Promoting language rights (1 of 2)

This blog post is brought to you by our guest blogger and new employee Yves-Gérard Méhou-Loko, who is one of our three Project Managers as well as responsible for community liaison. This is his summary, part one of two, of the conference of the International Association of Language Commissioners which took place in Ottawa on May 20-21.

The room on the 12th floor of the University of Ottawa’s Desmarais Building is packed. Around me, I hear all kinds of unfamiliar languages and sounds. A conversation in Inuktitut in front of me (I will find out later that it’s preferable to use the term Inuit to refer to the language spoken by the inhabitants of Canada’s North), Acadian jokes, a Swiss official who switches effortlessly from French to German and then to English while chatting with her Belgian counterpart, and Kosovars who tell me in English how war has torn their country apart. A perfect setting for a conference of the International Association of Language Commissioners held in a country that has two official languages and a unilingual capital.

People from around the world with common challenges. Very quickly, in conversations over coffee, it becomes clear to all of us that the challenges involved in protecting languages are the same everywhere, barring a few minor details.

For example, the noble intentions announced by governments when they establish commissioners’ and ombudsmen’s offices are not always reflected in concrete actions. The host of the conference, Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada Graham Fraser, made this clear in his opening remarks when he pointed out that these institutions must often show a lot of diplomacy or, as Professor Colin Williams of the University of Cardiff put it later, commissioners and ombudsmen must be experts at “massaging egos”.

Collaboration rather than confrontation
Commissioner Boileau himself noted in the very first panel discussion that certain practices should be avoided, because they can “irritate” the machinery of government. He pointed out that to achieve effective results, a commissioner has no choice but to work hand in hand with the government. He emphasized the patience that a language commissioner or ombudsman must have. Like François Boileau, the Commissioner of Official Languages for New Brunswick, Katherine d’Entremont, recognizes the sensitivities associated with publishing commissioners’ recommendations. She pointed out in her speech that making punitive recommendations merely stigmatizes relations with governments. Another important point, according to the French Language Services Commissioner of Ontario, is to present recommendations that have a specific timeline attached to them. The commissioners also agreed on the need to state clear objectives so as to avoid any kind of ambiguity. Government representatives also shared this view. Marc Tremblay, Executive Director, Official Languages Centre of Excellence, Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, remarked that the clarity of recommendations was of the utmost importance and that the commissioner or ombudsman must provide the government with some latitude in the timeline so that it can make advance preparations. Similar points were made by Kelly Burke, Assistant Deputy Minister, Office of Francophone Affairs of Ontario, who views cooperation and trust between the government and the commissioner’s office as prerequisites for the protection of language rights.

Welsh Language Commissioner Meri Huws echoed her counterparts’ statements, but noted that despite the need to work with the government, commissioners and ombudsmen must avoid being too accommodating in order to maintain their credibility with the public. In his wrap-up, conference rapporteur Colin Williams reminded the commissioners of the importance of knowing their duties and exercising their powers.

This conference of the International Association of Language Commissioners was also an opportunity to reflect on the conflicts associated with language. In his speech, Pär Stenbäck, a former education minister of Finland, argued that languages very quickly become an instrument of domination that reflects the will of the colonizing power or the victorious side in a conflict to impose its language on the minority. So the absence of language rights can also be a pretext for military intervention. According to Mr. Stenbäck, since no country in the world is unilingual, it is crucial to establish institutional structures to prevent the extinction of minorities and thereby ensure social peace.

Read part 2 of 2.

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