Graham Fraser, "Sorry, I Don't Speak French"
Canadian politics often seems inspired by the ostrich - if there is a problem, our leaders seem to think that bury their heads in the sand will make it go away. This is clearly the case when we look at the history of Canadian language policy, a subject that Toronto Star columnist Graham Fraser tackles head on with his new book, Sorry, I Don't Speak French: Confronting the Canadian crisis that won't go away published this month by McClelland and Stewart. The book should be on the reading list of any aspiring Canadian politician, and more than a few top bureaucrats and university administrators.
The subject matter of this book is one in which I am intensely interested, as a fellow anglophone working on language policy issues. Fraser approaches his subject matter from a sympathetic perspective, as someone who learned French in university, and who wants to see official bilingualism succeed. As opposed to many who have written about the language policies that began in the Pearson and Trudeau years, Fraser does not advocate a complete rejection of these policies, despite the flaws in their implementation. Rather, he takes a hard look at what the original objectives of these policies were and how they have been implemented to date, then makes recommendations to try to make these policies work.
Canada's language policy has never been about "forcing the French tongue down people's throats", despite the claims of many who would critique it on this basis. Nor is it about forcing all Canadians to be bilingual. Rather, it is about trying to create the conditions for a viable political community in which both official language communities - English and French - are able to co-exist and have access to a full range of government services and opportunities. To make this function, a significant percentage of the population, particularly those working in federal institutions, will need to be bilingual. The challenge is to make these institutions truly bilingual, and to foster a political culture in which those who aspire to such leadership positions consider bilingualism a prerequisite. In this, Fraser argues, the policies have fallen short.
One of the strongest sections of this book is Fraser's history of Canadian language policy. Drawing on several key works from the secondary literature, he also turns to the two intellectual fathers of Canada's language policy - B&B Commissioners Frank Scott and Andre Laurendeau - to examine how they conceived of these policies, and how their visions continue to shape how we think about language in this country.
Profiles of Canada's two main "bilingual" cities are revealing about the successes of the last 40 years of Canadian language policy. The Montreal of Fraser's book is now the French-first city dreamed of by Bill 101's founders. Anglophone Montrealers have the highest levels of bilingualism in the country, and in most of the city, the default language of interaction is French. Ottawa, meanwhile, has proven more resistant to official bilingualism - with levels of bilingualism in the service industries far lower than one might expect of the nation's capital. While Fraser's evidence for this state of affairs draws heavilly on personal experience, it does reflect the sociolinguistic literature, and adds a personal take on the evolution of these cities. Indeed, the personal anecdotes peppered throughout the text make for an emininently readable book.
In critiquing the failures of Canadian language policy, Fraser turns his attention to the persistent problem of the "catch-up" approach to bilingualism that still prevails in Ottawa. Functional bilingualism is still far from a reality in much of the civil service, with many civil servants lacking the language skills needed to advance to middle- or senior-management. As a result, millions of dollars are spent annually on expensive language training programs to train middle-aged civil servants to speak their second language.
Why is this still the case, thirty-five years after the federal government began funding second-language instruction in the elementary and secondary schools of the country through the Official Languages in Education Program? As Fraser points out, while opportunities do exist for second language acquisition, these skills are still undervalued in the Canadian psyche and education system. Universities teach French as a foreign language, and do not require knowledge of Canada's other official language for admission or graduation - even in such disciplines where one might think such a skill would be needed for post-graduate employment, such as journalism, political science and public administration. Unlike European countries, where knowledge of multiple languages is valued, English Canada is mired in a North American mindset which sees English as the global language, and doesn't see the need for bi- or multilingualism. Fraser also questions one of the sacred cows of the current Canadian language policy regime - French immersion. Critiquing the pedagogy of French immersion has, unfortunately, become tantamount to critiquing bilingualism. Fraser argues that it may be time for a frank re-evaluation of French immersion pedagogy, so that the desired outcome - a fluently bilingual class of citizen - is actually produced, rather than a cohort of individuals who lack certain critical skills in writing and grammar.
The issues Fraser raises are certainly pertinent ones, and have too long passed in silence. It is as if with the passage of Section 23 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, everyone assumed that Canadian language policy was now formed, and could be left alone to function. Fraser has diagnosed some key maladies with the system that crucially need to be addressed. The Liberal Party, for one, is an institution which needs to take these issues to heart. An effective leader needs to be able to communicate in both English and French, and many of their contenders cannot. Any aspiring politician in this country should have bilingualism as a basic credential - and multilingualism would be an additional asset. Our leaders need to be able to speak, and listen, directly to both official language communities, without resorting to a third party. Hopefully, we will come to a means of instilling this message into the Canadian political discourse. But, as Graham Fraser points out, we are still a way from reaching this point, and action will be needed to correct the drifting course of Canadian language policy.Recommend this Post