Bilingualish today, not so French tomorrow?

Posted 1.19.17

Most people these days likely would identity the acronym APEC as Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, a group of Pacific Rim countries, including Canada and, for now, the United States, promoting free trade.

For many years, though, APEC stood for something quite different Canada. The Alliance for the Preservation of English here was a group furiously opposed to the Official Languages Act of 1969.

The manifesto of APEC was a 1977 book titled Bilingual Today, French Tomorrow, by retired naval officer Jock V. Andrew. Its central premise was that the Liberal federal government's bilingualism policy was a plot to turn Canada into a unilingual French state.

Andrew argued that the only solution to Canada's linguistic conundrum was to split the country into two separate states, one French-speaking, the other English-speaking. Andrew was still making the same case as recently as three years ago, based on a video posted by Canadians for Language Fairness, the latest incarnation of APEC.

While it might be easy to dismiss APEC as a loony fringe group, it did, in fact, have an impact on the national stage. In 1989, as the Meech Lake constitutional deal was unravelling, sparking deep resentment and political agitation in Quebec, a group of APEC members staged a trampling and burning of the Quebec flag in Brockville, Ontario. The incident fuelled the already explosive mood in Quebec that ultimately led to the razor-thin result of the 1995 referendum on sovereignty.

This language flashback comes to mind in the midst of reaction to the recent release of the results of a survey on bilingualism in Canada that Canadian Heritage Minister Melanie Joly commissioned last year, in the lead-up to celebrations of Canada's 150th birthday in 2017, as well the preparation of a new language policy.

The finding that seems to unnerve various commentators is that only one-third of anglophones outside Quebec believe the French language is threatened in Canada, whereas three-quarters of francophones in Quebec see it that way.

The survey is creating a buzz just as Graham Fraser takes his leave as official languages commissioner, a post he assumed in 2007, the year after the publication of his book Sorry, I Don't Speak French: Confronting the Canadian crisis that won't go away.

The "crisis" to which Fraser refers is the state of linguistic affairs in Canada in the early 1960s when the Quebec separatist movement was on the rise, and politicians in Ottawa seemed at a loss about how to deal with the threat. Making federal institutions and services more bilingual was thought to be at least one meaningful step, but Lester Pearson, the prime minister at the time, knew that such an effort would spark sharp reaction.

Pearson agonized over the challenge he faced getting English-speaking Canadians to buy into bilingualism. In his memoirs he wrote: "... I see no way of holding our country together unless English Canada adopts a new attitude towards the intention of our French-speaking compatriots to maintain their identity, their culture, and their language as a special fact of life within Canada. Those who persist in telling us that we must do away with this idea ... these are the real separatists."

Pearson set up the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism which laid the groundwork in its 1967 report for the Official Languages Act for which Pierre Trudeau, his supposedly chosen successor as prime minister, gets the credit -- and blame.

Fifty years after the Bi & Bi report, Canada's language-based crisis seems to have faded into what critics say is benign indifference on the part of English-speaking Canadians. There are some modest signs of progress, though, in the Canadian Heritage survey.

For example, 65 percent of anglophones believe having two official languages is an important part of what it means to be Canadian. Not surprisingly, 84 percent of francophones embrace that notion.

How bilingual are Canadians? Canadian Heritage says: 84 percent of francophones outside Quebec, 68 percent of anglos in Quebec, 38 percent of francos in Quebec, and, seven percent of anglos outside Quebec. In a word, Canada is, at best, bilingualish.

Peter Black's columns appear regularly, first in the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph and the Sherbrooke Daily Record.


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