On the 40th anniversary of the Official Languages Act, host Stuart McLean of CBC Radio 1’s Vinyl Café decided to pay public tribute to the federal legislators of 40 years ago.

 

Remembering the controversy surrounding the Act, and other equally contentious pieces of legislation such as the adoption of a new Canadian flag or the abolition of the death penalty, McLean told his audience: “It was the courage of those Parliaments and the politicians who were in the House at that time that gave me my great respect for the idea of public service and for those who put themselves forward for public service.”

 

“It was something I feel,” says McLean of his broadcast piece, “it should be said more often. Public service people who take a stand for something are not given enough respect. We’ve been so well served by our public service.”

 

“I remember the anger in English Canada against official bilingualism in Canada,” he says of the political and legislative debates of the late 1960s.”


In McLean’s 1992 book about small town Canada, Welcome Home, English and French Canada don’t always seem to know much about each other. One example is the Quebecer who has never heard of French Immersion. I ask McLean, who travels across Canada for the Vinyl Café: Have things improved since then?


“I suspect that Canadians are more tolerant, more accepting of each other,” he replies, “but it’s time for us to go the next step.”


As he put it in his broadcast, “We haven’t been successful with our sense of each other. We have been tolerant and ... accommodating, too, but we haven’t said that they are also us. We haven’t embraced the most fundamental truth about us: that they are us, and we are them.” It’s the old Martin Buber idea, “I am thou,” he tells me.


McLean grew up in the very English-speaking suburb of West Montréal.


“I learned the basics of French at school, but it’s when I spent the summer working on a construction site where I was the only Anglo within 50 miles that, for the first time, I understood what it meant to communicate in another language.”


Looking back on that experience, he says: “I think I learned not to be shy — I could make errors, be inarticulate. I learned that I could communicate with my high school French.”


As an artist who works exclusively in English, McLean realizes that his “work requires a Francophone to make the leap into English,” even if the Vinyl Café has presented Francophone performers like 3 gars su’l sofa, Les Batinses, Pierre Lapointe, Ariane Moffatt, Daniel Grenier, and Amélie Lefebvre to enthusiastic audiences across the country. As a citizen, McLean feels that one should be reading Quebec literature, listening to their music and watching their films. “I listen to a fair bit of Quebec music,” he says.


“The last thing I listened to was probably my all-time favourite Québécois CD from the 1970s, Harmonium’s magnificent Si on avait besoin d’une cinquième saison. We should all be involved in each other's culture."