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Canada's Linguistic Policies: A Failed Experiment
[Opinion] On the near religious credo of bilingualism and its progressive demise
Michael Werbowski (minou)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2007-05-20 12:16 (KST)   
Recently one of Canada's most prominent sages and writers Yann Martel personally delivered a copy of the "Animal Farm" or "La Ferme des animaux" as its known in French to the Prime Minister of Canada on his birthday. Was this present meant to gently mock Mr. Stephan Harper's lack of cultural refinement and appreciation of the arts? Or maybe it's a cryptic message from the celebrated author to the top man in government... Orwell's' novel is of course, is a classic allegory of authoritarianism gone awry. It lampooned Stalin as a pig named the "Napoleon" or the "Berkshire boar."

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Are there any parallels plot-wise with the Conservatives' rule gone sour in Ottawa? What struck me by this literary wits gesture of generosity was not the book itself but that it was in English only and written by a foreign British novelist in what the Quebec's media elite refers to as the "language of Shakespeare" and no French version was included in the gift package.

Martel perhaps somewhat innocently forgot to include a French edition of the text. Such an omission might be perceived as a felonious offence in the eyes of the French language "purists" or "pure wool" nationalist ideologues which make up Quebec's dwindling intellectual elite. The author of "Life of Pi" who is of Francophone background but writes in English is almost Canada's cultural ambassador to the world. So I wonder what he thinks of the renewed kafuffle over bilingualism in his native land (both Quebec and Canada that is).

I am referring to this week's decision by the government to effectively close down the "parliamentary committee on official languages" by refusing to assume their rightful presidency of the body... So now paralyzed by the government's machinations its workings have been halted. The venerable committee was a controversial legacy of the Liberal era. It was an offspring from the father of official bilingualism the late, great Canadian P.M. Pierre Trudeau. It sought to make Canada a two-tongued nation where everyone is perfectly fluent in both English and French. That era seems to be now over .With the end result being this: only 17.65 percent of all Canadians can sing the national anthem in both official languages.

A brief history of Canadian bilingualism

The policy of making French and English theoretically equal originated in 1982 with the Canadian charter of rights and freedoms which was adopted by parliament during the premier ship of Pierre Trudeau. It was a virtuous attempt at placating minority francophone whose linguistic grievances reflected their perception of being treated as second class citizens in "Anglo dominated" regions in Canada, in addition to protecting Franco phones and their right to French services in the "rest of Canada. This language legislation was it seemed a measure to counteract an official policy of "unilingualism" known as Bill 101. A law or edict rather which proclaimed French as being the "only "official language of the French speaking province of Quebec.

The legislation essentially targeted none "pure laine" pure wool or old stock Quebecers of English speaking or other "ethnic" origin whose "mother tongues" was not French. Bilingualism's foil as it were, Bill 101 sought not only to protect the French minority in all of Canada by imposing restrictions on English usage in Quebec. Both federal and provincial policies seemed like a state sponsored religion with more preachers than willing worshippers. In abidance to the sanctity of these language "isms" nearly every single official word uttered in public appeared in some form or another translated, mutated or at times just lost in translation altogether. This ritual made for much needless duplication on printed paper and to this day waste in our eco conscious times. It also meant that anyone calling the federal government got two versions of the same message from an automated answering service whose linguistic talents were second to none.

In Quebec size matters: Just look at the signs

Quebec is another kettle of fish. There linguistic laws have been the bane of English speakers for decades. In fact, the linguistic battles, incessant rivalries or Anglo -Franco family feuds have can be traced back to the legislation of "Bill 101" introduced by nationalist-prone Parti Quebecois in the late 1970s. The language law was of dubious tolerance towards minority groups. It sought to dissuade immigrants and their children from learning or being educated any other spoken or written language by obliging newcomers to send their progeny to French only schools. The law also imposed sign laws which restricted the use of English on commercial store-fronts and street. French lettering was ordained to be visibly larger than English lettering on all commercial storefronts and street names seen in public. Transgressors would be and were systematically fined and publicly reprimanded in the Francophone media.

Quebec says Wong is wrong

As backdrops to the endless debate over the questionable merits of bilingualism and linguistic policies in Canada and Quebec hangs the fate of much derided and demonized fellow reporter Jan Wong. The trials and tribulations Ms. Wong continue with no end in sight. The Quebec press council (1) has pointed the blame on the Globe and Mail journalist (Canada's major English daily) Jan Wong for writing an insulting piece called "Under the Desk" following the shootings at Montreal's Dawson college. Essentially the council's Jesuitical worded decision accused Wong and by extensions her editor Edward Greenspon for writing a "pejorative" piece which allegedly "insulted" a majority of Quebecers. The piece was critical of the Quebec government's restrictive language legislation inferring that such laws were prejudicial to immigrants and may have resulted in institutionalizing a sense of exclusion and alienation in non- Franco phones in the majority French speaking province.

(1) For more on this continuing controversy: http://blog.canadianjournalist.ca/
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Michael Werbowski

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