Forty-eight years ago today, in 1969, the Official Languages Act came into force in Canada, making French equal to English throughout the Federal government. The act was introduced by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government and was intended to promote national unity and improve relations between Canada’s English-speaking population and the French Canadians of Quebec.
In 1971, Trudeau claimed that “Although there are two official languages, there is no official culture.” But talking about equality did not satisfy Canadians on either side of the language divide. The act failed to reduce tensions between groups and was unpopular with both. Plenty of Quebec natives felt the act sidestepped more urgent political concerns, while many English speakers felt the French language was being forced upon them. Almost five decades later, however, the majority of Canadians are in favor of bilingualism and the act that made it an official part of their culture. Eighty-eight percent of Canadians who responded to a 2016 Nielsen survey supported the Official Languages Act. About the same percentage agreed that Canada’s prime minister ought to be bilingual and that major national events should occur in English and in French. Some feel bilingualism puts Canada a step ahead of other powerful nations. “Canada’s gradual acceptance of linguistic duality has made us more open, more inclusive, and readier to welcome others in our society,” said the Commissioner of Official Languages, Graham Fraser. “This puts us in a significantly different place than the United States, Britain, and much of Europe.”