Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Oh the Humanities!: Of Language Czars, the Civil Service and Policy-Making

A story about my research being presented today at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Waterloo appears in today's National Post.  I wanted to get this post up quickly because it clarifies a few points - and spins my research a little differently from how the Post did.

The article is connected to my ongoing research on the history of bilingualism, and the ways in which English-speaking Canadians responded to efforts to promote second-language learning and individual bilingualism since the 1960s.  My paper at Congress is entitled "Playing Games with the Language Czar: The Peculiar Political Role of the Commissioner of Official Languages".  It details a number of the initiatives undertaken the first Commissioners, starting with Keith Spicer, to foster positive attitudes to language learning and bilingualism in Canada, including the development of board games such as "Oh! Canada" and "Explorations", and sponsorship of Canadian Parents for French.  I discuss how the Commissioners went beyond the somewhat negative legislatively-required dimensions of their roles -  such as investigating complaints about delivery of service in both official languages - to undertake initiatives to promote more positive attitudes towards Canada's official languages, and towards language learning more generally in Canada.  As the Commissioners argued, this was in line with the spirit of the Act, and enhanced the acceptability of the official languages policy with Canadians, and their actions were on the whole supported by the governments of the day.

Although the National Post reporter chose to spin this aspect in a more negative way than I might have liked, I argue that the ability of the Commissioners to engage in these creative activities was part of a more open approach to public policy making that was part of Canada's political culture of the 1960s and 1970s (and earlier), when senior civil servants and officers of Parliament were encouraged and allowed to play a more active role in the process of policy development, and to draw on their skills and creativity to propose and build upon policy directions that the governments of the day wanted to undertake.  I view the loss of this in the present day as a detriment to Canadian society, and a sign that the federal government is acting in increasingly ideological ways, and seems afraid to trust the expertise of the people who work for it.  These Commissioners, and other officers of Parliament, were acting in what they interpreted to be the best interests of Canadians, in line with the spirit (if not necessarily the more specific - but not restrictive -  wording) of the legislation that created their officers.  Contrary to what I interpret to be the position of the National Post, I don't view this as troubling, but as an often important external check on the actions of our governments or an enhancement to the policy-making process.  

I'll have more to write later, but my presentation itself is today, and I have to go a-Congressing!

ETA: Also, although the Oh! Canada game mentioned in the article was released in 1974, I wasn't actually playing it until several years later - what with not being born until 1977! - which is testimony to the staying power of those kits and their broad distribution over many years.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Dalton McGuinty, GSAs and Catholic Schools - A rose by an ambiguous name

Over the past several days, Bill 13, the Accepting Schools Act, 2012 has been in committee hearings. This is the provincial government's anti-bullying legislation, meant to provide support groups in schools for various groups of students that have been victims of bullying, but, when it comes right down to it, is aimed to provide protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans students who have been blocked from forming support groups, particularly in the province's publicly-funded Catholic schools.

This saga has been ongoing for quite some time now, with a major flare-up last year in the summer prior to the provincial election, when the It Gets Better campaign was drawing tons of media attention to the issue of bullying queer youth. At the time, it seemed that the McGuinty government wanted to keep the issue off the front burner for the election campaign. With the election now behind them, the provincial Liberals have introduced this legislation.

This gets me to the crux of this post. Many gay organizations, foremost among them Queer Ontario and the Xtra! chain of newspapers, have been pushing very strongly for Bill 13 to explicitly include provisions that would mandate that support groups formed by students under the protection of this legislation would have an explicitly defined right to call their groups "Gay-Straight Alliances" or GSAs. Catholic groups, in particular trustees, have repeatedly stated that they won't permit this, citing directives from the Vatican, and have indicated that at best they would allow something called "Respecting Differences" groups. Queer organizations, with Xtra! reporter Drea Houston chief among them, have been pushing Education Minister Laurel Broten and Postsecondary Education minister Glen Murray (who had been the point person on this issue in the pre-election period) to be clear about whether these explicit protections would be incorporated into the legislation.

Now, one can debate back and forth as to whether the name of the group is a crucial issue. One can also make the case that insisting on the terminology might make it harder for groups to form that in practice would provide a supportive environment, regardless of what trustees might like (since it is remarkable what can happen under the guidance of a supportive teacher). I've had these discussions elsewhere. But what has been galling me is the cowardice and double-talk that has emanated from the government. Ministers Broten and Murray (the latter particularly on Twitter) have gone back and forth as to whether the bill, as currently worded, would require that schools accept groups named as GSAs - even in the face of trustees testifying before the committee that such names would be explicitly prohibited. They have also implied that they think that a group seeking to use such a name would have the protection of the Charter (as a free speech issue). And yet, they are not willing to take the step of explicitly incorporating the right to use this name in the legislation, claiming that this might violate Catholic school board rights under section 93 of the Constitution.

My problem with this stance is as follows. We don't currently know whether imposing GSAs (called such) on Catholic school boards would violate the Constitution. We do know that student groups want to use this name, and that Catholic trustees have vowed to stop this. So the question is: who ends up in the courtroom when this inevitable case comes before the courts, and who foots the bill for the extensive legal costs (because we're probably looking at a case that is Supreme Court-bound)? It seems pretty clear that the McGuinty government is trying to avoid being the "bad guy", imposing its will on the Catholic school boards, and would prefer that the rights issue be settled by a citizen group - with all the legal and political costs that entails. It's symptomatic, to my mind, of the lack of political leadership that we've seen in the post-Charter era on contentious social issues, where governments of all stripes try to avoid acting themselves and offload responsibility for defending or seeking rights onto citizens, and onto the courts to rule on them. It feeds into a conservative discourse of judge-made law, and it is something that progressives should be worried about. If our "supportive" governments refuse to show leadership on our behalf on issues they profess to believe in, then they are indirectly providing fuel for their conservative opponents who decry the increased power of the courts (and may yet start appointing judges more friendly to their interpretations).

I might feel differently about this issue if I thought that the provincial Liberals actually were not supportive of the GSA name. But I think that in this case, they are playing politics and trying to avoid a Catholic backlash at the ballot box. Which makes today's news that a majority of Ontarians support GSAs and oppose public funding of Catholic schools quite interesting indeed. A little food for thought for our confrontation-averse provincial government, perhaps?

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