Language Policy, Bilingualism and the Military: An Interview with Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages

Language Policy, Bilingualism and the Military: An Interview with Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages

27472 OCdt Eliza Bruce (III) -e-Veritas correspondent


It was a privilege to listen to Graham Fraser’s address to RMC faculty, as Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages.  He graciously came to the campus to talk about his work with Canada’s dual language policy and the significant impact it has had on the country’s culture, positive features and reputation, and struggles as a result of attempting to meet the needs of its main speaking groups.

In his opening introduction, Dr. James Denford mentioned that while it is the 140th anniversary of RMCC, its bilingual learning component is only 40 years old.  He especially remarked that the Officer Cadets at the college must “recognize that they need to serve their soldiers, sailors and air men and women in their subordinates’ language of choice, not their own,” and how in this context The Language Centre has played a “critical role…over the last forty years in developing this capacity in our young officers.”

Mr. Fraser’s speech was followed by a very informative question and answer period, in which many issues were touched on, such as inclusion for fully bilingual speakers in more than one dominant language, and addressing the needs of prominent Aboriginal language group communities.  I had the honour of interviewing him in both languages afterward, as follows:

1)      How does your role in the promotion and protection of both languages covered in the Official Languages Act change the practice of and interactions in either language for the average Canadian citizen? How can they see such actions in daily life?

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“The Act was produced to ensure that citizens were provided with the government services of their choice,” and in services such as passports and employment insurance, the average citizen can have various dealings with the government in the language of their choice, which is a direct function of the Official Languages Act.  In a bilingual country, people “don’t need to deal with language of state.  Bilingualism protects the unilingual because it prevents them from having to learn the federal languages.  There are 4 million unilingual Francophones and 24 million unilingual Anglophones living in Canada and it if the government’s responsibility to s=ensure equal quality of service to all and make sure no one loses their rights.

“Success isn’t visible, failure is obvious, and here the daily interactions of the Act are taken for granted…I make recommendations,” and the government makes the final decision.  Mr. Fraser went on to describe his direct intervention which is apparent in specific scenarios, such as the 2010 Vancouver Olympic—for which a French language broadcast was made available—and led to a successful presentation of both languages and the production of a language manual for future Canada and PANAM games.  There was also a court case that secured the survival of local French programming in Windsor and another case that made sure the mariners in the Gulf of St. Lawrence had access to emergency service operations in communications in their own language.  Yet other influences can be seen in the government’s decision to insist that supreme court appointments be bilingual, and that CMR St. Jean was recreated as a full military college, all of which Fraser applauds.

2)      Speaking mainly on the behalf of Canada’s immigrant population, how are both languages being promoted for those with, for example, English and a mother-tongue from another country, or vice versa?

“Not enough.  One of the challenges for language policy is that we have 250,000 newcomers every year, which is terrific, but speaks to the continuing importance of public education,” because now there are millions every year who are not familiar with Canadian history or language.  “One of the reasons immigrants choose to come to Canada is that having two official languages makes for a more welcoming and accepting multicultural/bilingual atmosphere.”  It means that Canada makes it easier “to come to terms with other people with other languages,” and there is an increasing awareness that to have a successful career on “the national scene requires both languages, to understand the country as whole and to communicate with other Canadians, being able to brief one’s superiors in their language.”

3)    Comment les gens qui habitent dans des communautés non bilingues peuvent-ils encourager la dualité linguistique ? Quelles sont vos recommandations afin d’y parvenir?

How would you recommend those living in non-bilingual communities become involved in or contribute towards language duality? What are you recommendations for successful involvement?

“Ce n’est pas nécessaire…” Fraser went on to say that while it is not essential for non-bilingual communities to immerse themselves in the opposite language, there are multiple resources available and social community programs organized by local language associations, including French radio, television, newspapers, internet resources, local speakers, etc., so plenty of opportunity to become involved.

4) Quelle est votre opinion sur la formation linguistique française au CMRC ? Est-elle efficace ?

What’s your opinion on the efficiency of the Second Language Training program at RMCC?

“C’est difficile à dire. Pour l’instant, je suis très impressionné par les professeurs et l’environnement bilingue au Collège pour les étudiants.” Mr. Fraser’s further response expanded into the following question:

5) Quelle place aura le bilinguisme au Canada lorsque ma génération d’élèves-officiers aura reçu son diplôme?

What will the bilingual environment in Canada look like for my generation of OCdts when we graduate?

6)  What is being done to change or affect our language policy amidst various expanding linguistic groups in Canada?

There is a misconception that “there are more people who speak other languages than there are who speak French.”  He explained how just because there are multiple linguistic groups in Canada, this situation do not produce a language of its own.  While there might be 1 million Chinese speakers, there are 7 million Francophones.  That being said, “much is being done to address new policies.  The government has embarked on a series of consultations.” These consist of “road marks and action plans,” and we’re “halfway through what the Conservative party has set up…there is a billion dollar program in the support of minority language communities.”

Having just spoken with the Chief Human Resources Officer, Fraser said that they make language policy revolve around the three themes of “restoring respect and civility in public service, building public service that reflects the diversity of country, and ensuring that Canadians can have service from federal government public service in the language of their choice.”

Looking ahead to preparation for 2017 and the celebrations surrounding Canada’s 150th anniversary of the Confederation, there is a great “opportunity for the government to underline and stress the importance of both official languages as part of Canada’s identity.”

More photos by 27543 OCdt (II) Colin de Grandpré Here