Saturday's National Post carried an editorial, headlined "Speaking of waste ... ," which proclaimed, "Canada isn't a bilingual country." The article mocked Graham Fraser, Canada's Commissioner of Official Languages, for arguing that more government funds must be spent to ensure children become bilingual by the time they finish high school. Mr. Fraser, the editorial claimed, has taken his "harassment campaign to the nation's children."
As a bilingual Canadian, this kind of stuff boils my blood. I agree with Mr. Fraser: An earnest attempt to teach Canadians to speak both official languages must remain at the heart of our national project if we are to remain a united Canada.
I was born of Dutch parents who chose not to teach me the language of "the old country." We moved to rural western Quebec when I was nine, and my mom sent my two sisters and me to French grade school in the little village of Papineauville. We spoke not a word of French; the other students and staff at Ecole Ste-Jeanne-d'Arc spoke not a word of English. I cursed my mom at the time, but it was the best thing she ever did for me.
I learned French and I kept it up, even while attending high school in English. It has served me well throughout my career as a newspaper reporter in Montreal, a correspondent for French television in New York and even today, as a frequent commentator on French TV.
And I have carried on my mother's tradition. My two children attend Ecole Pierre-Elliott-Trudeau, a French public school (that is currently at capacity) in downtown Toronto. They laugh at Asterix in the original French and at Calvin and Hobbes in English. And we have French friends in Montreal who do the exact same, except in reverse: expose their children to English, that they may grow up fluent in both languages.
Whenever I take my kids back to visit the rural route where I grew up, I bring them to see my old neighbour, Madame St. Denis. She gives them a home-baked cookie, they thank her, in French, and my heart is warmed.
Just before Christmas, Montreal's La Presse newspaper published a book titled Reconquerir le Canada (Reconquering Canada), in which 14 Quebec federalist thinkers suggest ways to unite the Fleur-de-Lys and the Maple Leaf. In it, a friend of mine, Patrice Ryan, writes an open letter to me about how we can build on our common ground. "As I was saying, while we were drinking on Queen Street West [in Toronto]," he writes, "I still believe in the idea of a Canada, this crazy dream of a big continental country, bilingual, modern, secular, educated, entrepreneurial, courageous, multi-cultural, tolerant and internationally engaged."
At the basis of any such project, of course, is mutual respect. If English Canadians cannot even read French newspapers, or vice versa, how can we possibly get to know each other better?
The Post's contention that, "Though it would be nice if most Canadian students were bilingual, it is hardly essential," is dead wrong. The fact is, anglophones and francophones need to work together if a whole Canada is to survive.
Vive le bilinguisme
Teaching both official languages must be a national program