- Hardcover: 376 pages
- Publisher: McClelland & Stewart; Canadian First edition (Oct. 19 2004)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0771082223
- ISBN-13: 978-0771082221
- Product Dimensions: 16 x 3 x 23.5 cm
- Shipping Weight: 680 g
- Average Customer Review: 1 customer review
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,264,534 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Life Sentences: Memoirs of an Incorrigible Canadian Hardcover – Oct 19 2004
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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Aptly enough, my new crusadeonatightrope began on April Fool’s Day. The sky was grey, I was green, and the country was purple with fury and frustration at this whole explosive, “divisive” business of official languages. On that crisp spring morning of 1970, a faint smell of cordite wafted through the Ottawa air. I sensed I was walking into the job I was born for – well, maybe condemned to. A sublime intersection of passion and opportunity, it was both terrifying and exhilarating. The stakes were enormous. I had an extraordinary chance to advance the great reconciliation at the heart of Canada’s nationhood – just as I had long imagined it, at a time of crisis.
Asked to raise hell for a cause I deeply believed in; paid to take on extremists and to harry toward reform powerful politicians and bureaucrats; handed carte blanche to define and incarnate an unprecedented post as parliamentary ombudsman. Such fun should have been illegal. Before I got far into the job, a few people agreed.
A little over three weeks earlier, on March 4, 1970, two days before I turned thirtysix, Pierre Trudeau had named me Canada’s first Commissioner of Official Languages. The risk of being the last one was plain my first morning. I wasn’t sure then if I’d leave by reason of scandal, ulcers, impeachment, or assassination. The early signs did not, as the Marxists used to say, augur singing tomorrows. Or even, I briefly thought that first morning, hint at any tomorrow at all.
I had just settled into a nondescript office in the Berger Building, a glass box on the corner of Ottawa’s Metcalfe Street and Laurier Avenue. It was a classic orangecrate situation: a desk, a chair, a secretary, and nobody who knew how to order pencils. All I had was a copy of the Official Languages Act, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and, as I strolled into the firestorm, a calm sense of coming home to myself.
Just before lunch, my mintfresh career looked as if it could be brief. A short, shifty-eyed little man of about twentyfive burst into my office, swivelled a hunched back away from me, fidgeted in his briefcase, then whirled around to point at my chest a… writ. He was a bailiff. And I was a man relieved that my assassin’s weapon was loaded only with legal clichés, his intent mere constitutional oblivion.
I signed for the paper, thanked him, and read. It alleged that Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Secretary of State Gérard Pelletier, and your humble servant had conspired to foist an unconstitutional act of legislation upon the Canadian people. The writ’s author: retired Supreme Court Justice Joseph T. Thorson, a gutsy Methuselah of Icelandic background who had been conducting a furious public campaign against the new Official Languages Act. Ironically, Thorson’s son, Donald S. Thorson, then Justice Minister John Turner’s associate deputy minister, had supervised its drafting. The previous July, all four parties in the House of Commons had adopted it, with only sixteen John Diefenbaker–led Tories against and a few diplomatic absences. The Act made the English and French languages equal in “status, rights, and privileges” throughout all federal departments and agencies – over 180 of them.
This was a revolution. For the first time, within reasonable limits, Canada’s federal government would serve French-speaking Canadians in the language it taxed them in. By implication, it would also guarantee that, at least part of the time, they could work for their government in the language they were more productive in.
For many English-speaking Canadians, the Act seemed an outrage against common sense and – the same thing? – their established power; for most Québécois, it was belated tokenism; for most “ethnic” Canadians, of neither English nor French stock, a marginalizing insult; and for native Canadians, a pathetic joke on their twenty or thirty millennia of history. All these constituencies were screaming anger, dismay, and/or cynicism. And I, the lucky guy holding the Act’s key job as defender, promoter, and mediator of language reform, immediately became the lightning rod for them all.
Canada’s media, with a few exceptions, ricocheted between the profoundly superficial and the superficially profound. They slammed and sloganeered; they singed acres of newsprint with inflammatory headlines; they attacked and ridiculed the new Act. Many English media distorted its implications as unspeakable injustices – not for linguistically unserved Frenchspeakers, of course, but for anglophones holding nearly all the juicy jobs. Some opponents of reform claimed the Act would bankrupt Canada. And, with brilliant inconsequence, they argued the Act was unnecessary and unworkable, yet dangerous and unfair to God’s favourite folk, English Canadians.
The French media, in assessing the new Act’s purpose, also displayed contradictory reactions. Some days, they sneered that the Act was a futile hypocrisy, doomed to irrelevance as a cynical federal ploy to derail the indépendantiste locomotive. On others, they screamed for the new commissioner to play Dracula, to drain the blood of every Anglo civil servant who had ever mocked or refused a French Canadian. Then, as reform began, the Quebec nationalist media ignored any hint of progress for linguistic equality. To convince audiences that reform was hopeless, they preferred to blow up isolated incidents of neglected French rights. Anecdotes became policy.
English media also fanned the paranoia. A routine approach: lunge for the ludicrous, laser in on the trivial and/or hateful. Ignoring sensible or civilized reactions to language reform, some editors egged on their troops to highlight the ravings of any bigot, wacko, or congenital hater they could dredge up. Two of the most mindless slogans the media made famous: “They’re forcing French down my throat” and “I don’t want French on my cornflakes box.”*
My good friend columnist Allan Fotheringham, a master at coining cheeky nicknames, tagged me “Commissioner of Cornflakes.” I loved that moniker, and milked it regularly to loosen up hostile audiences – the only kind I met for a long time. Foth, in his witty way, was a faithful backer of language reform, though his main effort at mastering French focused on the menus of gourmet French restaurants. He and I became friends after he heard me answer the quintessentially Canadian question from that Scottish charmer of the Vancouver airwaves, Jack Webster. “So how much money are we paying you, Spicer?” growled Webster. “Oh, about a quarter of what this radio station is paying you to sell dog food,” I replied. A great sport, Jack invited me back that very evening for his second daily show, and we too became longstanding pals.