News  Toward a bilingual Canada

Commissioner speaks on F.R. Scott and the evolution of language rights

Graham Fraser, commissioner of official languages, delivered the twentieth annual memorial lecture on Montreal poet, lawyer, and social activist F. R. Scott last Wednesday at Moot Court. His address illustrated the relationship between Scott and language rights legislation in Canada.

F. R. Scott was an ardent defender of French-language rights throughout Canada and a sometimes bitter defender of the anglophone minority in Quebec. His emphatic response to a separatist’s request for this minority to leave, “J’y suis, j’y reste,” was later co-opted by the “No” campaign in the 1980 referendum.

Scott felt it “morally reprehensible” that Quebec should be the only defender of French-Canadian culture and believed that every government in Canada had this function.

“Ottawa must remain…one of the governments for all the French people in Canada just as Quebec is one of the governments for all the English in Quebec,” he wrote for the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, which Lester Pearson asked him to co-chair in 1963.

Scott felt that weak provincial government allowed corporate interest to run rampant and believed that only a strong federal government would protect minorities. Fraser noted that this concern was enshrined in the Canadian Constitution of 1982, which contains more definite protection for group rather than individual rights.

He reflected on the paradox of official bilingualism, especially Scott’s concern that bilingual institutions preserve and protect individual unilingualism. Fraser, however, had a positive interpretation of the policy.

“It is a policy that both assures the individual’s right to deal with the federal government in the official language that individual chooses – and one that protects, promotes, and takes positive measures for minority language communities,” he said.

By the end of his life, Scott worried that he had lost his fight for bilingualism, especially in light of Bill 22 (Quebec Official Language Act), and later, Bill 101 (Charter of the French Language), which passed in 1977 and stipulates French as the sole official language in Quebec.

“It is true that [Scott’s] vision for Quebec and Canada did not survive. Canada’s language regime is characterized by remarkable asymmetry, with Quebec being unilingual French, New Brunswick being officially bilingual, the territory of Nunavut being officially trilingual, and other provinces having a wide range of minority-language policies from substantial to almost non-existent,” Fraser elaborated.

Scott’s vision, then, may have been as narrow as it was ambitious, as he dismissed the idea of having more than two official languages. But he accepted that a degree of unilingualism for each language was necessary to prevent one from dominating and assimilating the other.

Scott was a law professor at McGill, but temporarily left after being attacked for his involvement as a founding member in the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the precursor of the New Democratic Party.

Lionel Smith, James McGill professor and director of the Quebec Center for Private and Comparative Law, attested that his spirit is still present in the faculty, indicating that cases Scott argued and won are still studied at McGill. He commented on the paradox of bilingual legislation.

“If there is some ambiguity, the reflex should be to look to other language for enlightenment, and it may be that the two texts together will speak with one voice, so one may come to understand the intent and meaning of the law. It suggests that you would need to be bilingual to understand the legislation, but if everyone was bilingual, you wouldn’t need bilingual legislation. Yet, it seems to be the consensus, that in order to understand that law, you need to be able to read both texts.” Smith said.

Before Fraser served as commissioner of official languages, he had a prolific career as an author and journalist in both languages. He defined his current job as one of both promotion and protection – promoting the idea of linguistic duality as a value and not just an obligation, while making sure that the government institutions live up to their obligations under the Official Languages Act.