Standing on guard for linguistic duality

TheStar.com – Opinion
Published On Mon Feb 22 2010.  Chantal Hebert, National Columnist

To the dismay of a vocal section of his party base, Stephen Harper has upheld the federal commitment to official bilingualism since he came to power four years ago.

To this day, the Prime Minister opens every speech and every news conference in French.

After the last election, Harper placed the Heritage portfolio, the department that oversees the federal language policy as well as cultural institutions such as Radio-Canada, in the hands of James Moore, a minister who probably is the cabinet’s top francophile.

Graham Fraser, the outspoken language czar, was hand-picked for the post of Official Languages Commissioner by Harper.

Moore and Fraser were frontline protagonists in the debate over the place of French at the Winter Games’ opening ceremony this month and their common finding that it was inadequate set the English-language blogosphere on fire.

Many of those who weighed in opposed official bilingualism and a lot of them blamed Quebec and Harper’s ambitions for more seats in that province for what they saw as a betrayal of his Reform roots.

There is no doubt that a federal party that wanted to wipe French off the face of Canada’s federal institutions would not get the time of day in Quebec. But that would also be true in other regions of Canada, in particular significant parts of Ontario and the Atlantic provinces.

Indeed, many of the most vigilant defenders of the regime on Parliament Hill are not always members of the Quebec caucus.

To this day, it has been minority-language MPs – anglophones elected in Quebec and francophones elected outside that province – who have tended to be the most vigorous champions of official bilingualism.

Some of the reasons for that devotion are contained in a recent report on the pursuit of higher education sponsored by l’Institut de la statistique du Québec.

It found that while Quebec francophones have yet to close an historical education gap with Anglo-Quebecers, the situation is reversed in Ontario where the proportion of francophones aged 24 to 35 who have acquired post-secondary degrees is marginally higher than that of their anglophone counterparts. That is a massive turnaround from the late 1960s when the Tory government of John Robarts first opened the entire Ontario public school system to French-language education.

At the time, the school dropout rate among Franco-Ontarians was second only to that of aboriginal youth.

While successive Ontario governments since the 1960s have put their shoulder to the wheel of a full-fledged French-language school system, Pierre Trudeau’s language policies played a key part in turning it into an education success story.

The 1969 Official Languages Act changed the optics on mastering French in a significant way. With middle-class English-language children flocking to immersion schools to get a head-start up the bilingualism ladder, command of French acquired the status of a value-added commodity for anglophones and francophones alike.

A decade later, the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms gave francophone communities outside Quebec full control over their schools for the first time ever. Until then, French-language schools were almost always run by English-language trustees who were often more sensitive to the demands of the mainstream who elected them than to the basic education needs of a minority of francophone ratepayers.

Today it is politicians like Moore, who was educated in the immersion school system of Western Canada, and the MPs whose minority-language communities have been expanding their educational frontiers since the advent of the Official Languages Act who really stand on guard for Canada’s linguistic duality.

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