Log Cabin Chronicles

A Dream Dying

Quebec City

All it took was a recent visit to Ottawa to bring back memories of what Canada was meant to be by some of the earlier dreamers of this century: a bilingual country from coast to coast.

Now there are probably plenty of Ottawa residents who would disagree with the rosy picture about to be painted of their fair city. There are certainly plenty of francophones, including those who fought to maintain full service at the Montfort Hospital, who say Ottawa's not a bilingual city anymore.

And there are probably some anglophones, living in the region's western suburbs perhaps, who occasionally complain that Ottawa is far too bilingual and that they hear too much French spoken.

But for a bilingual Quebecer who loves the uniqueness of jumping back and forth between both English and French, a weekend in Ottawa is a real treat.

Waiters and waitresses address clients in whatever language first comes to mind. They didn't remember what you spoke last and they expect you understand both anyway.

The same happens in shops and public places. It really is not a problem what language you're speaking - people will understand you no matter what.

On the streets, eavesdroppers hear equal amounts of English and French, with both languages often heard coming from the same group of people.

Remember the B & B. commission? It promoted the notion of bilingualism and biculturalism across Canada. The country would have two official languages. It would be possible to live anywhere in the land and manage with either of those languages.

That dream exists... in Ottawa and to a lesser degree in Montreal and some parts of New Brunswick. And while there are people who manage in French in the Yukon and in English in Quebec City, Canadians are not as bilingual as such an ambitious plan required.

But while thousands of children continue to enroll in French immersion courses across Canada and thousands of others learn English in front of the television in Quebec, the national dream that replaced the railway has all but disappeared, except on a sunny weekend in Ottawa.

It has disappeared because it takes more than a couple of generations to make a country bilingual. We didn't have the patience. That dream has been replaced by a narrow-minded vision of a Canada where everyone roots for himself but not the person next door. In the meantime, our young people are bilingual, open-minded and very mobile. Can they revive the dream for the 21st century? If we send them to Ottawa and they see it in action, maybe they will.

Karen MacDonald is publisher and editor of the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph and a reporter for Global Television.

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Copyright © 1998 Karen MacDonald/Log Cabin Chronicles/5.98