B and B Commission

André Laurendeau (left) and Davidson Dunton (right), cochairs of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism.

On this day in 1963, Prime Minister L. B. Pearson announced the establishment of a Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism under the direction of André Laurendeau and A. Davidson Dunton. All three saw it as a grand inquest, to use Pearson’s term, into the relationships between Canada’s French and English language groups, with the aim of a genuine partnership of the two cultures.

Pearson’s Liberals had made the B and B commission, as it quickly became known, part of their package of promises in the election campaign earlier that year. They were delivering on their pledge quickly, because the Quiet Revolution in Quebec seemed to be moving influential francophones from demanding that they be masters in their part of the Canadian house towards wanting a house – a nation – all to themselves.

The commission’s preliminary report, issued in 1965, labeled Canada as a country in trouble, in the midst of its greatest crisis. Pearson agreed. “I wanted people to be shocked,” the prime minister said, “and they were. Some Canadians realized for the first time that there were differences serious enough to destroy our country if no remedial action were taken.”

Some did and some did not. The B and B exercise was enormously controversial. Wasn’t it really an excuse to give special status to Quebec? Was Canada simply the sum of its French and English cultures? What of Canada’s other ethnicities, constituting almost a quarter of the population, groups added to the B and B’s terms of reference only as an afterthought?

The B and B met a marked hostility as it went about the country. Francophone nationalists angrily went on the attack, while many anglophones (a word popularized by the commission) outside Quebec wondered what all the shouting was about. In acting as if there were a crisis, wasn’t a crisis being created? F. R. Scott, a commission member and a noted scholar and poet, scribbled a few lines as he observed the B and B’s unpopularity: “How doth the busy B. and B./ Enlarge each whining hour,/ By hearing griefs from sea to sea/ And turning sweet to sour.”

Brilliant and driven, wreathed in cigarette smoke, Laurendeau was the commission’s leader. The respected editor of Le Devoir, a towering figure in the Quebec nationalist movement, had to endure the condescension and disappointment of those at home who claimed he had sold out the cause. The ignorance and prejudice he discovered in English Canada meanwhile troubled him and caused “real inner urges toward separatism.”

Yet Laurendeau was never an advocate of Quebec’s independence. He was determined to find ways in which the two peoples could continue to co-exist. He wanted that for Quebec, but for Canada too.

The B and B lost its momentum after the preliminary report. Theirs was a huge job, enough for many royal commissions; an ambitious program of research inevitably took time. The cost became the subject of much criticism. It took eight years to finish the task.

In 1968 Pierre Trudeau became prime minister, and Laurendeau died tragically at almost precisely the same moment. Trudeau was no admirer of the B and B, and certainly not of Laurendeau’s notion that the commission ought to look into major structural changes in the way the country did business.

The B and B nevertheless had an important impact. Following directly on the commission’s recommendations, the 1969 Official Languages Act gave English and French the same standing in all national institutions, New Brunswick chose to become a bilingual province and Ottawa instituted grants to the provinces for minority language public schools. In the federal government and the military, French ceased to be an irrelevancy.

The dream of a bicultural Canada was displaced by multiculturalism, which the Trudeau government transformed into official policy in 1971. But bilingualism took firm root. A recent study by the Centre for Research and Information on Canada demonstrates solid public support for the idea, and in all parts of the country.

The vision of an equal partnership that animated the B and B was larger and more generous than the quarrelling country it sought to keep together. No one could doubt, though, that the commission had changed Canada forever.

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About Norman Hillmer

Norman Hillmer is Professor of History and International Affairs at Carleton University.

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