Pollster Darrell Bricker and Globe columnist John Ibbitson argue in their book The Big Shift that Canada has moved west politically, economically and demographically, and left what they call “the Laurentian elite” behind. There’s no question that the country’s demography is changing. But I think they’re mistaken on some key points.
Mr. Bricker and Mr. Ibbitson argue that the Ottawa Press Gallery, like the Laurentian elite, “is obsessed with the influence and importance of Quebec.” On the contrary, I think the English-speaking press gallery, like the elite, is largely oblivious to Quebec.
Only a few English-speaking reporters and columnists – or private-sector leaders – are comfortable in French, or knowledgeable about Quebec. Almost everyone else looks at Quebec as a mystery they wish would go away. I would argue that a much more prevalent attitude in a large part of the political class is: “At least we don’t have to feel guilty about not being bilingual because Quebec doesn’t matter for this government.”
Mr. Bricker and Mr. Ibbitson argue, quite correctly, that the West is in, with a Prime Minister, Clerk of the Privy Council, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and Governor of the Bank of Canada all from Western Canada. They could have added the former chief of the defence staff, not to mention the ministers of Citizenship and Immigration and Canadian Heritage. But they neglected to mention that they’re all fluently bilingual. They learned French because they were ambitious, and they wanted to understand the whole country.
The same thing applies to provincial premiers. In fact, we’re now in the unique situation that a majority of Canada’s premiers are bilingual. Why? They’re bright and want to understand the country as a whole. A former French ambassador once told me that one of the things that impressed him most about Canada is that French is the language of ambition.
At one point, the book describes Mr. Bricker’s attendance at a parade of a very diverse army cadet corps, where a remarkable proportion of the cadets were non-Caucasian. I could give the same description of French and immersion classrooms across the country. Visible minority community members are actually more bilingual in English and French than English Canadians who’ve been in Canada for generations.
What immigrant students in immersion have told me is that learning French made them feel more Canadian. And French-language schools across the country are full of students – and staff – from the Maghreb, French-speaking Africa and Haiti. These students and teachers are a vibrant part of French-speaking communities across the country.
Mr. Bricker and Mr. Ibbitson say Quebec will be “protecting a language that fewer Canadians or global citizens will understand.” To begin with, there are now more Canadians who speak French than ever before. And there are four million French-speaking Canadians who don’t speak English. Anecdotally, in observing the children of my friends and the friends of my children, I can name young Canadians who have studied in China and learned Chinese, taught English in Japan and learned Japanese, worked on water projects in Vietnam and learned Vietnamese, spent time in Central America and learned Spanish, and visited Berlin and learned German. But they all learned the other Canadian language first.
What I sensed in the book, although it was never explicitly expressed, was a kind of relief. The message, in effect, is: “Get with the program, we don’t have to feel guilty that we never learned French, and we don’t have to kiss Quebec any more. Bye-bye linguistic duality, hello cultural diversity.”
Well, we have nine million people in this country who speak French, four million of whom speak no English. Our French-speaking society is increasingly diverse in its reality and global in its attitude.
Consider some of the French-language films produced in the past few years: L’Ange de goudron (2001), about an Algerian immigrant family in Montreal; A Sunday in Kagali (2006), based on Gil Courtemanche’s novel about the Rwandan genocide; Incendies (2010), based on a Wajdi Mouawad play about the horrors of a Middle Eastern civil war; Monsieur Lazhar (2011), about an Algerian refugee in Montreal; Rebelle (2012), about a Congolese child soldier; and Inch’Allah (2012), about a Canadian doctor in the Middle East. Three of these films were Canadian nominees for an Academy Award.
Consider the number of French-speaking Canadian singers who are touring Europe (Les Cowboys Fringants, Lynda Lemay) and Quebec actors who are performing in French films (Marc-André Grondin, Marie-Josée Croze). And consider the television industry, the publishing industry and the recording industry.
All of this isn’t the product of a society of old white pensioners, or what Mr. Bricker and Mr. Ibbitson call “Canada’s version of Greece.” It’s the product of a dynamic, culturally vibrant, multicultural, French-speaking society whose major city and cultural hub is as energetic and creative in its own way, in both official languages (think Rawi Hage and Arcade Fire) as Toronto and Vancouver.
This isn’t a cultural dynamism that has anything to do with a Laurentian elite. English-speaking Canada can feel a sense of pride and ownership in this success – or it can write it off, turn away and ignore it.
I share Mr. Bricker and Mr. Ibbitson’s enthusiasm for the changing demography in Canada, and the energy it represents. But those changes are occurring in French just as much as they are in English.
Graham Fraser is Canada’s Official Languages Commissioner.