What a difference a decade makes .. why are Sun newspapers dragging up PM Harper on bilingualism 6 May 2001?

Jul 15th, 2011 | By | Category: In Brief

Stockwell Day congratulates Stephen Harper in Calgary after the Canadian Alliance voted Harper the new leader in 2002. Todd Korol/Postmedia News.

You might wonder why today’s Toronto Sun includes “an edited version of a column that originally appeared in the Calgary Sun in 2001” —  by a Stephen Harper who was then merely the  president of the National Citizens’ Coalition. (For the record, it should be noted that the same  “edited version of a column” etc also appears in today’s Calgary Sun, and who knows what other such newspapers currently owned by Quebecor Media — “CANADA’S TOP NEWSPAPER CHAIN,”  headquartered in Montréal, Québec.)

The current title of the column is “Canada’s not a bilingual country.”  And one obvious reason for its re-appearance in the middle of July 2011, more than a decade after its first publication, is that it may be thought to somehow support another column today, by Toronto Sun founder Peter Worthington. This bears the title “A $12,000 7Up? Mon dieu!” And it begins with: “If you want to know what’s wrong with Canada’s official language policy, look no further than Michel Thibodeau … He’s the fluently bilingual federal government employee who sued Air Canada because he and his wife were denied service in French — the trigger being his failure to get a 7Up when requesting it in French on an AC flight in 2009.”

Whatever may or may not be definitively true in this context, in the middle of July 2011 a newspaper column called “Canada’s not a bilingual country” by someone who is now the Prime Minister of Canada — at the head of a majority government with very little representation from the country’s French-language majority province of Quebec (which has some 23% of the Canada-wide population) — is bound to prompt a certain amount of raised-eyebrow tut-tutting, among people in all parts of the country who have always been sceptical about Peter Worthington and the Toronto Sun and the Calgary Sun, etc, etc, etc.  And some part of this kind of reaction may even be apt, and to the point, and so forth, on and on.

Stephen Harper, then president of the National Citizens' Coalition, prepares to speak at a Canadian Alliance policy forum on economic competitiveness at a Richmond, BC hotel on Saturday, September 8, 2001.

Before rushing in too quickly where the ultimate better angels may or may not fear to tread, however, it is probably worth noting that the original title of Mr. Harper’s column in the Calgary Sun, back on May 6, 2001 was just “Bilingualism’s Become a Religion … Creed Produced No Unity and Cost Plenty.” And in at least some respects what he was saying — and no doubt in some degree still is — qualifies as close to the plain truth. (Which is finally why it can appear in a publication owned by a French Canadian corporation, headquartered in Quebec!) If you read his argument carefully, Mr. Harper 10 years ago was just criticizing part of Pierre Trudeau’s Canadian political philosophy, in a way that other eminently respectable academic critics have and still do, then and now. (On Ontario historian Robert Bothwell’s apt quip, eg, Trudeau’s vision of Canada “stretched from one end of Montreal Island to the other.” And in all other parts of the country, including Toronto, to say nothing of the Ontario countryside, many non-Montrealers saw this as a crucial fault.)

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And yet, some among us will continue to protest with some quite palpable justice, there remain at least two respects in which both Mr. Harper’s column of 2001 and Mr. Worthington’s revival of it in 2011 are missing some fundamental point — and even some continuing strength in the Canadian political legacies of Pierre Trudeau.

Stephen Harper (far right) at federal Conservative policy conference in 1985 (when he was 26 years old). Imagine what he thought of Canadian bilingualism then?

To start with, Mr. Harper ends his column by saying: “As a religion, bilingualism is the god that failed. It has led to no fairness, produced no unity, and cost Canadian taxpayers untold millions.” In retrospect, I think, the virtues of official bilingualism in Canada have been greater than this somewhat wild rhetoric implies. Stephen Harper himself tells us: “My own experience with bilingualism goes back to the summer of 1968. My parents sent me crosstown to a primitive immersion course, probably more to get me out of their hair than to help construct a new federal theology.” (Those were the days when he was still a Torontonian rather than a Calgarian — and a mere boy only 9 years old!) As it happens, some future historian may well conclude, this youthful experience has stood both Stephen Harper and the diverse people of Canada in good stead, in both official languages.

Similarly (and secondly), the Toronto Sun and the Calgary Sun (and the ongoing editorial prerogatives of Peter Worthington, for all I know?) are making quite a mistake when they re-title Mr. Harper’s column “Canada’s not a bilingual country” in 2011.  Of course Canada is not a bilingual country in the sense that most people in it speak both French and English — and certainly, as Mr. Harper quietly implies, with the kind of skill that guardians of the purity of the French language would like to see. If this ever were to become the case, then just in the interests of convenience we should all agree to speak just the one language, etc, etc, etc. (And there probably is some kind of logic to the argument that it probably would be French — since that is what is most different from the United States, etc, etc!) Yet Canada today is a bilingual country in a way that it never used to be, before the advent of the 1960s federal policies in fact begun by Lester Pearson, and then just carried on by Pierre Trudeau. And, on the testimony of the most recent Harper-Conservative-dominated past itself, this has arguably enough led to more fairness and even more unity than ever before, from coast to coast to coast.

Trudeau the gunslinger, celebrating Canada Day, towards the end of his almost 16-year stint as Prime Minister of Canada.

Nowadays, indeed, perhaps no one personifies all this better than Prime Minister Stephen Harper. It is because, you might even say, he has gone to so much trouble to learn to speak an acceptable brand of French — even as someone from Western Canada who aspires to the officially bilingual country’s top political job — that the French-majority people of Quebec have finally felt comfortable voting en masse for the federalist New Democratic Party of Canada at last! And, you might even say again, none of this could have happened if the parents of the 9-year-old Stephen Harper in Toronto had not for some outside reason felt prompted to send him crosstown to a primitive French immersion course — in the summer of love, just after Pierre Trudeau first became Prime Minister of Canada, with all his merely human crucial faults and all his crucial steely virtues too.

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