Sorry, I DonĂt Speak French: Confronting the Canadian Crisis That WonĂt Go Away

by Graham Fraser
340 pages,
ISBN: 0771047665

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by John Lennox

This thoughtful book about language, which "has always been, and remains, at the heart of the Canadian experience," claims Graham Fraser, is at once instructive and provocative. It's instructive in reminding us of the centrality of the language issue, and provocative in arguing that the ability and need of anglophones and francophones in Canada to understand one another "has slipped into the background in Canadian public life."
Graham begins with an anecdote about his first encounter with francophone Quebec when, as a student, he spent the summer of 1965 on an archaeological dig close to Montreal. My own also occurred in an academic context. In the fall of 1967, in the glow of cultural nationalism as epitomised by the Montreal Expo, I began a Master's degree in the fledgling field of "Litterature canadienne comparee" at the Universite de Sherbrooke. I had come out of the same Ontario high school matriculation system as my parents. In that system, French was taught with a total emphasis on grammar and literary texts and 100 percent of the grade was determined by a common provincial final examination. French was required for successful senior matriculation and, in most cases, for university entrance. In university I took literature courses in French and (as it was then called) French-Canadian literature.
We had no real training in speaking the language and I remember my first year at Sherbrooke as an overwhelming, but ultimately positive, culture shock. Initially, speaking French was like swimming in molasses¨excruciating and totally frustrating because, while I knew grammar and vocabulary, I did not have the facility to speak and let others know something about me, even though I knew (and have since happily forgotten) the French equivalent for "cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey." As time passed, my speaking ability improved. In my case (and contrary to conventional wisdom), the grammar skills and literary reading that had comprised my curriculum in high school and university gradually proved themselves indispensable for developing oral capacity, following lectures, and writing a thesis in French that university regulations required at the time. The two years at Sherbrooke provided the most important experience of my life¨and language was at its core. My primary motivation was academic, but in the end the cultural and personal benefits made the experience most meaningful and memorable. The ability to communicate made it all possible.
Fraser's fundamental message, therefore, resonates with me. It is, namely, that in Canada one cannot ignore the preeminent importance of communication across the language divide: " . . . it is that collective ability of Canadians to communicate with each other in English or in French and to understand each other's societies that is at the core of Canada's linguistic challenge." Fraser begins with a useful historical review of the Bi and Bi Commission in which he includes the histories, personalities, and values of each of the leading players. Primary among them are AndrT Laurendeau and F.R. Scott, each of whom, Fraser explains, experienced disappointment as the successive reports of the Commission appeared. In outlining these disappointments, Fraser underscores both the need for the Commission at that time and the egregious, but understandable, misapprehensions each language group entertained about the other that came to light in the course of cross-Canada consultations. Quebec nationalism was one of the volatile issues driving the work of the Commission. Ironically, it was a counterpart of the burgeoning cultural nationalism of English Canada in the 1960s. Fraser is judicious in reminding us, first, of the extent to which the issues of bilingualism and the matter of rights became interconnected, and second, of the extent to which the personalities of the key individual players were central to developments at this time. And he is mindful of other ironies: for example, Quebec unilingualism guaranteed by the passing into law of Bill 101, which in Scott's view was antithetical to the mandate of the Commission, put paid at the time to much of the rationale behind the agitation for Quebec's separation.
Fraser explores consequences of the Bi and Bi Report: the costly, slow, and often ineffective attempts to bilingualise civil servants; the fascinating process of what he calls "the changing etiquette of language use" in Montreal; the mandate, successes, and frustrations of immersion schools; the general tepidity on the part of Departments of Education toward the treatment of French as an option rather than a meaningful and sustained requirement of the high school curriculum; the universities' continued treatment of French as a foreign¨rather than Canadian¨language; the lack of opportunity for student educational exchange between anglophone and francophone institutions in Canada; the general inability among anglophones to write grammatical French (as if the ability of anglophones and francophones to write and speak grammatically in their own language were not in question). And the verso of this: the sometime-officious language testing within the civil service itself, where more attention may be paid to the grace notes of grammar than to the ability to communicate clearly in one's second language. Fraser examines the use of French in the armed services, voluntary organizations, grass-roots organizations, and the CBC. There is wry humour in his description of how politicians from each of the language groups have exploited the mutual lack of comprehension. But Fraser is adamant in his view that federal political leadership in Canada cannot be unilingual and that "even in Harper's Conservative Party, challenging the assumptions of official bilingualism is politically unacceptable¨which, in itself, speaks to widespread public support for the policy. Leadership aspirants in every party have grasped this." In the years since the Bi and Bi Commission, substantial progress has been made, but despite advances, there is a fragility that preoccupies Fraser.
He makes a point of reminding the reader that the Bi and Bi Commission was not intended to make every Canadian bilingual. Far from it. Rather, the Commission sought to ensure that across the country, unilingual Canadians could count on being served by federal agencies in one of the official languages. Fraser is also categorical in his conviction that the question of language is not "yesterday's issue", but rather "remains the central political and social fact of Canadian life, and the most critical fault line." To those who say that young Canadians would be better learning Mandarin, Fraser replies that the fundamental linguistic fact and challenge in Canada is the coexistence of French and English from the country's inception. Moreover, the opportunity to learn the second of our official languages can become a bridge to learning a third or fourth language.
Fraser does not discuss the place in the debate of those francophones¨Acadians, Northern Ontarians, Franco-Manitobans¨who live outside of Quebec. And while he tells us that in Quebec 67 percent of anglophone Quebeckers are bilingual, while only 37 percent of francophone Quebeckers are bilingual, his primary beef is with English Canada. While there's plenty to beef about, such a concern needs to cut both ways.
The issue of Canadian "identity" is perennial and has been (and is) treated seriously, ironically, cynically, dismissively. It is often said that there is no such issue among francophone Quebeckers because, as Graham Fraser observes, in light of the secularisation of Quebec, Quebecois identity has become rooted in language. I have always believed this to be the case. I also know from my own attempts to use French in a francophone context that without a language, we cannot identify ourselves. That is why, for me, Graham Fraser's book and his argument have such importance. Nations also need a language in order to assert their own identity. In Canada, there are two languages that, in light of our history, the Parliament of this country has designated as official and equal. To understand and to use both is not a luxury but a survival skill; we require it for speaking among ourselves and for speaking to the world. We neglect acquiring it at our peril.
There is a generational issue here as well. One can hope that Fraser's book will be read as a call to action rather than as the complaint of an older generation pining for "les neiges d'antan." He points to hopeful signs and then asks, "What needs to be done to make Canada's language challenge a success?"According to Fraser, we must start with the young. But a nagging question remains: has the argument for a second language become an old song that is perhaps irrelevant to most members of a young generation that communicates so easily through the global language of technology? And isn't this the language that currently enjoys the full support of the educational system at all levels? Time will tell. ˛

John Lennox is a member of the English Department at York University.

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