Gov’t should be bilingual so citizens don’t need to be: Fraser

The success of the Official Bilingualism Act does not depend on universal bilingualism within Canada, Official Languages Commissioner Graham Fraser told a crowd at the Morrin Centre Sunday Night. Fraser indicated that while the ability to move easily between French and English cultures is a "pleasure" that many bilingual speakers can enjoy, it is not the objective of the Official Bilingualism Act.

"I don't think we need to set either the goal of everybody speaking both languages or everybody being equally comfortable in both cultures as a public policy goal and if we don't achieve it we somehow failed," Fraser said.

The Commissioner took the occasion to clarify the purpose of Act itself, which he said is often misunderstood and misrepresented. "There is a facile criticism of Canada's language policy that the goal of the policy is for everyone to become bilingual; everyone is not bilingual, therefore the policy is a failure. ... Part of the reason for the government to operate in both languages is so that citizens don't have to," Fraser continued.

Citing the example of his own son, Malcolm Fraser, who writes about Québécois film for the Montreal Mirror, the Commissioner said that feeling comfortable in both cultures can be a "pleasure" that moves beyond government policy.

Fraser suggested that an obstacle to increased bilingualism within the civil service is the conception of linguistic duality as a "burden" -- hard work that has to be done in order to keep one's job or move to a higher level -- as opposed to a "value category," something that can be enjoyed for its own sake.

Meanwhile, in order to increase bilingualism among the francophone majority in Quebec City, the Commissioner encouraged the creation of a position within the provincial civil service with "responsibility for issues that touched the English minority. ... Challenges for the English community get scattered between the different [provincial] governments."

Fraser said such a position would make it easier for groups like the Voice of English-speaking Quebec or the Quebec Community Groups Network to have one government contact, as opposed to a myriad of contacts in each provincial government ministry, to whom they could voice their concerns.

Invited to the Morrin Centre to conclude its Voices from the Crossroads series in celebration of Quebec City's 400th anniversary, the commissioner gave a presentation about the English contribution to Quebec's literary tradition since the 1940s.

Fraser ended the evening by invoking Hugh MacLennan, the Canadian author of The Two Solitudes who made an impassioned plea for bilingualism in the 1960s. "As long as we want to sustain a country above the 49th parallel, the French and English language will be important to this country," Fraser said.