On July 31, Keith Spicer leaves his job as Canada’s Official Languages Commissioner after seven stormy years. Author of some of the most readable reports to emanate from Ottawa, Spicer quickly became the Trudeau government’s supersalesman of bilingualism, drumming home his message that Canada’s bilingual nature should be seen as an advantage, not a handicap, and that learning French should be fun, not a chore. A 43-year-old, Toronto-born political scientist, the fluently bilingual Spicer sometimes got into trouble with his knack for phrasemaking. In 1973 he angered Montreal anglophones when he talked of “Westmount Rhodesians.” His biggest bombshell came last year when he issued a scathing critique of language-training for federal civil servants and urged that the emphasis be switched to a “youth option”—teaching children more French in the schools. Longtime critics of Ottawa’s policies seized on the report as a weapon for attacking the very principle of federal bilingualism. Taken aback, Spicer in his final report this spring did an about-face, praising government efforts to date and rating them about 80% successful. Though asked to remain at his post for a few more years, Spicer plans to move to Vancouver where he will teach political science at the University of British Columbia and write a weekly column for The Vancouver Sun—while continuing to speak out on bilingualism and the broader question of Quebec’s future in Confederation. Spicer talked to Maclean's Ottawa correspondent Ian Urquhart.
Maclean’s: During your seven years as official languages commissioner, do you think we have made progress in language reform and toward becoming an officially bilingual country, or have we been moving backward?
Spicer: We’ve made very great progress, but you have to define what you mean by language reform. The reform that parliament had in mind eight years ago was simply two things: the federal government serving each Canadian in the language he or she is taxed in, and allowing as many federal employees as possible to work in the official language each feels at home in. If you read the reports and go through the 180 government departments and agencies we have to monitor, you will find that the progress is slow but steady and I think irreversible in terms of services at the counter, on the telephone, in correspondence and so on. Eight years ago it was normal to deny citizens the right to choose their language in such basic matters: today, even trifling omissions cause a fuss because expectations are much higher. But last year, the air controllers’ crisis and even a Mickey Mouse incident like the hockey howlers in Maple Leaf Gardens [who booed a francophone announcer] got massive coverage in Quebec, just saturation, and, in the public mind, they screwed up years and years of solid, undramatic reform. The sharpness of antagonisms on both sides, while deplorable, may confirm the heightened expectations I spoke of. This is what I call the “De Tocqueville paradox.” Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the 1830s in the United States that when the rich and the poor were in the position of total inequality the poor, seeing no hope of progress, were fatalistic, and therefore things were politically “calm.” The same occurred later between blacks and whites. Once they started closing the gap after the 1954 Supreme Court decision in the United States and with all the Lyndon Johnson reforms and so on, the black community found less and less tolerable every vestige of unfairness. Without believing that the analogy is literally true in every detail, I think it does explain a lot of the anger you feel on the French side that things are still not going fast enough. They have started to believe that this is not just another fairytale, that it is the real thing, and it is starting to work in advance and hurt a little. This is why you end up with, on the French side, increased exasperation, but based on some hope—which is good news. And on the English side you have a certain nervousness, I think, that things really are working after all, that this is not just somebody’s electoral promise, that parliament really meant what it said, and is delivering the goods and making the civil service a fairer place for all Canadians.
Maclean’s: What has been accomplished within the civil service?
Spicer: Usually when you talk to an English newspaper about fairness in the civil service, they immediately say: “Oh, yes, all our poor English-speaking compatriots are getting shafted.” Well, you have to turn that around and ask where the basic unfairness might be. The real unfairness has been against the French speakers who work in Ottawa. It is much better than it was. It is less painful, but it is still painful. But to come back to your question, yes, I think the progress in bilingualism—that hateful word that is negative and abstract and makes everybody nervous—the progress in language reform is dramatic and solid and I think irreversible over the past eight years. One of the key standards for language-of-work rights is the progress in representation of French speakers in the public service, and the figures there are impressive. In 1971, openings for unilingual anglophones were 10 times more numerous than those for unilingual francophones; four years later the relationship was six to one. Now that’s still not good enough, since francophones form more than one quarter of our population, but it’s a lot better. Francophones do not yet hold what you could term their fair share of the jobs. But we have ended what some Quebeckers still like to call the “English colonial regime.”
Maclean’s: And all of the tension that we are seeing now is a sign of progress?
Spicer: Exactly. Maybe I’m Micawberish by nature or absolutely perversely optimistic, but that’s the way it feels to me and I’m convinced it is true. If this whole reform had turned out to be a fraud, and nothing were happening, I am quite sure that English Canadians would be feeling very reassured. But because the reform is working, advancing, biting, hurting a few people (but so little—and I base this on our own complaints files—that it is insignificant), it is real. The reform is basically a major success for Canada as a mature country.
Maclean’s: Surely the election of the Parti Québécois government in Quebec is a sign not of progress but of a backward step?
Spicer: Well, this is the price of progress of any kind. Progress is scary; no matter how you make it, it means changing your outlook on the world. Any kind of progress is frightening to people in the middle of it. If you want an absolutely serene existence, go off to a monastery.
Maclean’s: Let me quote you something from your first annual report in 1971. You said that the success of Canada’s linguistic revolution would depend first on cooling the climate of discussion on language, on transforming a debate into a dialogue. And now you seem to be saying that the fact that we ’re having a raging linguistic debate is a sign of progress.
Spicer: I will try to skate around that. I think, to get any progress on the rails, you have to lay out the issues. Therefore I stand behind that, and still that is what I am pleading even now: that the moderates have to come out of their closets. In the middle of the air traffic controversy last summer I was saying: “Look, folks, we are not going to get very far in adjusting to this progress if we don’t seize a perspective and simmer it down to a dialogue rather than a debate.” So, I am not rejoicing that there is all this hell breaking loose, but l am trying to interpret it in a way that will put some constructive meaning on it. I am not advocating that we have vicious racist arguments. I am just saying that if they do break out it is probably a good symptom that something is happening.
Maclean’s: You have mentioned the air traffic dispute. Who was right in that debate? Or were both sides wrong?
Spicer: Everybody and nobody, I think, because at this stage the issues are so obscured by emotion and polemics that you can’t say that everything the English pilots or English controllers say is right or wrong; nor everything that les gens de l’air [the Quebec pilots and controllers] say is right or wrong. All I have ever done in that crisis is to state two priorities. First, safety is paramount. However, the second priority requires that we take an honest look at the real impact on safety of respecting the language rights and aspirations of one quarter of our population. But I have simply said that safety has to be first. I believe passionately in language rights, but I believe even more passionately in human rights, the right to human life.
Maclean’s: Was that dispute a sign that we have been moving too quickly in the area of language reform, or too slowly, or have we been going at about the right pace?
Spicer: That dispute had nothing whatever to do with the general progress of language reform. What English Canadians have to remember is the way that whole crisis evolved, and in some, let’s say hasty, if not Pavlovian, reactions of some of the English-speaking professionals French Canada had the impression of massive humiliation. There wasn’t a French Canadian I know of who didn’t feel grossly insulted by the way that whole thing evolved last summer.
Maclean’s: You said in your last report that one of the major failings in language reform has been the failure to communicate the benefits and advantages of having a bilingual country. Whose fault is that? Is it Pierre Trudeau’s fault? Joe Clark’s? Is it the media’s fault?
Spicer: Apart from the servitudes of each medium, TV or print journalism itself, I think the press has played a pretty fair game. They have not tried to torpedo language reform. The great failing on information lies with the government in power, which happens to be Mr. Trudeau’s. I am not carrying any great vindictive feeling toward him at all. I do wish that the influence of the Prime Minister could be felt more regularly among the troops. There are ways of demonstrating your concern on a continuing basis that we haven’t seen and I hope his advisers will bring him to do that.
Maclean’s: Well, Pierre Trudeau has made language reform the keystone of his whole political career. Are you talking about the manner in which he dictates it?
Spicer: Yes. To be specific, we’re talking here not about the alienation of French Canadians who believe in language reform. We are talking about English Canada and the only way to demonstrate the theme of languages as opportunities for English Canadians, I am convinced, is to stress that the payoff is through children.
So I would have thought that the English speaking ministers would have hit the trail for a few months or a year, pretty regularly, visiting schools, having realized that the payoff for English Canada was through the schools, through youth exchanges, through presenting language as an advantage for the future and they should have gone and developed the youth option then. Now they are doing it, but after five years of neglect during which English Canada felt that it was completely left out and during which we left the field virtually free for every rumour monger and peddler of innuendos.
Maclean’s: Now the government has accepted in principle your youth option. But what about the provinces? Outside of Quebec, no province makes French a compulsory subject and no university requires French as an entrance requirement. Should Ottawa try to bring the provinces in line on the issue by holding back the grants it now makes to post-secondary education?
Spicer: Why not? Some people will scream bloody murder and say you mustn’t use the tax system to put the squeeze on anybody. On the other hand, there are certain objectives so rooted in the fabric of Canada that it’s hard to understand why the feds would squander money on universities unless they’re getting some payoff for all Canada. That’s a pretty modest, normal payoff to ask for: that they require, at least in the arts and social science faculties, the ability to read a newspaper in the second language and the same for the young Quebeckers in English and the ability to carry a simple conversation. So I would think it likely that with the new surges of interest among English-speaking parents it would make sense to aim to have about 15% or 20% of the kids in English Canada able to converse very freely and to read almost anything in the second language and the rest of them, if they get to the end of high school, ought to be able to hack their way through a newspaper.
Maclean’s: How marked is the new parental interest in having children learn French?
Spicer: There has been a rise of 40% in enrolment in French in elementary schools between 1970 and 1976. There are about a million children outside of Quebec studying some kind of French. Although, I must admit there has been a terrible falloff in the high schools. It has been about an equivalent of 35% to 40%.
Maclean’s: Assuming that enough people become sufficiently bilingual to fill our civil service requirements, and that the youth option is successful, will that be enough to hold this country together?
Spicer: Absolutely not. There have always been two parts to the language question in Canada. One has been the civil service plumbing—that is, accepting as normal that you serve people in the language of their taxes and that you let them work in the language in which they feel more at home. The other part of it is the place of Quebec in Canada. If you are going to ask whether the Official Languages Act is saving Canada, of course not, that wasn’t the purpose of it, I hope, or at least not the only purpose. The idea was simply to give a measure of long-overdue fair play to French-speaking citizens and taxpayers.
Maclean’s: It was surely one element in a program to save Canada.
Spicer: Undoubtedly that was a major concern of many of the politicians who passed the Official Languages Act, but I am just rephrasing your question through the ears of a francophone. He would find that question insulting. He would say: “You mean you’re going to say that we should love Canada and get down on our knees and thank you because you finally got around after 100 years to serving us in our language?” It was never perceived by French-speaking Canadians as other than their normal due, and I am quite sure English-speaking Canadians would have felt the same if the shoe had been on the other foot. If Alberta, for example, had been an English island in a massively French North America we would have replays of the whole Canadian scene. But I think that in the interest of French-speaking Quebeckers, the province is always going to need English Canada as some kind of ally in North America.
Maclean’s: René Lévesque’s PQ government doesn’t seem to think so.
Spicer: I think the PQ is in a very tough bind right now, because if they tend to be too moderate in dealing with English Canada they are running the risk of proving to French-speaking Quebeckers that anything is possible within the present Canada, or some kind of Canada. And if they are deliberately cynical and destructive, they run the risk of turning off a lot of English-speaking moderates who might be allies for the second part of the PQ hypothesis-association after independence.
Maclean’s: In your last report you say that the French outside of Quebec should be a priority concern right now. Is it already too late to prevent them from being assimilated?
Spicer: I hope not. The assimilation rate is terrifying; in the past 10 years, the French speakers outside of Quebec have lost a lot of ground. The only hopeful sign is that in 1970 Gérard Pelletier, when he was Secretary of State, began a program of solidarity, both political and financial, with the French speakers outside Quebec. And this, I think, enabled a young elite of Franco-Ontarians and Acadians to start coming to the fore, and now they are taking things in hand. I think it is shocking that it took the Ontario government seven years to ensure that French speakers in Windsor got the French high school they were entitled to.
Maclean’s: What about the English-speaking minority within Quebec. Does it warrant special concern, particularly in the light of the White Paper on language, which declared that there will no longer be any question of a bilingual Quebec?
Spicer: I have spoken with Quebec’s deputy premier, Jacques-Yvan Morin, and the minister of cultural development, Camille Laurin. I told them I sympathized completely with the need to ensure a healthy predominance of French in Quebec, in the same way that English is the predominant language of Ontario, Alberta and Nova Scotia. But I expressed serious concern over two matters in the White Paper: distortion of the solid progress in federal language reform, and some of the mechanisms proposed to restrict English, which strike me as legalistic, narrow, indeed nearly suffocating. In the interests both of fairness to English speakers and of realism for the PQ’s own hypothesis of association with Canada after possible separation, I presume they will listen carefully to English-speaking Quebeckers and prove that their respect for minorities is not just rhetorical, but real. For their part, I hope that English-speaking Quebeckers will try to understand the deep historical reasons that have brought successive Quebec governments to protect the French language. I hope that they will stay to articulate the reasonable rights of Quebec’s minorities with frankness, serenity and dignity.
Maclean’s: This clearly is a subject that you feel passionately about and you have said you want to continue to speak out on the whole area of relations between our two founding peoples. Why leave the official languages commissioner’s post? It seems to me to be a perfect platform for you.
Spicer: One reason was the election of the PQ government in Quebec, which simply opened the other historic part of the language debate in Canada -the place of Quebec within Confederation.
Maclean’s: You can’t talk about that as the languages commissioner?
Spicer: Not the kind of things I would like to do. I would like to talk later this summer about not only the psychological aspect of it, but get down to specific ideas on the Constitution, and I can’t do that with good taste, or dignity, or even legality, I think, by staying on in this job. I think a lot of people would say that I am really straying from the central purpose of the job, which was to uphold linguistic equality in the federal public service.
Maclean’s: There were rumours that you had a falling out with Pierre Trudeau.
Spicer: God, no. In December I decided that I should leave, so I saw Mr. Trudeau and he was kind enough to ask me to stay another year or two. Then I went back and confirmed that I was leaving. And I think that what I said in my [final] report is almost verbatim what I told Mr. Trudeau: that I think about 20% of what the government has done is a God-awful screw-up. About 80% is either excellent, mildly good, or mediocre, so it’s not bad; it is a defensible balance sheet for bilingualism. I am certainly not an intimate of the Prime Minister, but I have immense esteem for him.
Maclean’s: Looking back over your seven years in office, do you have any regrets?
Spicer: I suppose I wish I had pressed a little harder. I was probably too conservative. I wish I had maybe pushed or lobbied the government a little to read my reports. The first four reports hardly got read at all by the government. The press read them, or at least read parts of them, but not the government.
Maclean’s: Why not?
Spicer: I think there were two reasons. One was that a number of them were practising what I described as “legislative archivism.” They thought that since they had passed the act and sent it off to the national archives, they should forget it. The second reason was that for about the first four years they were so traumatized by the 1969 debate on language that they didn’t want to talk about it.
Maclean’s: But journalists welcomed your annual reports as a break from the usual mind-numbing bureaucratic documents we get.
Spicer: One calculation I made from the outset was to use frankness and humour as political weapons. Because at the beginning we were dealing with a minefield mentality in the government. So there was a certain calculated audacity and good humor in the idea of saying serious things more toughly than we could have with a straight face. If we had said some of the really frightful things we say in the reports with an utterly straight face, we couldn’t have got away with them. That doesn’t mean that I think the whole thing is a giggle. In fact, it’s the opposite: it’s just that I believe that balance, perspective and good humor are valuable political weapons in an atmosphere of incipient hysteria.
Enjoy more great stories from The Maclean’s Archives. Start your 30-day free trial today.