Monday, March 27, 2006

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.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A resurgent interest in bilingualism

Given my own research interests, I have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of my copy of Toronto Star columnist Graham Fraser's new book, Sorry, I Don't Speak French: Confronting the Canadian Crisis That Won't Go Away.

My copy finally arrived yesterday, and I'm about one-third of the way through it - hoping to be finished by tomorrow, after a good afternoon's read at Sackville's Bridge Street Cafe. I'll have my full comments up soon - so far it's a very enjoyable and provocative read, meshing a good overview of the history of Canadian language policy with personal insights of a multi-decade career in Canadian journalism.

I wanted to put a post up, however, to draw your attention to Chantal Hebert's column in today's Star about the book, and its implications for Canadian political life. As she points out, Canadian politics is indeed at a crossroads, as many of the would-be Liberal leaders are woefully unilingual, and some of the more prominent bilingual candidates (such as Martin Cauchon and Domenic Leblanc) have bowed out of the race.

Frankly, I find it incredible, and saddening, that would-be federal politicians haven't taken it upon themselves to learn both of Canada's official languages. Apart from the political implications of being unable to express oneself clearly to 25% (or 75%, depending on one's mother tongue) of the electorate, it sets a poor example for younger Canadians considering whether second language acquisition is necessary. North Americans generally have an abysmal record when it comes to language learning, and it is bound to catch up with our society eventually. Our students should be encouraged to become multilingual, and yet even bare-bones bilingualism is seemingly becoming too much to expect of a would-be Prime Minister.

I will have more to say on this topic in the next few days. But for now, I have a rather stimulating book to finish.

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Friday, March 03, 2006

Senate reform and Ontario: Some Food for Thought

A tidbit to chew on while I think through a more detailed post on Stephen Harper and Senate reform.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is musing openly about the abolition of the Senate, arguing that Ontario is underrepresented in that body. Funny, I thought that was the whole point of the Senate - to act as a counter-weight to the representation by population in the House of Commons. Mind you, if Stephen Harper is thinking of electing that body, he should bear in mind that the compromise of stronger regional representation in the Senate was only acceptable because its powers would be quite weak - see Christopher Moore's 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal for an excellent discussion of this.

What is particularly interesting about McGuinty's statement is that just over a decade ago, it was Ontario Premier Bob Rae who put forth the proposal of reducing Senate representation to 6 Senators per province, with the seats lost by Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia compensated for through additional members in the House of Commons. This proposal made it into the ill-fated Charlottetown Accord of 1992.

Funny isn't it, to see the same province arguing such different positions in such a short time frame.

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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Canadian Water Safety

I never used to think about the water coming out of my taps. I took for granted that the Toronto tap water that I grew up drinking was safe. I knew that it tasted different (and in my opinion, better) than the Montreal tap water at my grandmother's house, but I contentedly drank both straight from the tap.

Even with the recent problems in Walkerton, Ontario, I gave little thought to water quality in my own community.

Moving to Sackville, New Brunswick has made me less cavalier. This morning, seeking to make a pot of coffee, I noticed that the tap water was running reddish-brown. In six months, this is the third time that this has happened. This is not a phenomenon limited to my house - when it happens, half the town is experiencing the same problem, as it's connected to problems with the town water pipes springing leaks. I find this greatly troubling. It makes me wonder what is getting caught in my Brita filter on mornings where the water is seemingly clear. I don't like this feeling, and I don't think it's necessary to experience it in a "modern" country. Sigh.

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