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Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine & Robert Baldwin (cover of John Ralston Saul‘s book)
Sir Wilfrid Laurier (Pinterest)
André Laurendeau & Davidson Dunton (The Canadian Encyclopedia)

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The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (1963-1969)

At the time André Laurendeau and Davidson Dunton conducted their inquiry on bilingualism and biculturalism, my father was one of the leaders of British Columbia’s Francophone Community and its spokesman, which I have mentioned in earlier posts. He was interviewed frequently, and was also invited to talk shows. The talk show host would take telephone calls from citizens many of whom stated that in their community very few people spoke French. Most of these callers were the descendants of immigrants to Canada who could not understand that Canada’s founding nations, after the First Nations, were France and Great Britain. In their towns, villages, or rural districts, they were the majority. Why should instruction be in a language other than theirs? The schools question is a complex issue.

So, in order to get to the source, I read large sections of the reports submitted by The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (1963-1969). The children of several immigrants to Canada were educated in their parents’ tongue. These would be mostly immigrants to the Prairie provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan, to be precise. However, results were not as expected. These immigrants and Manitoba Francophones, were not in a position to organize a school system. Moreover, they would be opposed by Ottawa or the premier of their province. So, I will state, once again, that the school question is a complex issue.

In Manitoba,[1] the schools question reached its apex five years after Métis leader Louis Riel was executed (1885). Louis Riel assumed that in provinces that entered Confederation the language of instruction in public schools would be either French or English. This would be true of Quebec. But, as you know, John A. Macdonald was an Orangeman and he favoured uniform schools: English-language and Protestant schools. So, in 1889, Manitoba passed the Official Language Act, which

made English the sole language of Manitoba government records, minutes, and laws. Other laws abolishing French in all legislative and judicial spheres followed leading to the disappearance of Catholic (and hence French) schools.

Laurier-Greenway compromise, University of Ottawa

However, the Laurier-Greenway Compromise of 1897 would allow some latitude, concerning the language of instruction, but barely so.

If it were in my power, I would try the sunny way. I would approach this man Greenway with the sunny way of patriotism, asking him to be just and to be fair, asking him to be generous to the minority, in order that we may have peace among all the creeds and races which it has pleased God to bring upon this corner of our common country. Do you not believe that there is more to be gained by appealing to the heart and soul of men rather than to compel them to do a thing?

‒ Oscar Skelton, Life and Letters of Sir Wilfrid Laurier (1921)

In 1905, Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier negotiated the entry into Confederation of Saskatchewan and Alberta, but he could not give immigrants schools other than uniform schools. He respected the Laurier-Greenway Compromise, which had been his initiative. However, in Manitoba, the 1916 Thornton Act reiterated the Official Language Act of 1889. As noted above, immigrants and French-speaking Canadians often took in hand the matter of education in a language other than English, as did French-Canadians in Manitoba. These citizens would face a formidable obstacle: taxation.[2]

Gabrielle Roy (Gabrielle Roy en), the “grande dame” of French-Canadian literature, wrote very touching short stories about Ukrainian immigrants: Ces enfants de ma vie (The Children of my life), Un jardin au bout du monde (A Garden at the edge of the world). Gabrielle Roy had been a school teacher in Manitoba. In Un jardin au bout du monde, she wrote a truly moving short story about a Chinese immigrant: Où iras-tu Sam Lee Wong? (Where will you go, Sam Lee Wong?)

The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism could not propose that children be educated in French in communities where there were a mere handful of families were French-speaking families. The callers who spoke to my father had a point. There were very few French-Canadian families in their area. There could not be under the terms of Confederation. Numbers count. There had to be a demand. However, had there been a demand and a school instituted, the language of instruction would have been French or English. French and English were recognized as Canada’s official languages by virtue of the Official Languages Act of 1969. If the language of instruction in certain schools was other than French or English, such schools would be private schools as were denominational schools. Immigrants also asked for denominational schools.

Confederation created a uniform Canada. Yet, today’s Canada reflects the Baldwin-La Fontaine‘s great ministry, or the province of Canada when it obtained its responsible government in 1848. Today’s Canada is also in the image of Louis Riel‘s Red River. Canada was not officially bilingual and bicultural until the passage of the Official Languages Act of 1969, the culmination of The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, an in-depth inquiry. André Laurendeau died in 1968. He and Davidson Dunton remind me of Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine. They were a team, compatible, and they understood.

Traditionally, French-speaking Canadians have been Catholics and many could not accept that a French-language school should be other than Catholic. So, if my father expressed the view that the combination of language and faith hampered the creation of publicly funded French-language schools, he was criticized, if not crucified.

Le Vent du Nord

In Le Vent du Nord‘s “Confédération,” the ex-patriote who saved les Français d’Amérique would be George-Étienne Cartier, the Prime Minister of the Province of Canada East and a father of Confederation. George-Étienne Cartier was involved in the Rebellions of 1837-1838. Rebels were called patriot(e)s in both Upper Canada and Lower Canada.[3] George-Étienne Cartier was happy that his people had their Québec: their schools, their religion, their Code Civil. But Wilfrid Laurier quickly ran for office in Ottawa (1874).

In 1969, Canada reflected the Great Ministry of Baldwin and La Fontaine. In 1848, under Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine, the Province of Canada was granted its responsible government and it was bilingual and bicultural Canada. (See also Baldwin and La Fontaine, Canadian Encyclopedia.) But given the terms of Confederation, Quebec was the only province that retained Baldwin and La Fontaine’s dual system of education. Louis Riel‘s Manitoba did not.

Confederation is rooted in the Act of Union, and the period extending from 1867 to 1969 seems… a pause (un pays qui fut fondé trois fois).

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[1] I am excluding schools located in British Columbia. I attended St. Ann’s Academy, in Victoria, British Columbia. It was built before Confederation and was never a Residential School. The Sisters of St. Anne had travelled from Quebec to Victoria.

[2] Comeault, G.-L. (1979). La question des écoles du Manitoba — Un nouvel éclairage. Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française, 33(1), 3–23.
https://doi.org/10.7202/303748ar

[3] Confédération also contains a reference to the Château Clique, whose membership, rich merchants, included John Molson and James McGill. They paved the way to the Act of Union (1840).

Le Vent du Nord’s Confédération
Louis Riel (The Canadian Encyclopedia)

© Micheline Walker
24 April 2021
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