Sorry, I Don't Speak French: Confronting the Canadian Crisis That Won't Go Away

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As the threat of another Quebec referendum on independence looms, this book becomes important for every Canadian — especially as language remains both a barrier and a bridge in our divided country
Canada’s language policy is the only connection between two largely unilingual societies — English-speaking Canada and French-speaking Quebec. The country’s success in staying together depends on making it work.

How well is it working? Graham Fraser, ...

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Sorry, I Don't Speak French: Confronting the Canadian Crisis That Won't Go Away

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As the threat of another Quebec referendum on independence looms, this book becomes important for every Canadian — especially as language remains both a barrier and a bridge in our divided country
Canada’s language policy is the only connection between two largely unilingual societies — English-speaking Canada and French-speaking Quebec. The country’s success in staying together depends on making it work.

How well is it working? Graham Fraser, an English-speaking Canadian who became bilingual, decided to take a clear-eyed look at the situation. The results are startling — a blend of good news and bad. The Official Languages Act was passed with the support of every party in the House way back in 1969 — yet Canada’s language policy is still a controversial, red-hot topic; jobs, ideals, and ultimately the country are at stake. And the myth that the whole thing was always a plot to get francophones top jobs continues to live.

Graham Fraser looks at the intentions, the hopes, the fears, the record, the myths, and the unexpected reality of a country that is still grappling with the language challenge that has shaped its history. He finds a paradox: after letting Quebec lawyers run the country for three decades, Canadians keep hoping the next generation will be bilingual — but forty years after learning that the country faced a language crisis, Canada’s universities still treat French as a foreign language. He describes the impact of language on politics and government (not to mention social life in Montreal and Ottawa) in a hard-hitting book that will be discussed everywhere, including the headlines in both languages.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“It’s hard to think of any writer better qualified to write about language than Mr. Fraser. . . . He is informed, balanced, judicious and experienced.”
— Jeffrey Simpson, Globe and Mail

“Those who want to know why and how French became an official language in Canada must read Mr. Fraser’s book. Those who just want to know more about Canada should read it too.”
— Lysiane Gagnon, Globe and Mail
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780771047671
  • Publisher: McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
  • Publication date: 3/13/2007
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 5.51 (w) x 8.49 (h) x 0.89 (d)

Meet the Author

Graham Fraser is a widely respected journalist who has written in both English and French. Now based in Ottawa as a Toronto Star national affairs writer, he has covered politics in Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, and Washington. His books include P.Q.: René Lévesque and the Parti Québécois in Power (nominated for the Governor General’s Award) and Playing for Keeps.

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Read an Excerpt

Language has always been, and remains, at the heart of the Canadian experience. The fact that there is a thriving French-­speaking society in Canada, and the tensions that have resulted from this fact, is as central to Canadian politics and society as race is to the United States, and class is to Great Britain. From the discussions that led to Confederation in the 1860s, through the crisis created by the hanging of Louis Riel and the conscription crises of the two world wars, the constitutional struggles that led to the patriation of the Constitution and its amendment with a Charter of Rights in 1982 and the failures of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords in 1990 and 1992 — not to mention the fact that Quebec has provided the backbone of every majority government in Canadian parliamentary history — the often-­unspoken subtext to each of these events has been the relationship between French-­speakers and English-­speakers in Canada. In the 1960s, those rules changed under the pressure to deal with the explosion of nationalism in Quebec. And those who changed the rules changed the country.

Many books have been written about that surge of political nationalism in Quebec, and its political ramifications in the 1970s and 1980s. I have even written one myself. There are also shelves, if not whole libraries, of books on the constitutional response to Quebec’s assertion of its own identity.

But there have been relatively few books that have looked at how the federal government has attempted to respond to the basic requirement of providing a bridge between English-­speaking and French-­speaking Canada, and serving both communities in their own official language.

This is what I have set out to examine here. In other words, this is not a book about Quebec, or about the Constitution; it does not look at whether Quebec is (or should be defined as) a nation, a distinct society, or one of ten equal provinces. It is not a study of the struggles of the French-­language minorities outside Quebec — or of the English-­language minority in Quebec. Others have tackled those subjects. It is not a history of relations between English and French in Canada — although it will touch on some aspects of that history.

No, my focus is more modest. I have looked at the pressures that led to the creation of the Royal Commission, examined its discussion primarily through the lens of the journals that André Laurendeau and Frank Scott kept, and looked at the influence they had on Camille Laurin and Pierre Trudeau. I follow the introduction of the Official Languages Act and the work of the first Commissioner of Official Languages, Keith Spicer, look at the impact of language policy on Montreal and Ottawa, examine the changes that have occurred and not occurred in Canadian education, and briefly at the question of language in the military, voluntary associations, and the public service. Finally, I look at how language skill has become an imperative for political leadership.

I actually try to avoid use of the word bilingual, for I think it is misleading. It suggests a kind of equilibrium, or linguistic ambidextrousness that can be achieved only by those who grew up in families where two languages were spoken at home. What is important is the ability to communicate in another language; it is that collective ability of Canadians to communicate with each other in English or in French and to understand each other’s societies that is at the core of Canada’s linguistic challenge.

Making Canada’s language policy work is critical to making the country work — and that central task has been treated as yesterday’s news. There is a tendency to see this subject as part of Canada’s past and not its future, and any discussion of language policy as an exercise in nostalgia. This has been solved, right? Well, no. I set out to look at the response of the English-­speaking majority, not the French-­speaking minority, and I discovered some surprises. Things are far from “solved.” There are fewer and fewer institutions where French-­speaking and English-­speaking Canadians work together. French is less and less a requirement in Canadian schools and universities. Four decades after the government declared that the federal public service must be able to function in both languages, millions of dollars are still being spent to teach middle-­aged public servants (who were in high school, for God’s sake, when the policy was declared) to pass language tests.

As a journalist, in this book I look at the origins of Canada’s language policy and how it was developed, explore how that policy has been applied, and, four decades later, look at how it is working. Seeing how these rules actually work now is vitally important. To put it bluntly, I believe that if Canada’s language policy does not work, if it is not possible for this country to be governed effectively in both languages, then sooner or later, the already frayed ties that connect the country will disintegrate, and what we know as Canada will fall apart.

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