Four Burning Questions for Graham Fraser, Commissioner of Official Languages

Posted on Thursday, April 25, 2013

Graham Fraser, Commissioner of Official Languages

On Thursday May 1, Graham Fraser will be a participant at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC) public event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. While there are several events across Canada acknowledging the anniversary of the Commission, most of them have looked back at its history. MISC intends for this event to look forward, asking, “Does bilingualism have a future in Canada? Le bilinguisme a-t-il un avenir au Canada?” For more, click here.

You are visiting McGill as part of a cross-Canada series of events being held to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. What has changed in terms of bilingualism since the time the Commission was founded, and today?

When the Royal Commission was launched, the federal government operated entirely in English. Simultaneous interpretation in Parliament had only been introduced five years earlier, the leaders of the three largest parties in Parliament were unilingual Anglophones, and it was still the case that Francophones were seriously under-represented in the public service, it was virtually impossible to get services from the federal government in French, and there was no right for federal employees to work in French. A half-century later, it is now taken for granted that to lead a political party in Canada, one must be bilingual. During the debate over the Official Languages Act – a major recommendation of the Royal Commission – some Opposition MPs argued that no Westerner would ever be able to get a decent job with the federal government. Now, the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Clerk of the Privy Council, the former Chief of the Defence Staff, not to mention the Minister of Canadian heritage and the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, are all from Western Canada and are all bilingual. This was unimaginable half a century ago.

Is bilingualism still a relevant model in Canada?

Definitely. The model that the Royal Commission proposed was a compromise between the territorial approach, used by Belgium and Switzerland, and the individual approach then used by South Africa. They concluded that there needs to be flexibility, and looked at the Finnish model, where there are unilingual Finnish speaking areas, unilingual Swedish speaking areas, and bilingual districts. The bilingual districts that the Commissioners recommended were never adopted by the federal government, but we have an interesting asymmetry: one unilingual French-speaking province, one officially bilingual province, and several that offer various degrees of French-language services to their minority language communities – and a federal government that offers services in both languages. It is a complex model, and many people do not understand its complexity, but it represents the linguistic diversity of the country and the desire to find an appropriately balanced policy.

The language debate in Quebec is once again making headlines. As Official Languages Commissioner, what is your reaction to this controversy in the media?

One of my concerns about Bill 14 is that it uses percentages to determine whether the English communities in a municipality have a right to services. I am very uncomfortable with the use of percentages to evaluate the vitality of a minority language community. It means that the size and rate of growth of the majority is being used to define the rights of the minority.

More generally, there is a risk of a backlash in the rest of the country. Even though the Quebec government has taken pains not to blame the English minority and even though this is the first government to name a minister who has specific responsibility for dealing with the English community – and I welcome both of those approaches – the perception is that the message sent during the last Quebec election campaign gave a moral licence to ordinary people to be abusive. There have been some unfortunate incidents that happened in the Metro in Montreal of people refusing people who asked for help in English. And I think there is a distinction to be made between the protections for Francophones that exist in Bill 101 and inappropriate behaviour. I think that human decency, basic respect, and basic politeness should govern all of our attitudes toward people who speak other languages.

Language is one of those existential issues in Quebec. If anybody thinks that a vote or a piece of legislation is suddenly going to put an end to any discussion of it, they are mistaken. Language is a central defining issue and continuing debate in Canada, particularly in Quebec. I’ve always said it’s like class in Britain and like race in the U.S. But there are positive elements; this is the first time that the Quebec government has given a minister specific responsibilities for the English-speaking community.

Certainly the people in the English-speaking community whom I have talked to about this appointment have appreciated the meetings they’ve had with that minister, Mr. Jean-François Lisée. They’ve appreciated the degree to which they feel he has listened to their concerns. At the same time, you’ve had a number of people saying that being charming and listening is all well and good, but what is the outcome going to be? We will see what emerges from the National Assembly hearings on Bill 14.

You will speak at the MISC event commemorate the 50th anniversary on the launch of the Royal Commission on B&B, We will be asking the question, “Does bilingualism have a future in Canada?” What do you hope the audience can take away from the discussion we’ll be having?

My hope is that those who attend the conference will have a better understanding of the groundbreaking work that was done by the Royal Commission, the progress that has been made since the Royal Commission, that the challenges that still remain.

Does bilingualism have a future in Canada? / Le bilinguisme a-t-il un avenir au Canada? May 1; 3:00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.; Faculty Club Ballroom (3450 McTavish). Participants include Warren Allmand, Fabienne Colas, Pierre Curzi, Ellen Gabriel, Graham Fraser, Catherine Leclerc, Sherry Simon and Bernard St-Laurent. Free admission, open to the public. RSVP to, or call 514-398-8346.

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