Déjà Vu: 40 Years of Language and Laughter in Political Cartoons
Forty years ago...
In 1969, Canada officially embraced English and French as its two official languages with the adoption of the Official Languages Act, which granted equal status to English and French. In 2009, 40 years later, the Act continues to resonate as a living public policy and legal framework.
The passionate political debates, challenges and reactions to linguistic duality have been keenly observed by Canada’s leading cartoonists. As a mirror held up to society, political cartoons and caricatures published in daily newspapers used a sharp wit to reflect both the playful and the serious aspects of language issues.
In the years leading up to the 1969 Official Languages Act, Canada poorly managed its “two solitudes,” a term popularized by Hugh MacLennan’s 1945 novel of the same name which describes the tensions of English-French relations in Quebec at the time.
Many Francophones, who constituted the majority population in Quebec but a minority elsewhere in Canada, felt that their language was ebbing away. In 1963, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson established the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, known as the B and B Commission, to address the situation.
Issues pertaining to bilingualism and minority-language rights continued to inspire emotional debate across the country after the adoption of the Constitution and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. The Charter confi rmed the equal status of English and French in Canada, and recognized the right of parents from official language minority communities to have their children educated in their language and to manage their own educational institutions.
A good portion of both the Anglophone and Francophone populations was sceptical about the relevance of official bilingualism to the country’s national cohesion. Events taking place at the municipal and provincial levels provided ample fodder for the keen wit of political cartoonists.
Hockey Night in Canada
Language tensions took centre ice as Canada’s national passion became a lightning rod for intolerance. The nostalgia of English- French rink rivalry, portrayed in Roch Carrier’s popular 1965 story The Hockey Sweater, was transformed into bitter divisiveness.
Junior league player Eric Lindros ignited angry debate when selected by the Quebec Nordiques in the 1991 NHL Entry Draft. Lindros refused to join the Nordiques, saying one of the main reasons for doing so was he did not want to live or work in a French-speaking community.
Linguistic duality and air transportation collided in 2000 as Parliament passed amendments to the Air Canada Public Participation Act. The new act privatized Air Canada and its subsidiaries, which included regional carriers Jazz and Zip, and required them to provide service in both official languages.
Canada in the future
Canada’s cultural diversity has steadily increased in the 40 years since the adoption of the Official Languages Act.
Linguistic duality is, without a doubt, characteristic of Canadian society. This duality was at the very heart of this country’s foundation and is a feature of our national history. If tolerance and a sense of accommodation are engraved in Canadian values, it is largely thanks to our duality, which has taught us to respect each other.
What role will language play in a shared national vision and in the expression of cultural identity as Canada looks to the future?
This exhibition, produced by the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, marks the 40th anniversary of the Official Languages Act. We thank the cartoonists whose works are featured in this exhibition, as well as Library and Archives Canada for its invaluable cooperation.
The complete exhibition was displayed at 395 Wellington Street, Ottawa, from September 10, 2009 to March 2010. From April 2010 until March 2011, it will be on display in the Student Lounge of the University of Ottawa’s University Centre at 55 University Private, Ottawa. A version of this exhibition will also be presented in various Canadian cities from September 2009 to November 2010.