The noble experiment that did not work

David Thomas,Graham Fraser October 16 1978

The noble experiment that did not work

David Thomas,Graham Fraser October 16 1978

The noble experiment that did not work

By David Thomas and Graham Fraser

October 17 is an anniversary for Pierre Trudeau, but there will be no celebrations in Ottawa. In 1968, four days after the founding of the Parti Québécois, Trudeau rose in the House of Commons to present his blueprint for linguistic justice—the Official Languages Act. It was, he said, “a conscious choice we are making about our future.” Ten years later, while the official policy is still sacrosanct, its implementation is in shambles.

All federal parties supported bilingualism a decade ago as the only apparent bulwark against national schism. Criticism of its implementation was long muted by accusations that opponents were either English-speaking bigots or Quebec separatists. But now, even bilingualism’s once-stout advocates are turning against Trudeau’s attempt to remake the country in his own image. Though the prime minister still wants to consecrate pan-Canadian bilingualism in a new constitution, he will face bold resistance to the scheme when he meets provincial premiers Oct. 30 in Ottawa, where his constitutional proposals will be given their first harsh test. The premiers, often closer to popular mood, must decide whether bilingualism, like prohibition in the United States, is a noble experiment that just did not work because it went against the nature of the country and its people.

Trudeau’s proposed constitutional Charter of Rights and Freedoms would impose both French and English as languages of government and the courts in Ottawa, Ontario and Quebec, and permit any criminal-trial witness to use either language anywhere in Canada. The Trudeau constitution would also guarantee minority-language parents the right—where warranted—to have their children educated in their own language. The catch, as far as language of education and other provincial powers are concerned, is that provincial legislatures would have to vote their approval before the language rights applied to their territories. Only New

Brunswick appears likely to comply.

A Maclean’s national survey reveals a trend toward a new design for linguistic harmony in which the provinces themselves would determine language status. Equality of both languages across Canada would give way to acceptance of the Canadian reality: a unilingual French Quebec and an English Canada relieved of the burden of bilingualism. Significantly, the loudest voices in favor of halting the largely futile efforts to entrench French in English Canada are heard among federalists in Quebec, the province pan-Canadian bilingualism was intended to placate. Léon Dion, a respected and pro-federalist political scientist at Laval University, last month told the parliamentary committee examining the Trudeau constitutional proposals that he now regrets having supported pan-Canadian bilingualism when he was a research director for the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, which reported 13 years ago. Bilingualism, laments Dion, “far from leading to linguistic peace has aggravated animosity between anglophones and francophones.” Hope for national unity, he says, “may lie in the acceptance of two unilingualisms, each with its own territory and an official bilingualism at the federal level.”

That argument has penetrated the Task Force on Canadian Unity led by former Ontario premier John Robarts and Jean-Luc Pépin, once a minister in the Trudeau cabinet. Against the resistance of the reluctant Pépin, the task force research staff has argued for retirement of the dream of a bilingual Canada, a view that has clearly won over the force’s Quebec representative, journalist Solange Chaput-Rolland, who told Maclean’s: “To me, it’s a complete failure. I used to extol the virtues of speaking two languages, but I will never bother to fight for that any more. We live in two islands of unilingualism—Professor Dion is right.” Task force hearings across Canada convinced Chaput-Rolland that federal language policy is divisive: “The animosity I expected to find aimed at Premier Lévesque and his sovereignty-association plan is concentrated instead against Trudeau and bilingualism.”

A dark picture drawn from census data is having more and more impact on researchers and policy-makers because bilingualism—both in English Canada and in Quebec—is dropping steadily. The most dramatic argument for the idea that Canada has evolved into two unilingual societies is made by Richard Joy, an Ottawa engineer, who, despite initial scoffing by academics, has won the respect of demographers. In an analysis for Montreal’s C.D. Howe Institute published in August, Joy pre-

diets an acceleration in the waning of the minority communities. “The degree of polarization has been increasing,” Joy says, “with the English language used less in Quebec, and the Frenchspeaking minorities fading away in the other parts of the country. The vision of a Canada bilingual from coast to coast is far from the reality shown by census data.” Quebec City, once 37 per cent anglophone, is now just three per cent English-speaking, and Joy says this trend “could become the future pattern for the disappearance of Montreal’s uneasy anglophones.” Joy’s pessimistic description of linguistic division will be reflected in the final report of the unity task force. According to sources in the force, the report’s conclusions will be similar.

Certainly, bilingualism is losing momentum in the federal bureaucracy. While service to French-speaking taxpayers in Quebec was a largely successful operation, attempts to make French an everyday language of work left the federal public service demoralized, spotted by incompetency and rife with French-English tensions. As long ago as 1973, the federal Treasury Board reported that bilingualization was “artificial” and horrendously wasteful. Trudeau’s reaction was to keep that still-confidential report under cover and order even more tax dollars diverted to the retreading of unilingual workers into bilinguals through language training—an operation Official Languages Commissioner Max Yalden terms “a $50-million boondoggle.”

Yalden’s estimate is inaccurately modest, according to an unpublished tally reached by investigators for the government’s 1975 study of language training, conducted by University of Montreal Professor Gilles Bibeau. Their estimate: an Olympian $1 billion—without a stadium to show for it.

Language training was never recommended by the B and B commission, whose co-chairman Davidson Dunton says it was “a sop to the anglophones.” French Canadians learned English on their own, says Dunton, while “the government tried to pamper the Englishspeaking civil service with these huge, free courses. But they didn’t use the language and it all went away.” More than 40,000 anglophone civil servants were given language training—the top-level mandarins sent off to the south of France for six weeks at public expense on the theory French would be ingested with the Beaujolais and ratatouille niçoise. Garden-variety subordinates were milled through the sausage factory of Ottawa language schools. In practice, it was far from the pampering criticized by Dunton, at least for the 30 per cent of the adult students who had lost the aural or mental ability to learn a new language in the classroom. The government’s Language Training Branch was able to tag accurately those for whom training would be a painful waste, and repeatedly pleaded that the government stop promoting unilinguals to bilingual positions unless they had at least the capacity to learn. Says Director-General Roger Lapointe: “It is true that there were many people hired for bilingual positions who did not have the aptitude necessary to learn a second language.”

There has at least been some change in civil service mentality. One external affairs officer recalls that before the decade of official bilingualism, a diplomat who filed a report in French was viewed as eccentric, if not malicious: now it is taken for granted in many departments that civil servants can file reports—and be evaluated—in their mother tongue. Keith Spicer, Yalden’s predecessor, still argues vehemently that the problems have come from the government’s defensive, apologetic approach, and that despite this implementation of the program has been “a remarkable triumph of our times.”

Yalden’s concern now is for the one positive glimmer in the sombre annals of bilingualism, an impressive increase across Canada of minority-language instruction and French immersion classes for anglophone children. Surprisingly, this modest progress was undercut by the federal government itself when it took $34 million away from its Bilingualism in Education subsidies.

Yalden remains adamant that Can-

ada would not survive division into unilingual French and English territories: “We would have two countries.” He warns that danger already lurks in Trudeau’s proposed House of the Federation where a “double majority” of Englishand French-speaking members would be required to pass legislation affecting language. The double-majority principle, Yalden says, would draw “linguistic battle lines.”

Like it or not, those battle lines are £

already in place. Popular mood and political leadership in all Canadian provinces presage serious difficulty for federal constitutional plans.

Among Atlantic provinces, Newfoundland’s situation is the simplest: with only a tiny French-speaking population concentrated in the Port au Port peninsula, Premier Frank Moores insists there is no need for linguistic guarantees. On Prince Edward Island, French education is available in one school district for Acadian islanders but, says Father Pierre Arsenault of the St. Thomas Aquinas Society, present trends indicate “Acadians will become folklore on P.E.I.” Nova Scotia’s minuscule Acadian population is also enjoying new educational opportunities but there appears no chance the province would make minority language rights constitutional. New Brunswick is the only bilingual province, containing a solid Acadian population concentrated in the northeast. But official bilingualism since 1969 has far from mol-

lifted the Acadians and there is a growing movement for linguistic separation and creation of a new Acadian province. In Bathurst, four schools that were bilingual have now separated into English and French and, in Fredericton, an anglophone was recently refused use of a gymnasium in a government-subsidized community centre for the city’s French speakers. Among francophones, the bilingualism ideal is giving way to a desire for recognition of northeastern New Brunswick as an autonomous Acadie where French unilingualism will be the rule. Voting support for the autonomist Parti Acadien in this month’s provincial election will be an indication of how far that idea has progressed.

In Quebec, no political leader, including Liberal Claude Ryan, dares advocate a return to official bilingualism, but the province’s declining Englishspeaking minority remains the most

generously treated in Canada, enjoying a freedom of choice in the language of education that is denied even to Frenchspeaking Quebeckers. In Ontario, the only other province with a significant linguistic minority, the Conservative government of Premier William Davis avoids even the word bilingualism and delicately tries to seduce francophone loyalty over the snap of anglophone backlash. As a result, the government made the paradoxical move of vetoing a legislative attempt to give francophones a legal right to services in their language, all the while gearing up the provincial public service and courts to provide them. Even the minority’s leaders, while wanting legislative protection, recognize official bilingualism is an elusive dream in Ontario. Explains Orner Deslauriers, chairman of the Council for Franco-Ontarian affairs: “The word bilingualism has unacceptable connotations among Englishspeaking people. We don’t feel Ontarians are to accept French as an official language, but we want a practical approach to French services.”

Nowhere has bilingualism less chance of acceptance than in the West. Manitoba’s French minority never recovered from the possibly illegal abolition of French as an official language in 1890. Federal efforts to stall assimilation have sown discord, according to Conservative government House Leader Warner Jorgenson: “There are English, French and Mennonite people in my constituency. In the past they got along fine, with no ethnic bias. Today, I detect increasing animosity.” Next door, the Saskatchewan prairie is littered with names of lost villages such as Val Marie, Laflèche and Butte Saint Pierre, abandoned by the evaporating fransaskois whose own cultural association predicts extinction in just one more generation. For Premier Allan Blakeney, “it is not a social problem here, not like the native-white problem.”

Though Calgary is officially twinned with Quebec City, Alberta’s Premier Peter Lougheed has rejected the entrenchment of language rights in Alberta; and in British Columbia, where the government is expanding Frenchlanguage education, there exists a similar conviction that provincial jurisdiction over language must be recognized. Says British Columbia’s Social Credit minister responsible for constitutional affairs, Rafe Mair: “We don’t need federal legislation of dubious constitutionality to tell us what to do. The provinces are quite capable of providing adequate civil rights for their citizens.” That argument is likely to be more convincing to provincial premiers, when they meet later this month, than the federal government’s fading vision of a bilingual Canada, v