Mr. Graham Fraser (As an Individual):
Thank you, Mr. Chair. Members of Parliament,
I am honoured to be before you to discuss my nomination to be Commissioner of Official Languages.
While this is far from the first meeting of your committee that I've attended, it's the first time I've done so in this chair. I'm reminded of an appearance I made before a neighbourhood working committee that was engaged in the planning of urban renewal for the Treffan Court neighbourhood in Toronto. I wanted the approval of the committee to write a book about the process and was very aware of the tensions that existed between the homeowners, the tenants, and the businessmen, so I was very nervous. I made my presentation. The committee gave its approval. I went on to write the book. But after the meeting one of the homeowners said to a community worker, “If he writes like he talks, it's not going to be much of a book.”
It is a particular honour to be considered for the position of Commissioner of Official Languages. I have followed the careers of the previous commissioners, read their reports, gone to their press conferences and committee hearings, met most of them, interviewed several of them for my own work, and I have a great deal of respect for all of them. It is a challenging and important position.
Let me introduce myself. I was born in Ottawa and moved to Toronto as an adolescent with my family. I attended the University of Toronto, where I did a BA and later an MA in history. I became a journalist in 1968, and with a few breaks to travel, study, or write books, I've worked in Canadian journalism since then--for the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, Maclean's, and The Gazette--in Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, Washington, and Ottawa.
I've spent a significant part of my career writing about Quebec for the rest of Canada and, in a column for Le Devoir between 1995 and 2000, about the rest of Canada for Quebec. But the critical experience that made that career possible occurred when I was a unilingual English-speaking university student. In 1965 I went to work on an archeological dig at Fort Lennox on Île aux Noix on the Richelieu River, south of Montreal. That summer I not only learned French, I discovered how little I had known or understood my own country. I developed a deep interest in and affection for Quebec that has lasted ever since.
It was also, paradoxically, an experience that helped me to understand both the difficulty of learning a second language and something of the immigrant experience, for learning another language and culture makes one more empathetic to those who have moved here from other countries.
At one point a bilingual fellow student said to me, “You're very different in French than you are in English”. “Of course I'm different”, I snapped, “I am stupid, I am inarticulate, and I have no sense of humour.”
Ever since, I have always thought that linguistic duality and cultural diversity are not contradictory, as some would have us believe, but deeply linked. In fact, without the recognition — conscious or unconscious — that Canada comprises two language communities, the very notion of multiculturalism would be difficult to accept.
And while this link between linguistic duality and cultural diversity is a close one, it strikes me as poorly understood — even to this day.
To my mind, one of the key tasks of the next commissioner will be to continue explaining this important relationship — not only for the majority language communities, but for the minority communities as well. Canada's French-speaking communities are now welcoming large numbers of immigrants, in much the same way as the English-speaking communities are doing.
And I might just add at this point that I think there are already examples of immigrants who have come to Canada and become part of one or the other linguistic community. Not only have they become competent in the second official language, they are also quite eloquent. There are examples of this both within this committee and in Parliament in general. So to anybody who says these notions are contradictory, I say, here are some living examples of the contrary.
Since my nomination I've been asked several times to articulate my vision for the commissioner. I felt I should wait until meeting with you to do so.
The first most important point is my belief in the importance of linguistic duality in Canada. I think it is one of the central defining characteristics of the country.
As you know, the commissioner has six roles or functions in the enforcement of the Official Languages Act: a promotion and education role, a monitoring role in terms of the impact of government initiatives, a liaison role with minority communities, an ombudsman role dealing with complaints, an auditing function in terms of the public service, and a judicial intervention function.
I described the role of the commissioner recently as part cheerleader, part nag. And in looking more closely at those six functions, three fall into the cheerleading category and three into the nagging category. These are also related. The more successful the commissioner is in promoting, educating, monitoring, and carrying on the liaison function, the fewer complaints and court actions there will be.
The commissioner is an agent of Parliament — something that takes on special importance now that there have been amendments to the act. For these amendments have not been instigated by the government — neither the current government nor the previous one. Rather, it is thanks to you, Canada's parliamentarians, that this act has been amended for the first time since 1988. This has been a lengthy endeavour, and I commend you for your perseverance.
Last spring, I was impressed to hear Minister Josée Verner, before the same committee, express her commitment and that of her government to these changes. As you know full well, these amendments give the minority communities some very powerful instruments to ensure that the government takes their interests into account. I believe that the top priority of the next commissioner will be to ensure the successful implementation of part VII of the act.
Unfortunately, when one talks about governance in French, there is a concept that gets lost in the translation, so to speak. The phrase in English is “the public service”, whereas in French, one talks about “la fonction publique.” The concept of “service” is very important: the machinery of government must serve citizens, and not just function. And if citizens are not served in the official language of their choice, a crucial link between citizen and state is broken.
Addressing you today, I find myself in a rather interesting situation. Six months ago, I published a book on language policy called Sorry, I Don't Speak French. My aim in writing this book was to remind Canadian anglophones that the language issue remains of the utmost importance for our country.
With your indulgence, I would like to share with you a few of the key points I tried to stress in my book, which form part of my perception of Canada's linguistic duality.
First, I made the observation that language policy does not exist to protect, or even promote bilingualism, even though it cannot succeed without a certain number of people being bilingual. It exists to protect those who speak but one language. There are 4 million unilingual francophones in this country — and 20 million unilingual anglophones.
The act is there to guarantee that the 7 million francophones, and more specifically these 4 million unilingual francophones, are provided with federal services as effectively and efficiently as the 20 million unilingual anglophones are — including the minority anglophone community in Quebec. The act is not there to force people to learn another language, nor to create a country where everyone is bilingual.
When people talk about language policy, they often refer to it as “a dream”, as though it were unrealistic or unfeasible. Well, if I believed that, I would not be here today. Something I tried to get across in my book — and this may strike you as prosaic — is that English and French are Canadian languages. French is not some private code, nor is it the private property of Quebeckers. The French language belongs to all Canadians, just as the English language belongs to all Canadians. It is a legacy — and an opportunity.
Over the last two years, I've spoken about language, language rights, and the history of language legislation in a variety of platforms across the country, in lectures, interviews, and on open-line radio shows from Vancouver to Halifax. As a result, I can tell you from personal experience what a recent poll for the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages confirmed recently. There's an enormous pool of goodwill towards linguistic duality in Canada. There are concerns about access to immersion education, about the effectiveness of federal regulations, but the hostility to the goal of linguistic duality is now marginal.
But there are other broader challenges that face the next commissioner beyond the amendments to the law. Immigration is transforming Canada's cities, and it will be a continuing challenge to convey the importance of linguistic duality to those newcomers. Immigration, cultural diversity, and economic and technological change have been constant factors in Canada, not only over the last four decades when the Official Languages Act has been in force, but throughout our history.
The next commissioner will have to respond to those changes, just as the previous commissioners have done, but the fundamental question, in my view, remains the one that the late André Laurendeau and the late Davidson Dunton would ask at the beginning of the public hearings of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism four decades ago: Can English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians live together, and do they want to do so? I believe an official language policy that works is essential if the answer to those questions continues to be affirmative.
Thank you. I'd be glad to answer your questions.
Mr. Graham Fraser:
For 40 years, the francophone communities inside and outside Quebec have been transformed, not just psychologically but also economically, from the status of a minority into an integrative society.
I think that at the moment, immigrants to Canada have a genuine choice about integrating into the francophone community, obviously in Quebec, but also in a place like Toronto, for example, where more and more francophones who arrive from other countries send their children to French schools.
For the first time, minority communities outside Quebec, which have always defined themselves as traditional French-Canadian communities, are seeing newcomers from other countries and other cultures. This can be somewhat of a challenge for communities that have always defined themselves as independent and hermetic to some extent; they have to open up their institutions, their schools to people who are not descendants of the original French settlers. That is a change that has been happening in Quebec since the introduction of Bill 101 in the 70s. And now it is a challenge facing minority communities in the rest of the country.
I know that the Acadian community has made some efforts to encourage immigrants to come to New Brunswick. Now that we have a network of French schools not just in Quebec but throughout the country, the challenge is to welcome these francophones who arrive from other countries.
I have always been struck by the fact that with the changes to the language law in Quebec, in 25 years, that province managed to do what it took English-speaking America 150 years to do: namely, to accept that their language would be spoken, with an accent, by others.
When I came to Quebec in the 60s, as soon as people heard my accent, they spoke to me in English. Now, it is accepted that people can speak French with an accent. It is accepted that French is a public language, and not just a private code used by a minority. I think that this a very important evolution of society, and it has not happened just in Quebec.
Mr. Daniel Petit (Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles, CPC):
First, Mr. Fraser, I would like to thank you for appearing before the committee today. I would like to raise a very specific matter with you.
I have been a lawyer in Quebec for over 33 years, and I still have an office there. At the moment, the issue of language in the courts is a problem we often have to deal with. As you know, even though the people on the other side of the table do not believe it, our government has made a firm commitment on official languages, and I will tell you why.
On June 22 of this year, I supported a bill that is very important, particularly for people accused of a crime. In the future, the judge and the jury will have to understand the official language of the accused. Heaven knows we have had problems in this regard in both English and French, depending where the charge was laid. We have decided to change the approach regarding this most fundamental right—the right of an accused to be tried in his or her own language. When there is a judge and a jury, this is an important factor. People familiar with the field know that, usually, serious indictable offences are involved—homicide or worse. People facing a sentence of 25 years in prison should know that the jury properly understood their defence. It is perhaps the most important point. I understand that health and safety are important, but sentencing people to 25 years in prison without knowing whether the jury or even the judge understood everything correctly is absolutely terrifying.
On June 22 of this year, our government decided to introduce an amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada. This is a subject I would like to raise with you. Are you familiar with this bill? I think the right to be tried in one's own language is a fundamental right. The Conservative government decided to table a bill to do just that.
Do you feel comfortable with the fact that for the 100 years they were in power, these people did not even claim that there would be a judge or a jury that spoke the language of the accused? There have been some serious cases in Manitoba and in Quebec that resulted from the fact that the jury did not speak the language of the accused. Manitobans know all about this. Those people were in power for 100 years, and this is the first time there has been such an important change in this area. This is just a subsection of the code, but it will change many things for people who are charged with an offence when they are travelling across this country. They will at least have the right to a trial in their own language.
So I would like to know whether you are familiar with this bill and, if so, what you think about it.
Mr. Brian Murphy (Moncton—Riverview—Dieppe, Lib.):
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Welcome to the committee, Mr. Fraser. I wish you all the best in your new position.
First let me note that I come from Acadie, from Moncton, and that I am an anglophone. When I arrived in Ottawa, I was astonished to see that the level of bilingualism found here was less than what we have in Moncton. I find this disturbing, because this is, after all, the national capital.
By the way, I would like to suggest that you encourage local politicians to adopt a bilingual policy. If it can be done in Moncton — and we all know about the impact of bilingualism on political life — it can be done in Ottawa, without a doubt. That was a comment, and not a question.
My question is about the impact of Bill S-3. I was not here at the time, but I know that the adoption of Bill S-3 was a very important event, not only because the Conservative Party decided, at the last moment, to adopt a position that is favourable to bilingualism, but also because this bill is very important for the quality of bilingual services everywhere in Canada.
Let me quote what you wrote when you were a journalist, because what journalists write is, as we all know, always true. Last December, you wrote the following in The Toronto Star:
||S-3...requires the federal government to promote French-speaking minorities outside Quebec and the English minority in Quebec and gives them the right to go to court if the federal government doesn't take their interests into account.
This week we learned that the Court Challenges Program is about to be cancelled. As I prepared for this meeting, I remembered these words and I wondered whether the Court Challenges Program would deprive the public of a needed resource.