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The language elephant

During my drive home on Tuesday, I listened to an interview with the new Commissioner of Official Languages. Canada is bizarre in a way you might not understand if you don’t live here. There are two official languages and some people shit if they feel their language isn’t given equal treatment. To others, even equal treatment isn’t enough.

Do you want an example? At the theatre, we run all the films in both languages. Not at the same time of course, but there’s no way we’d get a film if the soundtrack were available in only one language. We have a short video presentation at the start of each film telling people to close their eyes if they feel motion sickness, to leave using the back doors when the show is over, and not to take photos during the movie. Basic stuff. We also have two copies of this video, one in each language. As you might imagine, we run the presentation in the same language of the film starting immediately afterwards. Logical, I thought. The language is on the schedule and the tickets. Once, a patron complained because the intro presentation wasn’t in both languages. The film is in one language, but one viewer took offence because the presentation was also only in the same language. I know.

Graham Fraser was appointed the Commissioner of Official Languages on October 17, 2006 and I’m still not sure why he was being interviewed. I was driving, okay? Once the conversation started, I grew intensely interested. It’s unfortunate that I was driving because I wanted to pay even closer attention.

Let me back up for a second. According to the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages:

The mandate of the Commissioner of Official Languages is set out in section 56 of the Official Languages Act, as follows: “It is the duty of the Commissioner to take all actions and measures within the authority of the Commissioner with a view to ensuring recognition of the status of each of the official languages and compliance with the spirit and intent of this Act in the administration of the affairs of federal institutions, including any of their activities relating to the advancement of English and French in Canadian society.

The Commissioner of Official Languages has a mandate to take all measures within the authority of the Commissioner intended to ensure that the three main objectives of the Official Languages Act are met, namely:

  • the equality of English and French in Parliament, within the Government of Canada, the federal administration, and the institutions subject to the Act;
  • the preservation and development of official language communities in Canada;
  • the equality of English and French in Canadian society.

The Commissioner of Official Languages is appointed by commission under the Great Seal, after approval of the appointment by resolution of the Senate and House of Commons, for a seven-year term. The Commissioner of Official Languages reports directly to Parliament.

What I was listening so intently to was Fraser’s response when the interviewer asked him how he thought the city of Ottawa in particular performed in terms of fostering both official languages. He replied that he thought the government buildings and the federal museums were doing a good job, but as soon as you crossed Wellington, there was much room for improvement. Most businesses and retailers could do far more to improve their service to francophone patrons. Further, he said that after 9/11, we could no longer depend on tourists from the United States and had to do everything we could to welcome unilingual francophone guests from Québec, given its proximity.

It was at this point I knew Fraser was perfectly aware of the elephant in the room but was choosing to ignore it. There are three things about Ottawa relevant to his comments. The first is businesses are not under any obligation to offer service and signage in any particular language. As far as I’m aware, if you want to open a Chinese food restaurant and have all the signage and menus in Chinese only, you’re free to do so. Further, if you want to hire staff who speak only Chinese, I’m not aware of any reason you cannot do this. You’d be limiting your clientele, but it’s your choice.

The second fact about Ottawa is despite being in Ontario, most (if not all) road signs are bilingual. Speed limits, direction indicators, even street sign labels are all bilingual. The only municipal signs in only English are stop signs. Ottawa itself is not officially bilingual, but you might guess it is.

The third fact is this label: the capital city of Canada. On any map, Ottawa is indeed the capital. Come here however, and there are far more references to the National Capital Region. Included in this region is the city of Gatineau in Québec. It’s on the other side of the Ottawa river, and although both cities have separate governments, the residents can travel back and forth as if it were a single city divided by a river. There are differences, however.

The elephant Fraser carefully stepped around is Gatineau. Nothing I mentioned above about language in Ottawa applies to Gatineau in particular or Québec in general. There’s a language law in Québec requiring that all signage have clearly dominant French text if any other language appears. When the law was first introduced, it prohibited any other language on signage, but a Supreme Court challenge struck down this restriction. The provincial government may not have an officially unilingual language policy, but it might as well have. The theatre I work at is in Québec and the provincial tax slip I receive to file my tax return is only in French. I asked for an English or bilingual version and the answer was, “no.” I later learned there is no such thing. Driving over the border is also a jarring experience in that you go from fully bilingual road signs to unilingual road signs.

Fraser is unhappy with businesses because some choose not to be bilingual while a kilometre away, the provincial government does all it can to exclude any language but French. Make no mistake, the position of Commissioner of Official Languages is a federal post so he can’t go ordering municipal or provincial governments around. Yet, he’s criticising the decisions made by residents of Ottawa while just a bridge away, the Québec government has taken away the freedom to choose from its own people. Please, give me a break.

Given that one of the mandates of his position is the equality of the two languages in Canadian society, there are far more lopsided battles to fight than in downtown Ottawa. Don’t get me wrong, however. I do know there are places around the country in which you’d have to search long and hard for any sign of French. The difference to me is in those places, people have the choice to do as they please. A unilingual English restaurant in Québec would be fined into bankruptcy by the language police if it didn’t comply.

Although a non-French sign in Québec and a non-English sign in Alberta may seem analogous, the context is so different that I can’t see a valid comparison.

Although it’s a valid question, I don’t even want to get into the best means to handle language and freedom. My whole point boils down to what Fraser says, and I find it somewhat alarming, given his current job.

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1 Comment

  1. Dee

    You say “Ottawa itself is not officially bilingual, but you might guess it is.”

    While in fact, “On March 9, 2005 the province of Ontario amended the City of Ottawa Act to officially recognize the bilingual character of the city of Ottawa.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bilingualism_in_Canada)

    From the Act:

    “Policy respecting use of English and French languages

    11.1 (1) The city shall adopt a policy respecting the use of the English and French languages in all or specified parts of the administration of the city and in the provision of all or specified municipal services by the city.” (N.B. There are further sub-sections.)

    (Also note that ON’s French Language Services Act has quasi-constitutional status and guarantees service in French from provincial institutions in many regions of the province, Ottawa included.)

    Which does not contradict your basic point that businesses operating within the City are perfectly free to choose the language of their signs and employees.

    Also note that in Quebec, if I’m not mistaken, the signage laws only address French and English (and no other languages) so that unilingual Chinese or Arabic signs are perfectly fine.

    As you probably know, the reason Quebec’s French-language laws have withstood judicial scrutiny to the extent that they have is because there is a rationale behind them grounded in the fact that QC is geographically surrounded by English-dominant jurisdictions and it is believed that without political interference, English would, in time, become the majority language in QC. There is no equivalent threat of French becoming the dominant language in ON or elsewhere in Canada, and so the language laws differ in those provinces.

    Finally, I am really surprised that you were not able to get an English-language tax assessment from Quebec on request. You can get many English-language services from provincial entities in Quebec on request (my spouse and I lived in Hull for several years and he is anglophone so we know from experience).

    OK, before I go from longest comment ever to most obnoxious comment ever, I’ll wrap it up.

    Dee

    (A Franco-Ontarian)

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