Lord is right: Bilingualism is key

Quand la Gâzette rêve tout haut d'assimiler la société française québécoise, elle fait la promotion du bilinguisme. Et encense la Commission Lord qui propose de faire du Québec un gros Nouveau-Brunswick. Sa jactance se tarit pourtant quand vient le temps de montrer les conditions de la "sécurité culturelle" de la société québécoise.

Bernard Lord, who served two terms as premier of Canada's only
officially-bilingual province, handed Prime Minister Stephen Harper a live
grenade last week. How the Conservative government handles this will matter
greatly to Quebec anglophones.
The issue is support for official-language minorities, that is, for
francophones outside Quebec and anglophones inside. The former Liberal
government's five-year, $830-million policy on the matter expires March 31.
Before proposing a new plan, the Harper Conservatives asked Lord to hold
consultations and make proposals.
A fully-bilingual New Brunswicker, Lord was an inspired choice. And he
moved fast: Appointed last December, Lord held meetings in seven cities
across Canada, and also invited individuals and organizations to submit
comments online. In all he heard from more than 140 groups, from the Réseau
santé albertain to the Quebec Community Groups Network.
His recommendations, submitted to the government last month but made
public only last Thursday, call for a more vigorous program than the one
now ending. His would cost a minimum of $1 billion over five years, and
ranges over everything from such practical matters as access to health care
to generalities about co-ordination of government services. Along the way
it touches, too, on helping francophone immigrants settle in places outside
Quebec where French is spoken, on credential recognition for immigrants, on
the value of interprovincial exchange programs, on cultural issues, and so
But the heart of Lord's proposals is education: Recommendation 1 is that
"education in the official language of the minority and second-language
education be given a paramount position" within the new strategy.
Recommendation 2 is "that the new strategy emphasize support to
post-secondary institutions that serve official-language minority
Taken all together, Lord's proposals pose an important test for Harper and
his government. Are they willing and able to do their constitutional duty
and support Canada's official minorities, or will they duck this
responsibility and prefer partisan politics? The Liberals can be expected
to support a new plan, but the Bloc Québécois is already screaming.
Conservative strategists will be wincing as they consider how Bloc
candidates could flay the government for "trying to make Quebec
Jean Dorion of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste told another newspaper last
week that supporting francophones outside Quebec and anglophones inside
equally is like giving the same medicine to two patients, one at death's
door and the other in good health. There is a kernel of sense underneath
his airy disregard for Quebec anglos: Francophone communities outside
Quebec face challenges more like those of Quebec anglophones outside metro
Montreal. Montreal anglophones, meanwhile, have a somewhat easier time
living in our language.
But small minorities, whether francophone in Alberta or anglophone on,
say, the North Shore, do face equally challenging language climates.
Fortunately Canadians have decided, and asserted in their constitution,
that official-language minorities deserve support and sustenance.
Lord is aware of all this: He notes that a symmetrical approach to
official-language minorities won't work. Stakeholders told him, he said
delicately, "that not all provinces are equipped to discharge their
responsibilities for linguistic duality." What he meant, or what the groups
meant, is that some provinces find federal support for official-language
minority groups downright distasteful.
In the current climate in Quebec, it took the Bloc Québécois no time at
all to call Lord's report "an insult to Quebecers." Of course, their
definition of "Quebecer" doesn't seem to include anglophones. Nor has the
Bloc ever cared much about francophones outside Quebec.
Last week, meanwhile, Jean Charest's government moved to beef up the
Office québécois de la langue française with voluntary rather than coercive
measures. That wasn't good enough for the Parti Québécois, either.
As a former premier, Lord will have understood the politics of all this,
and seems to have deliberately overlooked them. Good for him. Is Harper
made of the same stuff?
Josée Verner, the minister of official languages, is a Quebec MP, and she
will be well aware of how this report will be received in this province. It
might not have been coincidence that the report was made public just at the
start of what amounts, these days, to a four-day weekend.
But Verner will have to come up with a policy. It is promised for this
spring, although delays would, under the circumstances, be a shame but not
a surprise.
But courage sometimes pays off, even in politics. Lord presents
opinion-poll data showing strong support for bilingualism in every region -
the lowest figure is 53 per cent in Alberta, the highest 85 per cent in
Such numbers tell us that Canadians, in all provinces, do not see
bilingualism as a zero-sum game. Only the PQ and BQ believe that anything
that helps English hurts French, and vice-versa. The rest of us understand
the advantages of having two main language groups.
For the text of Lord's report go to [www.canadianheritage.gc.ca->www.canadianheritage.gc.ca] and click on "public consultations."

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