We’re paying — but we’re not watching

November 4th, 2004
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Billboards are news these days in Alberta. In some, Ralph Klein’s cagey smirk signals his provincial election call. Another set have been greeting weary commuters for the past couple of months, with a smile five feet wide and the boyish good looks of James-Olivier Durivage. A celebrated chocolatier, perhaps? A rising designer? A locked-out Calgary Flame? No: The anchor of Radio-Canada’s French-language nightly news in Calgary.

Alberta’s surplus billions normally disappear quietly, like a thief in the night, drawn off to fund that great notion we call Canada. But every now and then, the mandarins or their federal Liberal masters slip — or perhaps decide to rub our noses in it.

So it is with M. Durivage’s billboards. Distressed that the debonair, thirty-ish host of Le telejournal Alberta doesn’t yet stand alongside the inscrutable Darrel Janz or the A-Channel’s bimbette-du-soir in the local broadcasting pantheon, Ottawa’s bilingualists have tapped their ample supply of federal dollars — many no doubt of Alberta provenance.

So too it was last April, when the vice-regal consort, John Ralston Saul, interrupted his harrowing travel schedule to visit Calgary and meet with 30 French for the Future “student ambassadors” before addressing 600 French immersion students. No doubt Mr. Saul is right now conducting a similar event with English students in Shawville, Que.

It’s not that there’s hostility here toward French per se. Some 6,500 children attend the Calgary public board’s French immersion programs, hundreds more the similar programs at 13 Catholic schools. For the Gaullist faction there is even a lycee, formerly reserved for French expats. Business signage in French — plus other languages — arises spontaneously, and no bureaucrats run around measuring font sizes, indoors or out.

Nor are we ourselves linguistic philistines. One of us is bilingual, though he doesn’t speak French. The other is trilingual, with French among the trio.

We object to squandering taxpayers’ earnings in defiance of any proportionality. About 14,000 Calgarians name French as their mother tongue, the same percentage (1.7) as name English in Quebec City. All of 465 Calgarians tell Statistics Canada they speak only French. The going rate for billboards suggests it might have been cheaper and more effective for M. Durivage simply to ring up these folks himself and remind them when he’s on.

Regina and Saskatoon report 70 and 60 unilingual francophones, respectively. But Radio-Canada still fields a full contingent to serve the Fransaskois. Some years ago we became privy to figures that, if memory serves, suggested one local French-language station had an annual budget of about $1.5-million, a staff of 25 and an average quarter-hour audience of under 200 — or fewer than 10 consumers for every taxpayer-funded employee. For a fraction of that cost, Ottawa could have purchased a TV, a radio and a lifelong satellite feed from Montreal and Paris for every existing customer.

But the preferred federal modus operandi demonstrates the yawning gulf between linguistic reality and federal government policy. Canadians speak many languages, but French-English bilingualism is limited to a minority of well under 20%, essentially the same rate as 35 years ago when it became official policy.

As many Westerners have observed, language requirements – not to mention the oppressive demand that one buy into “official Canada” — disqualify millions from the better jobs in the civil service. Even as bilingualism requirements are further tightened, any opposition is branded as anti-French and linguistic reform – did someone say “Belgium”? — is ridiculed. This is obviously sacred ground.

Ottawa’s linguistic goals, like so much of its social policy, amount to social engineering. The idee fixe of Two Founding Nations, imposed from coast to coast, is increasingly anachronistic. But Dyane Adam, our Commissioner of Official Languages, recently pronounced that not a dollar can be spared.

If Ottawa must arbitrarily impose one culture on the whole country, why not Atlantic Canada’s? Rex Murphy could be Commissioner of Official Languages.

Someone — more likely an entire team — dreamt up the Durivage billboards. Someone else had to approve them and allocate funds for design and execution. We know who paid for it — we the taxpayers — but we sure didn’t get a piece of the action.

In the middle of the Gomery Inquiry, it’s still “the usual operation” in large zones of Planet Ottawa. Ads for French TV boom across the Alberta prairie and echo through the Foothills. Meanwhile, far more Calgary street-level conversations take place in Mandarin than in the language of love. We’re no longer sure what dismays us more — the regional mismatch of federal spending, or actually seeing some of it at work.

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