SPECIAL REPORT

BILINGUALISM UNDER FIRE

THE UNITY DEBATE REVIVES CRITICISM OF THE POLICY OF TWO OFFICIAL LANGUAGES

GLEN ALLEN April 22 1991
SPECIAL REPORT

BILINGUALISM UNDER FIRE

THE UNITY DEBATE REVIVES CRITICISM OF THE POLICY OF TWO OFFICIAL LANGUAGES

GLEN ALLEN April 22 1991

BILINGUALISM UNDER FIRE

THE UNITY DEBATE REVIVES CRITICISM OF THE POLICY OF TWO OFFICIAL LANGUAGES

SPECIAL REPORT

For the 60-year-old Quebecer, the past two decades have been a continuing battle. Since the early 1970s, Joan Dow of New Richmond, a hamlet on the south shore of the Gaspé Peninsula, has fought a series of what she regards as attacks on the rights of about 12,000 English-speaking residents of her region. A member of the area’s Committee of Anglophone Social Action, she resisted Quebec’s ban on English signs and opposed limits on education in English. She has campaigned for public funding for English libraries and, most recently, for patients such as her own 91year-old mother to receive care in their own language in local convalescent homes. The incessant campaigns have wearied the mother of four, whose ancestors have lived in the Gaspé for more than 200 years. Says Dow: “I’m getting tired. I’m at the point where I’d just like to sit down and enjoy life.”

But Dow may soon face her most critical battle so far in the language wars. She says that she is worried about the survival of Canada’s official policy of bilingualism. “Losing bilingualism,” she adds, “would be devastating for us.” Dow’s concern, widely shared among English-speakers in Quebec and francophones outside the province alike, is well founded:

Canada’s 22-year-old two-languages policy is under attack as perhaps never before. A handful of critics—many of them bitterly antiFrench—have resisted the policy from the outset as a costly and pointless invasion of their everyday lives. But in recent months, a swelling chorus of scholars has also begun to register disillusionment with bilingualism. The Reform Party of Canada, now considering moving

into other parts of Canada from its base in the West, is wooing mainstream voters with a call to loosen up federal bilingualism requirements. Even the federal Conservatives, while insisting that they remain wedded to the principle of two official languages, are quietly reviewing the application of bilingualism.

Those trends led the federal government’s bilingualism watchdog, Commissioner of Official Languages D’Iberville Fortier, to respond sharply in his latest annual report, released on

March 25 in Ottawa. Declaring bilingualism “a major national success story,” Fortier noted that “there have been recent attempts, intentional or otherwise, to create a climate of doubt around the future of official languages.” Asserted the commissioner: “A myth is being spread that language reform has failed.” Bilingualism has not failed, but cracks are plainly showing in the policy created when Parliament passed the Official Languages Act in 1969. That act, introduced by the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau, guaranteed the use of French and English in more than 160 federal institutions as a prescription for national unity. Parliament amended the law in 1988 to oblige the provinces to provide minority-language education where numbers warranted, among other changes. But with national unity more elusive than ever, many Canadians are subjecting the policy to unprecedented scrutiny.

Decline: One alternative that many academics support would preserve a measure of bilingualism within the federal government, but leave most language policy up to the provinces. But any such change is likely to meet stiff resistance, not only from language minorities but also from the legions of Englishspeaking parents across Canada who have supported the concept of bilingualism by placing their school-age children in French-immersion classes.

Still, many Canadians would welcome a retreat from Trudeau's vision of a bilingual federation. The Toronto polling firm Environics Ltd., for one, has recorded declining tolerance for the policy over the past 14 years. Environics vice-president Donna Dasko cites several reasons for that shift. For one thing, she says, English-Canadians “look at Quebec and see that it wants to become unilingual. They’re

being asked to do something for Quebec that Quebec isn’t willing to do for others.” Another irritant is the cost of maintaining official bilingualism—$626 million in the 1989-1990 fiscal year, according to Fortier.

And increasingly, scholars are among those calling for reform of language policy. John Meisel, a political scientist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., argues that the twolanguages policy no longer reflects Canada’s makeup. “The country is changing,” Meisel asserts. New groups of immigrants and what Meisel calls “new elites,” such as feminists, native Canadians and the disabled, are jostling for influence. Says Meisel: “These new centres of power are challenging the concept of Canada as a dual partnership.”

The most frequently suggested change in the two-decades-old policy is a move to turn most decisions on language rights in such areas as education and health care over to the provinces. That approach has surfaced in the past. Kenneth McRae, a political scientist at Ottawa’s Carleton University who has studied bilingual communities around the world, first suggested 13 years ago that Canada model itself on Switzerland, where 26 cantons effectively control language policy. “There are some frictions,” says McRae, “but it works a lot more smoothly than Canada.”

Options: For its part, the federal Conservative government has kept its options openwhile affirming its loyalty to the principle of bilingualism. In response to opposition questioning in the House of Commons, acting prime minister Joe Clark said last month: “The commitment of this government to official bilingualism is clear, constant and continues.” But

early this month, Federal-Provincial Relations Minister Lowell Murray told a reporter that giving the provinces more control over language might help ease “very serious linguistic tensions.” Tory MPs briefly discussed bilingualism at their Wednesday caucus meeting last week. And one senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office acknowledged later: “We are looking at a lot of different ways of applying that policy.”

In fact, whatever changes the Tories may approve are likely to be small. Bilingualism would probably remain in force in most central government institutions, as well as such federal agencies as national parks and Canada Post. But language requirements might well be relaxed for business. The controversial bilingual cereal box, for one, could disappear from some markets, as might bilingual advisories on some airline routes. Still, University of Ottawa political scientist John Trent, a constitutional expert on language, suggests that the presence of significant francophone minorities in much of the country from New Brunswick to Northern Ontario would prompt many businesses and communities in those regions to retain a measure of bilingualism. And while Ottawa would no longer prompt provinces to extend minority language services, Trent adds, “bilingualism will be in the front lines where people actually need it—in health and hospital and legal work.” And in Trent’s view, the practicalities of commerce in the rest of the country would oblige Quebec to continue to deliver services in English to its anglophone minority.

Others are far less sanguine. Stephane Giroux, the bilingual francophone news editor of a weekly English-language newspaper in Que-

bec’s Gaspé region, says that he foresees dire consequences from a federal retreat on bilingualism. Added Giroux: “If you leave it up to the provincial legislatures, it only takes one redneck to destroy decades of hard work.” Of his own province, he says: “If the Parti Québécois were elected, whatever [English-language] rights are left might disappear within a few years.” That concern is echoed among members of Manitoba’s French-language community. Raymond Bisson, president of the Franco-Manitoban Society, told Maclean’s: “We’re very concerned. If we look at history, Manitoba has never been known to

1 provide a lot of understand-

2 ing to francophones here.” s Added Bisson: “Language o rights have to be the re| sponsibility of the federal u government.”

There are still other supporters of the current policy. Canadian Parents for French, an 18,000member national volunteer group that supports schooling in French for anglophone youngsters, sent a telegram to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney last month, seeking reassurance that he plans no cuts in funding for official languages programs. Declared the group’s national president, Patricia Brehaut of Edmonton: “We have heard a lot of noise about backtracking in bilingualism. We do have some concerns.”

Renewal: Indeed, however strong the public desire for a remodelled language policy may be, the proponents of bilingualism point to several indicators that the policy has been a success. For one thing, according to Fortier’s report, the number of non-French children enrolled in French-immersion programs has grown to 288,000 last year from 38,000 nationwide in 1977. At the same time, Fortier noted that while francophones outside Quebec represent a shrinking proportion of the population as a result of immigration by non-francophones, their actual number increased to 945,000 in 1986 from 908,000 in 1976. Asserted the language commissioner’s report: “Francophones outside Quebec are experiencing a cultural renewal.” For her part, New Richmond’s Joan Dow says of the expense of maintaining two official languages: “Canada is worth it. Bilingualism has stood the test of time.” But having met that test, one of the hallmark policies of contemporary Canadian life clearly faces critical trials in the months ahead.

GLEN ALLEN with

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH