The choice of words was unusually harsh for a man who had spent 33 years couching his true thoughts behind the niceties of the diplomatic circuit. In his most recent annual report, released on March 22, Canadian Official Languages Commissioner D’Iberville Fortier rebuked the Quebec government for what he called its promotion of French by “humbling” other languages. In Quebec, where the Frenchspeaking majority had itself for generations felt humbled by English-language dominance, that critique incited merciless attacks against the author. But since then, Fortier has defended both his statement—and his credentials. Said Fortier: “I cannot go on preaching to English Canadians about their duty toward equality for French-speakers if I shut up about the perceptions held by Quebec’s English-speaking minority.”
Still, the condemnation from politicians in his home province clearly disturbed the 62-year-old Fortier, who proudly traces his family heritage in Canada back to 1680. As languages commissioner, Fortier is responsible for promoting bilingualism. And as with many francophone Quebecers of his generation, Fortier, who spent 33 years as a career diplomat before becoming languages commissioner in 1984, said that he has had a lifelong interest in Canada’s languages issue—with all of its wrenching conflicts. “As long as I can remember,” he said, “we have lived with the problems of our language and debated the fate of our French-speaking compatriots in other provinces.”
As a child growing up in Outremont, an enclave of wealthy francophone Montrealers, Fortier says that he learned about the tenuous existence of the country’s linguistic minorities at an early age. Both of his parents had tried to settle in Western Canada: his mother with family members in Edmonton and his father, then a gold prospector, in northern Alberta. But both returned to Quebec because, Fortier said, “there was no opportunity to live in the West in their own language.” Fortier added that he also remembers the slights of growing up French in Montreal at a time “when
French-speakers were not welcome everywhere in the city.”
As a result, Fortier said that he has always shared a love for language and a commitment to the preservation of minority-language rights. But before 1984 his career path had been rooted in the foreign service. Although trained as a
lawyer, Fortier was working in Europe as a journalist when he wrote entrance exams for the department of external affairs in 1952. His subsequent career in the public service peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s when he held the influential ambassadorships to Rome and Brussels—home of the European Economic Community headquarters.
Most External Affairs associates describe Fortier’s performance in the department as brilliant. Said Edgar Gallant, a retired civil servant who has
known Fortier since the mid-1960s: “He has just the right touch of ego, culture and showmanship to be a great diplomat.” Other friends say that his muchreputed arrogance masks a more personable side. Said Ottawa lawyer Guy Roberge, a longtime friend: “He can be very entertaining—a witty storyteller and a charming host.”
Fortier admits that he was surprised when his friend, then prime minister, Pierre Trudeau appointed him as official languages commissioner. But friends say that Trudeau prevailed because of Fortier’s strong interest in francophone issues. In the mid-1970s he had served as assistant undersecretary of state for External Affairs and had dealt with Quebec officials on the arrangements for a 1974 international francophone forum. Recalled Senator Arthur Tremblay, who was then a Quebec civil servant and dealt with Fortier: “In those days negotiations between Quebec and Ottawa were, to be polite, difficult. But there was never any question that Fortier had a legitimate caring for issues of French language and culture.”
Some associates privately suggest that Fortier’s incendiary words in his latest report may have stemmed from his frustration with the commissioner’s lack of real enforcement powers. But, said Tremblay: “Fortier
may simply be so motivated by his real concern for French and for bilingualism that he was tempted to push beyond the role of a federal commissioner.” If so, £ Fortier shows no signs of with! drawing from the fight. When 1 the Saskatchewan government I recently decided to repeal a statute giving French equal status with English, Fortier declared that it marked “a sad day for Canada.” And he insists that his background in External Affairs has prepared him for the fray. “Diplomacy has its genuine battles for power and influence,” he told Maclean's. “The only difference is that the struggle is behind closed doors.” In the sensitive world of language politics, though, there are no back rooms—and Fortier has landed in the unaccustomed glare of the political front lines.
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