In the wake of this summer’s impassioned and destructive dispute over the use of French in ground-to-air communication, Pierre Trudeau’s government has been forced to take stock of a fierce backlash from English Canada. Ottawa is no less aware of the fact that the row has profoundly upset Québécois nationalists and could well push more voters into the Parti Québécois’ camp when the next provincial election rolls around. Now Ottawa is planning a counterattack, pushing bilingualism in English Canada, that could make it or break it in the next federal election. Says Quebec Liberal MP Serge Joyal, a fierce opponent of Ottawa’s apparent compromise with English-speaking pilots and air controllers, “I think it’s total war.”
The Liberal government’s hope is that it can turn the tide of resentment and, sometimes, of ill-concealed bigotry by means of a speech-making blitz. English-speaking ministers in the Trudeau cabinet are being urged to promote bilingualism—even though some of those ministers regard federal bilingualism policies as a political albatross. Already, Urban Affairs Minister Barney Danson and Labor Minister John Munro have responded to the call with speeches, respectively, in Parry Sound, Ontario, and Winnipeg. Declared Danson: “One of the basic conditions of our Confederation is the enshrinement of the French language and its preservation.”
Next month, backbench Liberal MPS are scheduled to launch a speaking tour of high schools and colleges in anglophone Canada with the aim of selling bilingualism. Even the Queen was indirectly enlisted in the campaign. On the eve of her departure from the Olympics, her speech, scripted by Trudeau’s office, referred to bilingualism as “a noble goal.”
The federal effort is the result of the rude awakening that came to the government in the air controllers dispute. In the cozy, insulated world of Ottawa politics, where all parties endorse the government’s two-language policies, bilingualism at the federal level has been widely accepted since Pierre Trudeau successfully made it a major election plank in 1968. True, bilingualism remained a touchy issue for the civil servants who were actually affected. But the general feeling was that bilingualism had been accepted in principle by the rest of the country. As a result, the vituperative reaction throughout much of English Canada to the air communications dispute caught official Ottawa by surprise. Trudeau received more than 200 letters a week on the issue— the overwhelming majority of them negative. After Jim Munson, an Ottawa based radio reporter, was involved in a highly publicized shoving incident with Trudeau, he was deluged by telephone calls congratulating him on getting the “frog.” In Kitchener, Ont., a judge who was seemingly caught up by the same mood, lectured a francophone defendant. “It’s amazing,” the judge declared, “that she wouldn’t attempt to learn English, which is the language of this country.”
For the Liberals, perhaps the most disturbing aspects of the angry anglophone response was the degree to which it showed a basic ignorance of just what the federal
bilingualism policies mean. All that Ottawa has ever decreed is that francophones in any part of Canada with a significant French-speaking population should be able to communicate with the federal government and its agencies in their own language. But many anglophone objectors seemed to believe that ordinary citizens in English-speaking parts of Canada were, somehow, expected to learn French. “We’ve had enough of French being shoved down our throats,” was the phrase repeatedly heard on hot-line shows and seen in letters-to-the-editor.
In order to salvage all thajjs worthwhile and necessary in its bilingualism program, Ottawa may have to admit to some mistakes and implement changes. So far, Ottawa’s bilingual game plan has required the channeling of more than 50,000 civil servants through language schools. But, according to the federal language ombudsman, Keith Spicer, the plan is not working. Most anglophones do not learn enough French to use at work and only infrequently use what they have learned. Spicer has suggested that instead more emphasis should be placed on teaching French in Canada’s schools, and an unreleased 2,000-page report on government language-training programs by University of Montreal Professor Gilles Bibeau is expected to reach the same conclusion.
Ottawa is studying the Spicer and Bibeau recommendations and may have policy changes to announce in the Speech from the Throne when parliament meets again in October. Ottawa will not be able to retreat too far from its principles without deepening the anxieties in French Canada. But the bind facing the government on the anglophone side of the issue, says a federal official working on proposed
legislative changes, is that “tinkering with the program won’t help us with people who aren’t even civil servants and just don’t like French on their corn flakes boxes.” IAN URQUHART/ANGELA FERRANTE
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