A terminal failure to communicate?

November 1 1976

A terminal failure to communicate?

November 1 1976

A terminal failure to communicate?


On a cool, overcast October day, Pierre Trudeau was unveiling a statue of Louis St. Laurent. In a short speech, the PM remarked of the man who was the last French Canadian to lead the country before Trudeau himself: “The unpredictability, the impassioned debate, and the frustrations that mark political life could not have been attractive to this man of order and reason, and of measured, regular habits.” Trudeau might have had some of his own problems in mind, for a crisis was in the making over a long-simmering and divisive issue: Ottawa’s bilingualism policies. Just a day after the opening of the new parliamentary session, defense minister James Richardson let loose a bombshell announcement. Fie was quitting the cabinet, Richardson announced, because he feared that the Trudeau government planned to entrench its controversial bilingualism program in a patriated Con-

Richardson: in the bilingual program, ‘real difficulties and divisiveness’

stitution. Though Richardson’s reasons for going seemed somewhat specious— Trudeau convincingly denied that any such decision had been made—his resignation had the effect of crystalizing an issue that increasingly of late has seemed to trouble almost every part of the country and which, in the view of many, is badly straining the fabric of Confederation.

In his letter of resignation, Richardson warned against the constitutional entrenchment of language rights and spoke of the “very real difficulties and divisiveness that have been encountered in the bilingual program.” Before jetting off to Japan for an eight-day official visit (see The World), Trudeau angrily rebutted Richardson in a letter of his own. Trudeau called the ex-minister’s position “extreme” and added that “the expression of these extremes can lead to a hardening of positions which could tear our country apart.” Richardson, a Winnipeg millionaire who did not exactly shine during his eight years in the Trudeau cabinet, denied that he had any interest in serving as a rallying point for an anti-French, anti-bilingualism campaign. Yet the letters and telegrams that poured into his office showed that the Manitoban had struck a responsive chord in the West and in other parts of anglophone Canada. Wrote a 73-year-old Winnipeg man who seemed lost in the mists of history: “So glad you resigned and that you saw the light where France is trying to make Canada a French colony.” A Pembroke, Ontario, merchant told Richardson that “for some time, I have felt that Trudeau would favor a French-dominated totalitarian republic for Canada.” Suddenly, the bilingualism issue seemed to explode into prominence everywhere. Five days after Richardson’s resignation, Trudeau's slumping Liberals were trounced in a pair of by-elections, and in at least one of them bilingualism was clearly a factor (see following story). In Quebec, Premier Robert Bourassa chose the moment to call a November 15 provincial election in which the growing anti-bilingualism backlash in English-speaking Canada was certain to play a role. In part, the Bourassa government’s own Bill 22— which makes French Quebec’s sole official language—has contributed to the unleashing of anglophone resentment to bilingualism outside of Quebec. In recent months, Québécois sensitivities have been abraded by a mounting show of hostility from the rest of the country—from this summer’s row over bilingualism in the air to the booing in Toronto of a bilingual an-

Andras: ‘I think we took things too much for granted, became a little too complacent’

nouncer at September’s Canada Cup hockey series.

In the rush of events following Richardson’s declaration, two other former Trudeau cabinet ministers, both from Quebec, prepared to jump ship. Jean Marchand, who left Trudeau's cabinet to protest the air control issue in June, announced that he would quit parliament to run as a Bourassa Liberal in Quebec. Bryce Mackasey, who left Trudeau’s cabinet in September over a separate issue, was considering doing the same thing. In an emotional Toronto speech, Mackasey brooded over the future of Canada and warned that “we’re about to throw it away because we can't understand the futility of hatred, blind hatred and intolerance. Have we become so callous that we resent that a French Canadian or an English Canadian has a right to be served by the federal government in his own language?”

There is scarcely a region in the country where the bilingualism issue fails to rub on raw nerve ends. In the Maritimes, many anglophones resent bilingual labels that always seem to be facing the wrong way on shop shelves, react suspiciously to electoral redistribution that appears weighted toward francophone population pockets and chafe at the fact that in some parts of the Maritimes people who want to send a telegram via CN or CP have to deal with the company’s Montreal office. One of the touchiest issues in the East is Ottawa’s plan to turn one squadron at the Greenwood, Nova Scotia, air base into a French-language unit. For Alberta-born SquadronLeader Jim Johnson that decision was the last straw. “Bilingualism has been the coup de grâce for the Canadian Forces,” says Johnson, 45, who has left the airforce to sell real estate. “Promotion is no longer a question of ability.” “Why should one third of the population dominate two thirds?” asks Pat Ritchie, a shoe store clerk in New Minas, NS. “I don’t think French should be forced on anyone.”

In Ontario, bitter rows have flared over the provision of French-language education in parts of the province with sizable francophone communities. Not long ago, Toronto’s East York council endorsed a

Johnson: 'bilingualism has been a coup de grâce for the Canadian forces’

resolution calling on Ottawa to curtail bilingual services. Alderman W. S. Wadlow, apparently in all seriousness, reported that he had recently attended a conference in Quebec City and was “fed up to the teeth” with the prevalence of French in Quebec’s capital.

But it is probably in the west that the most vociferous complaints over French being “shoved down people’s throats” are heard. Hard-core bigotry is far from widespread—but it is there. One small-town florist on the Prairies would go so far as to “kick the French out of Quebec.” Says Bill Black, a Longview, Alta., rancher: “We have an old Western saying: we hope all Frenchmen wash their backsides because we have to kiss ’em every day.” Much of the resentment stems from a persistent, erroneous belief that Ottawa is somehow bent on requiring all Canadians to become bilingual. Says Murray Short, a farm equipment dealer in High River, Alta., home town of federal Conservative leader Joe Clark: “I listened to Trudeau’s Throne Speech and the main issue seems to be to push bilingualism throughout Canada. Pretty soon we’re all going to have to speak French. We don’t need it out west.”

Another source of Western resistance to bilingualism'is rooted in the fact that the Prairies originally were largely settled by waves of European immigrants who had to learn English. “If we have a second language in Manitoba,” says Gerald Hechter, a manufacturer who spent a year in court fighting Ottawa’s bilingual labeling legislation, “it should be Ukrainian.” The wrath stirred by Ottawa’s policies in the west worries even those that the policies were partly intended to help—Canada’s 1.4 million non-Quebec francophones, including the people who live in isolated and dwindling communities strung out across the Prairies and British Columbia. Dr. Brian Ayotte, a francophone heart specialist in St. Boniface, Man., blames Ottawa for creating anti-French feelings: “The emphasis on the civil service,” he says, “has been costly and ineffective. And now the feeling is that the French—especially in Quebec—are being given special consideration.”

It seems extraordinary that so much angry resentment could be triggered by a program that has such a minimal impact on the lives of most Canadians. The concept of federal bilingualism dates back to the days of Lester Pearson, who as prime minister in 1966 enunciated the two language principles that remain operative today: that Canadians should be served by the federal government in the languages of both Canada’s founding peoples, and that French, as well as English, Canadians should be able to work for the federal government in their own tongue. That modest plan was intended to counteract growing separatist strength in Quebec by demonstrating that there was a place for francophone Canadians in Ottawa. It was left to Pierre Trudeau, who swept into office in

1968 with bilingualism as his principal plank—and on an implicit promise to quell the rising clamor of Quebec nationalism—to put the program into effect.

As part of its program, the Trudeau government has pressed for the expansion of CBC television services for French communities outside Quebec, made bilingual labeling of goods—a policy that especially rankles in the west—mandatory at the re-

Ritchie: ‘why should one third of the population dominate the other two thirds?’

tail level, and tried, with limited success so far, to institute bilingual air control procedures at Quebec airports. In its most ambitious, and perhaps most controversial, program. Ottawa has at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars channeled 58,000 federal civil servants through individual language training courses—with mixed results (Maclean’s, May 31). Increasingly, French Canadians are being served federally in their own language. Yet many anglophone civil servants, tutored in French at an average cost of $9,150 each, emerge from their courses still lacking functional bilingual skills—or only to find that they have little use for French in their work.

Now Ottawa has begun to react to the mounting evidence that something has gone profoundly wrong with federal bilingualism. As a first step, Ottawa plans a massive publicity and ministerial speechmaking blitz to explain bilingualism to English Canadians. Treasury board president Robert Andras, the unilingual car dealer from Thunder Bay, and state secretary' John Roberts, the bilingual ex-civil

servant from Toronto, will help lead the counterattack. Says Andras: “I think we took things too much for granted. We had become a little too complacent.” The government also is reviewing bilingual labeling requirements to meet complaints from manufacturers who trade only in Englishspeaking regions. Ottawa also is taking a close look at the number of civil service jobs classified as bilingual; at last count there were 68,696—more than twice as many as Ottawa estimated there would be before launching the program. Another possibility is being examined—shifting the weight of second language training away from middle-aged mandarins and toward schoolchildren across the country.

For all the ill-will that Ottawa’s policies appear to have spawned in some regions, there are encouraging signs that bilingualism already may be catching on in the schools, after a period of decline. None of the nine English-majority provinces now require high-school students to study French, and during the past five years high-school French enrollment on a national basis has sagged to 42% from 55% of all students. Now parents seem to be demanding more French for younger children. In Toronto, four elementary schools are offering French immersion courses and

Wadlow: ‘fed up to the teeth with the prevalence of French in Quebec City’

there is a good chance that a fifth may soon launch a program. In Winnipeg, a total of 1,123 students were enrolled in immersion courses this fall, and Ecole Sacre-Coeur, the city’s largest immersion school, recorded a jump in enrollment from 334 to 560 students between 1974 and 1975. Says Raymond Hébert, Manitoba's assistant deputy minister of education: “There may

be a backlash, but there’s also a frontlash, which is evident in the tremendous increase in enrollment.” In Edmonton, public school enrollment in ordinary French courses was down 18% last year. Yet bilin-

Short; ‘pretty soon well all have to speak French, and we don’t need it out west’

gual schools in Calgary and Edmonton are experiencing a population explosion. This year the Calgary school board’s bilingual elementary school program reached an enrollment of 600—twice last year’s figure.

All that bodes favorably for Ottawa’s “Youth Option” plan, though the idea of providing federal funds for expanded language teaching in primary and secondary schools will first have to be worked out with the provinces. The idea was first put forward by Ottawa’s official languages commissioner, Keith Spicer, who rejects suggestions that anglophone hostility to bilingualism reflects any kind of deep-seated or bigoted mistrust of French Canada. Spicer suspects that bilingualism has merely become a convenient whipping boy for a whole range of anxieties, including unhappiness over wage and price controls and unemployment. Now, as Ottawa launches a new campaign to sell bilingualism, Spicer wants to smoke out the “closet moderates,” people he is convinced would support bilingualism if given positive reasons for it, such as the usefulness in today’s world of having a second language. “We have to offer an ideal,” says Spicer, “rather than an excuse or an apology.”

In the meantime, Joe Clark’s federal Conservatives, including hard-line Tory

opponents of bilingualism, are keeping a generally low profile on the issue. The reasoning is that the party probably already has the votes of most of those who oppose bilingualism, and that there is no reason to antagonize Quebec by speaking out against Ottawa’s policies. At the same time, the Tories are wary of the new Fiberal drive to promote bilingualism, suspecting that the ultimate objective may be to once more raise national unity as an election issue. For their part, the Liberals are toying with the idea of forcing a Commons’ vote on bilingualism in the hope of splitting the Tories. Clark, who supports the principle of bilingualism, and is trying hard to learn French himself, is confident that his party would not divide on the issue. With the Tories standing so high in the polls, Clark said it is probable that even Alberta’s outspoken Jack Horner would swallow his convictions this time and vote in favor of bilingualism.

Whatever the political risks, the Trudeau Liberals have made it clear that, while changes may be needed, the principles of bilingualism will remain firmly in place. “Commitment to linguistic equality,” declared Robert Andras during the Throne Speech debate, “like commitment to equality before the law . . . and other

Hébert: ‘there may be a backlash, but there’s also a frontlash.’ Look at the enrollment

democratic rights, cannot be meted out to the citizenry in greater or smaller ‘doses’ depending on whim or fancy.” If intercommunal conflict flared over the issue, added Andras, “all would lose; and what would be lost would be Canada itself.” Putting it another way, Trudeau called for a new national consensus on language, and other issues as well. “We have a series of

groups who are wanting the government to do good things for them and to heck with the others,” he observed. “We’ve got to recreate together this national consensus ... fairness in language, fairness in the economy, fairness in geographic distribution, fairness in the application of our moral values.” Back in 1968, when he campaigned under the banner of the Just Society, Trudeau was swept into office on his promise to do all those things. Now, unless his government acts swiftly and wisely, he may be running dangerously short of time in which to make his vision come true.