960s and 1970s. The goal was to assess whether any one person or group constituted a national threat, to prevent social chaos and to ascertain if there were foreign spies behind the scenes, Martel says. But it was also part of a larger stalling tactic by the government to keep the status quo, as were the use of royal commissions and committees to study the issue.

Even today, the RCMP won’t release many of the documents from that time period saying they could constitute a security risk or jeopardize the conduct of international affairs or the defence of Canada, says Martel. When a document is released, most of it is usually blacked out.

Left: Marcel Martel

What the authors found, despite the government’s wish that the language issue would disappear, is that change was instigated not by MPs and other government officials, but by individuals. “It is people that forced government to deal with the issue,” says Martel. “The citizen, through demonstrations and petitions, has played a large role in the development of language policy in Canada.” The extent of that role surprised Martel.

He gives the example of Georges Forest, a Manitoba man in the mid-1970s who received a parking ticket or something similar, in English only. He was so mad he decided to challenge not the ticket itself, but the fact that it was not also in French. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court which ruled in his favour saying the ticket should be in both languages.

Martel also outlines how French-speaking parents won the right to send their kids to French-speaking schools outside of Quebec, run by French-speaking administrators. In 1982, Section 23 of the Constitution came into existence, which guaranteed this right to parents no matter where in Canada they live.

The language rights issue, however, is still far from over, he says. This is clear by the latest struggle in Moncton, New Brunswick, over calls for store signs to be posted in both official languages. It will be an issue that continues to shape Canada well into the future.

In addition, the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada has recently asked the federal court to intervene in the ongoing census debate, arguing that the long-term census form should remain because governments need the data on languages spoken at home.

Martel has already begun researching his next project, which will deal with the RCMP’s surveillance activities and operations regarding French-speaking groups, natives and African Canadians from about 1945 to 1984 when the Canadian Security Intelligence Service was created and took over the surveillance and security intelligence job. He has already published a paper in the Canadian Historical Review in June 2009 that looks at the RCMP and hippies, titled ‘They Smell Bad, Have Diseases, and are Lazy’: RCMP Officers Reporting on Hippies in the Late Sixties’, which he says “will in part contribute to the growing literature on state repression.”

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer