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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