Canada's two languages

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

MARCO WERMAN: Welcome and bienvenue. If you enter Canada or any city, town, or village in Canada you'll see both greetings. It's the law. It's been the law for exactly for 40 years now. Keith Spicer was Canada's first commissioner of official languages. He served in that role from 1970 to 1977. He's now a writer and journalist. Spicer says the law making Canada officially bilingual came out of stirrings in French-speaking Quebec.

KEITH SPICER: Until 1969 Canada was officially unilingual � English only. And all during the 1960s in Quebec there had been a rising tide of separatism and nationalism. There had even been a little bit of violence � a little since we're Canadian. We hold tea parties rather than kill people. And we had an independent commission that recommended an official language act as part of the solution for making French-speaking Canadians feel at home in Canada. And it made French and English equal in status rights and privileges in all federal administrations. And now 40 years later even though the law was contested by a lot of Anglo-Canadians who saw their power seeping away it's now accepted by everybody as one of the fundamental values of the Canadian identity.

WERMAN: You say the act was accepted but was it accepted even in very Anglophone provinces like Alberta?

SPICER: Yes it was but it took a little while. There were plenty of people against it. We started at that time, 1969, a huge movement for French immersion in English Canadian schools. Now there are two or three million � more than that, probably five million � English-speaking Canadians who can along very well in French.

WERMAN: You know some of the rules in Montreal though, like in the �90s, it seemed to be a little outrageous to the degree that you couldn't even put an English sign in the window. Do you think it went overboard at some point?

SPICER: Yes of course it did. You have to look sympathetically at the French-speaking Quebecers. Their province had an English face for 100 years or more � 200 years � and they wanted to put a French face on it.

WERMAN: Did the official languages act mean that all federal workers in Canada suddenly had to become bilingual? A lot of people seem to believe this.

SPICER: No not all. Not at all. All federal administrations � offices, departments, and agencies � had to have bilingual capacity. No single federal employee had to become bilingual. And if they wanted to � in order to compete for supervisory jobs which were usually declared officially bilingual � the government would pay for their language training even if it went on for two or three years. Forty years ago there was not a single English-speaking politician anywhere in Canada who get along in French. Now every cabinet minister, every prime minister, must speak fluent French. We have national debates in election time. There's an English debate and a French debate. And even if the guy comes from the west, as our current prime minister has, Stephen Harper, they speak very good French now. Now this is staggering. If you imagined in the United States if over a period of 20, 30, 40 years you had all national politicians, cabinet ministers, the president, having to speak fluent Spanish and conduct debates in Spanish. You get the picture.

WERMAN: Well I mean as long as you're talking about the United States, south of the border here in the US I mean we've passed official English ordinances and laws that are often voter approved. Many here feel having more than one language is a challenge to national identity. What do you think is different in Canada?
SPICER: Not at all I find � . The way we did it in Canada was not use to [INDISCERNIBLE]. It was applied through seduction, persuasion, even laughter, provocation, and to open people's minds and hearts so that we could slip in the message, look we won't have a country unless we have fair play. That was the basic premise of the whole thing. And after 40 years I think it's worked spectacularly well.

WERMAN: You know we have a producer on our show who's Canadian and she's from Western Canada and she does not think that bilingualism is actually a part of the Canadian identity.

SPICER: You can always find one or two here and there that say that but I'll tell you there is a national movement called Canadian parents for French that began in Calgary. And that highest percentage of young Canadians enrolled voluntarily in French immersion is in Alberta where this lady comes from.

WERMAN: She's from British Columbia actually.

SPICER: Well even more so. The second was Vancouver. So your producer doesn't like it. That's fine. It's a democracy. You don't have to love it.

WERMAN: So Keith Spicer how is your French these days? Ca va bien?

SPICER: Ca va tres bien. Yeah well I live in Paris you know? I've been there for 13 years.

WERMAN: Keith Spicer was Canada's first commissioner of official languages. He's now a writer and journalist based in Paris but spoke to us today in English from Ottawa. Thank you very much.

SPICER: Thank you.