Bilingual Tensions in Canada

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One of the great issues in current time, and some deem a major controversy, is the serious tension between French and English Canadians over the air-ground bilingualism of air traffic controllers. “Whether French was to be used, along with English, in the control towers of Quebec’s airports was the main issue of dispute in the strike of air pilots in the summer of 1976” (Laxer, 1979, p. 31). Timing for the nine-day strike by the air pilots could not have come at a worst time because of the impending Olympic Games. Of great concern was that the distraction would continue for months and put at risk the Games being held later in the year in Montreal, especially since all air traffic was presently at a standstill. The passionate debate over air traffic control bilingual communications was mainly the result of two-century-old tension between the French and English. The acceptance or rejection of French as one of two official languages in Canada is an issue that has surfaced many times and the air strike once again, brought it into the open. The entire country joined in on the heated discussions. In general, air safety was the position that the English Canadians expressed in their fight to state “French should not be used in directing air traffic over Quebec” (Laxer, 1979, p. 31). The English Canadians agreed with the English-speaking pilots and controllers that air-ground bilingual communication (English and French) is not as safe as unilingual communication (English only). The citizens of Quebec felt air safety was not a valid reason against bilingual communication since bilingual air traffic control had no documented problems in airports throughout the world. Quebeckers believed that it was their right as Canadian citizens, and citizens of Quebec, to work in the mother tongue. The pilots’ association stated that they would not fly until English was the primary language used by air traffic controllers at Dorval and Mirabel, Montreal’s two International Airports. The association agreed that bilingual communications worked in several European countries; however, it was safer to communicate in English. Their position was firm, especially since the majority of English-speaking Canadians supported their stance. A truce to the strike was negotiated, when a three-member commission was set up to investigate and decide if bilingualism should be present in all Quebec air communications. An agreement was signed with English-speaking pilots and traffic controllers. The Environmental Minister resigned his Cabinet position over the agreement. The former minister was angry because he believed “the problem could have been solved if the opposition had acted responsibly” (Laxer, 1979, p. 33). He further stated that the agreement was filled with mistakes and gaps. After 18 months of testing, the federal transport department determined that a bilingual air traffic control system in Quebec will have no damaging impact on safety. The Defence Minister resigned from the Cabinet because the language proposals for the Canadian constitution made reference to locking-in French language and cultural guarantees. The minister resigned to oppose the proposals and to speak openly and publicly about the proposal. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had made no decision to change the constitution.

1. Overview: The Official Languages Act of 1969 was passed almost unanimously by the Canadian federal parliament. The only opposition came from a group of eighteen Conservative Members of Parliament, led by a former prime minister. The Act made English and French the two official languages in Canada and established the right for both English and French-speaking Canadians to be served by the federal government in their own language. Where the number of French-speaking people in a district surpassed a designated minimum, the government would establish bilingual services for Canadians in federal areas such income tax,...
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