Graham Fraser is making waves with a suggestion – he first calls it “an idea worth considering” – that Quebec needs some kind of permanent secretariat for Anglo communities in the province.
As the Commissioner of Official Languages, Fraser first raised the issue when the Liberals under Jean Charest were in power, then in an interview with Le Devoir after the election of a Parti Québécois government in September 2012.
Having no PQ caucus members representing constituencies with substantial numbers of Anglos, the Marois government thought Fraser’s idea made sense and Jean-François Lisée added minister responsible for English Quebec to his cabinet responsibilities.
Fraser, a distinguished political journalist and author before he was appointed commissioner in 2006, repeated the call this fall in another newspaper interview, that having such an office, with a minister responsible, would be logical, especially in the context of the controversy over Bill 10.
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That legislation provoked a hue and cry from Anglo community leaders, including the Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN), that the proposed consolidation of health and social services institutions threatened Anglo representation on boards that control these bodies.
In spite of a decidedly cool reaction in the French-language media and the governing Liberals, who feel Anglo views are well represented by the three MNAs from majority English ridings, Fraser continues to believe that his idea makes good sense.
“My more existential view is that if francophone Quebec feels itself to be a majority, comfortable in its majority status, then it can contemplate the needs of its minority,” he observed in an interview.
“If francophone Quebec feels it is a fragile, vulnerable minority, then it becomes very difficult to consider the English community as a minority,” Fraser continued.
He notes that every other province has such a permanent office to deal with minority-language issues and they have been useful. Francophone commentators insist that compared to francophone minorities elsewhere in Canada, Quebec’s more than 800,000 Anglos are well looked after by an array of institutions and services.
Fraser says this is true of Montreal, where Anglo communities built schools, hospitals, and social services before they fell under government control, but ignores the “300,000 Anglophones who live in small communities around the province.”
“It is increasingly challenging in some of the Quebec regions for Anglophones to get health and social services in English. This is a particular challenge for the older generation who spent their working lives able to function in Quebec without speaking French,” he noted in an interview.
“They didn’t have much dealings with government institutions, and now in retirement they need their health and social services and it is sometimes a challenge for them.”
On a recent visit to les îles de la Madeleine, Fraser recalled talking to a young woman working for one of the community associations.
“She had to interrupt her working day to go and act as a translator for her mother who couldn’t understand the social worker, and the social worker couldn‘t understand her,” Fraser said.
“This was a case in microcosm of the problems of a community with an ageing society that was in the particular circumstances of not needing to speak French during the time they were in the workforce.”
When Bill 10 was introduced, it was concerned community leaders, including those in the QCGN that made it clear that the needs of the English community were not being taken into consideration.
Fraser believes much of the controversy could have been avoided had there been a permanent government structure in place with a mandate to monitor and advise on issues affecting Anglo rights.
“QCGN has expressed its satisfaction mixed with relief following some last-minute amendments to Bill 10. But it was clear that Bill 10 was drawn up without taking into account the needs of the English community.
“It took months of constant negotiating to result in the necessary amendments to the bill,” he noted.
Ontario’s Office of Francophone Affairs, created in 2007, and Commissioner of French Language Services, are examples of institutions that can offer input to any proposed legislation to ensure that language rights and services are respected.
“Part of the reason for having a coordinating office that can act as a reference point for the English community is that it depoliticizes it so that it becomes part of the institutional reflex – less visible, less controversial.”
Fraser underscores that he is not on a political campaign when it comes to this issue but merely reflecting on “an idea worth considering” based on what he’s observed having visited all provinces and territories and internationally.
As for lack of support in the French media, and from Liberal MNAs who may see part of their role of speaking out for Anglo rights being compromised, Fraser says he’s not dismayed. “Having a public debate on the nature of the English community is in itself useful.”
Commentators in the French language media insist English speakers here are much better served than Francophones in other provinces, but Fraser rejects this as an argument for not addressing problems faced by some English communities in Quebec.
“I think French-speaking Quebec as a society is full of strength, vitality, and energy, and is in a position now that it can assume its role as a responsible majority society.”