"Part Cheerleader, Part Nag": A Decade as Commissioner of Official Languages

Graham Fraser
Graham Fraser (BA 1968 UC)
Magazine Section: 

In December 2016, my mandate as Commissioner of Official Languages came to an end after ten years and two months. While I never could have imagined having such a job when I was at University College—the legislation creating the office was passed only in 1969, a year after I graduated, and Keith Spicer, the first commissioner started work in 1970—there is no doubt that my interest in language and French-English relations started when I was at UC. I spent three summers working in Québec, and took Ramsay Cook’s fourth-year seminar on French-Canadian history.

But the path to a career in journalism was much more clearly laid out. I wrote for The Gargoyle in first year and was the editor in second year, worked on a campus-wide magazine called Random and was film critic for The Varsity in third year, and was the editor of The Varsity Review in fourth year.

After graduating, I worked first for the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail at Toronto City Hall, for Maclean’s in Montréal, for The Gazette in Québec City, and for The Globe and Mail in Québec City, Ottawa, Washington, and back in Ottawa before returning to the Star as a feature writer and weekly columnist.

In March of 2006, Sorry, I Don’t Speak French, my book on language policy was published, and a few months later, Dyane Adam’s mandate as Commissioner of Official Languages came to an end. For the first time, the job was posted, and I decided to apply.

In my book, I described Mme. Adam as “part cheerleader, part nag”—and when I got the job, I decided that was a handy definition of the role. (Staff were not particularly pleased—who wants to be described as a nag?—and came up with an elegant French translation for the role: “encourager et déranger,” encourage and disturb.)

 The Official Languages Act establishes an ambitious set of ideals and objectives:  an equal status for English and French in federal institutions; continued vitality for minority language communities; French and English as the language of work in federal institutions in designated regions. These continue to be challenges; over the ten years I served in the job, the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages received more than 7,000 complaints.

In 2005, Parliament passed a bill that required all federal institutions to take positive measures to support the growth and development of minority language communities. It was only the second time the Act had been amended, and I assumed that I would be spending the beginning of my mandate explaining the new responsibilities to federal institutions—and to minority language communities.

No such luck. Between the time my appointment was announced on September 13, 2006 and my starting work on October 17, the Harper government abolished the Court Challenges Program—which, after a significant investigation, I found was in breach of the recently-amended Act. The result was an out-of-court settlement and the establishment of the Language Rights Support Program.

There were high points: the Office did a lot of preparatory work on the Vancouver Winter Olympics of 2010, and our intervention helped result in the Games being broadcast across the country in French on the parliamentary cable channel, CPAC. That experience led us to produce a manual for the organizers of major sporting events, which provided a guide for the organizers of the Canada Games in Sherbrooke and Prince George, and the Pan Am Games in Toronto. A similar guide was produced for organizers of celebratory events for the upcoming 150th anniversary of Confederation.

But there were still controversies that showed that the nature of Canada’s bilingualism remains misunderstood. When a private member’s bill by former New Democrat MP Yvon Godin, which would have required Supreme Court Judges to be bilingual at the time of their appointment, was supported by the Liberals during the minority Harper government, the outcry from Conservatives and editorialists was remarkable. Judicial competence would be sacrificed to political correctness! Expertise would be lost! Discrimination would triumph! Lawyers and judges from western and Atlantic Canada would be deprived of their rights!

The reaction, ironically, was almost identical to what had been heard in 1969, when the Official Languages Act was passed, and it was claimed that no westerner or Atlantic Canadian would ever be able to work for the federal government, ever again. It ignored the fact that Canada’s laws are not translated, but are drafted in both official languages—and the Supreme Court has the responsibility of deciding which version properly reflects the intention of the legislator. Or the fact that one third of the provincial references come from Québec, where all the documentation and arguments have been done in French. Or the fact that a single unilingual Anglophone judge means that the Francophone judges are required to work in their second languages—an injustice that was at the heart of the reasoning behind the introduction of the Official Languages Act in the first place.

When the Liberal government elected in 2015 announced that subsequent Supreme Court nominees would be bilingual, some of the same arguments were repeated. The issue vanished when Newfoundlander Malcolm Rowe was appointed in 2016 and demonstrated that he was just as witty and articulate in French as he was in English. Just as it is difficult to imagine a unilingual Prime Minister or Governor-General, it will soon be difficult to imagine a unilingual Supreme Court Justice.

There continue to be challenges—it is often difficult for the travelling public to get service in both languages at borders, in airports, and on Air Canada—but public support for Canada’s language policy is dramatically different from what it was when I was at UC, from 1964 to 1968.

In 1967, a strong minority (46.6 percent) felt it would not be possible for Canada to achieve recognition of both French and English in all provinces, while a slim minority (50.2 per cent) agreed it would be possible. A decade later, in 1977, only 26 percent of Canadians outside Québec concurred with the statement, “I agree with or support the principle of bilingualism.”

Now, as a 2016 poll shows, the vast majority of Canadians—88 percent—support the Official Languages Act and official bilingualism.

When I was at university, I was able to learn French working in summer job projects in Québec: first on an archaeology dig and then in a mental hospital. Now, a half-century later, it is important for universities to recognize that the federal government is Canada’s largest employer and that mastery of Canada’s two official languages is a crucial leadership competency—not just for Prime Ministers and Supreme Court judges, but for anyone seeking to understand the country as a whole and to work in public life. This year, 2017, is an ideal time for universities to meet that challenge.


Graham Fraser is an author and journalist who served as Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages from 2006 to 2016. He received the UC Alumni of Influence Award in 2016. A longer version of this piece appeared in the Literary Review of Canada.