When I return to check a point in the Laurendeau-Dunton Commission’s preliminary or final reports, I more often than not find myself lingering longer than necessary, with a feeling that I’ve come home, that here is the way we should proceed in our think- ing over language matters: with policy based on fact-finding and on compro- mise between the ideal and the practi- cal. And the facts come first, to ensure that the end result works out as suc- cessfully as possible.

Reconnecting with this familiar wisdom and with the Commission’s pioneering investigations prompts me to continue exploring language behav- iour in Canada, while keeping a critical eye on policies or statements which are not sufficiently in touch with lin- guistic reality. The report’s basic approach »that lack of transparency and inadequate examination of the facts pave the way to half-truths and prejudice »nags me to action whenev- er partisan zeal attempts to suppress investigation or discussion of sensitive but central aspects of language behav- iour such as linguistic assimilation.

I came to appreciate the Commis- sion’s work in the early 1970s, at the same time that I first took an interest in language issues. My curiosity had been stirred by the possible creation of feder- al bilingual districts and by public debate over the distinct language policy which was emerging in Quebec.

As the years go by, the growing sclerosis of the language bureaucracies now firmly established in Ottawa and Quebec City leads them to channel research and debate on languages along official lines. The era of the Laurendeau-Dunton Commission has in retrospect taken on the aura of a golden age of free, uninhibited enquiry.

The Commission’s mandate »to see how Canada might develop ”œon the basis of an equal partnership between the two founding races” »strikes one today as strange and extraordinarily far removed from the current Canadian political agenda. Given the inextricable interweaving of linguistic and national identities, the gradual hardening of English-speaking Canada’s response to Québécois aspirations for security and recognition in these respects renders ever more remote the chance of a return to frank and sober deliberation over language issues.

Nevertheless, revisiting the B&B books still works on me a welcome feeling of relief and détente. Not so much through their proposed solu- tions to the enduring Canadian lan- guage and political crises: on language policy they largely amounted to apply- ing a symmetric treatment »support of English in Quebec and French in the rest of Canada »to remedy a situation which from the standpoint of French was seriously out of kilter from coast to coast. For example, the bilingual dis- tricts concept, the result of an interest- ing compromise between the princi- ples of personality and of territoriality, could have effectively alleviated the pressure of anglicization without arousing Québécois apprehensions, had the Commission proposed its application be limited to the principal French-speaking populations outside Quebec, those in New Brunswick and Eastern and Northern Ontario. But such was not the case, and the doctri- naire stance of the subsequent Trudeau administration did the rest.

The books continue to be relevant, then, not so much because of the solu- tions they propose »it must be added in the Commission’s defence that it was not as well-informed as it would have liked to be concerning the magnitude and trends of linguistic assimilation in Montreal and the rest of Canada »as by their spirit of sane, sincere, upright and responsible enquiry, which remains an inspiration to this day.

 

Charles Castonguay teaches in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Ottawa