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The Universities: Strongholds of the Two Cultures

By Msgr. Irénée Lussier, P.D., rector of the University of Montreal
Published February 1965

Let us acknowledge that there is tension, a profound mal­aise, between the two principal ethnic groups of the country. This tension is not lessened by focussing on mis­understandings, which may originate on either side; cer­tainly not by exaggerating them, as is sometimes done. Passion seldom results in rational behaviour, and certainly not in this case, because it is not the passion for peace which is abroad. Under a magnifying glass, flies become dragons.

Faced with this mood, this strained situation, what must we do, we who are gathered together in our capacity as members of the university community? First of all, is this a problem for us? Have our institutions of higher learning, as such, any special responsibility in this matter? And what of us as individuals engaged in higher education? What do we think? What have we done? What do we plan to do?

Is it not a clear sign of deficiency at the highest level of education that just because I am speaking to you in French I am running the risk of being imperfectly understood? This is so in spite of the fact that I am addressing a dis­tinguished group of learned men.

I grant that our Association, the Conference of Uni­versities, has for some time been taking definite steps in the right direction, that is toward effective recognition of biculturalism, and our Executive Director is to be com­mended for it. This fine beginning by our office does not relieve me of the necessity of asking your indulgence when I speak in French. I know I am asking of you a special effort and I feel embarrassed on that account. For your part, you must realize that overcoming this embarrassment re­quires a real effort from me too.

Supposing I am mistaken and that there is no need for special effort here, is it not probable that in other circles, even academic, I would be considered bold and would be permitted to continue in French only as a favour to me rather than from any conviction that I was exercising a right?

My purpose is to stimulate collective thinking. And as we proceed my intent will become clear.

To appreciate the problem, each of us must see it from the other’s point of view. The effort I am now asking of you is one I am prepared to make myself when the occasion arises.

It seems clear to me:

  1. that there is an extraordinary lack of communication between the two groups;
  2. that valid, objective information about the two groups, and especially about relations between them, is deplorably scant.

Thus we are faced with a problem of communication and a problem of information.

To be persuaded of the existence of the first problem, one has only to think of what has been written about the “two solitudes”. If there are faults they are not attributable to one side alone. I know a businessman motivated by the best of intentions who, on coming from Toronto to settle in Montreal, was looking forward with pleasure to being able to meet people of French background. It was two years before he began to develop truly friendly contacts with French-speaking families. In other words, opportu­nities to meet men of good will are hard to come by.

Another example of the solitudes: even today it is pos­sible for a child brought up in Westmount, a community in the second-largest French city in the world, to reach the age of twelve actually believing that he lives in a hundred per cent English-speaking city.

With regard to the problem of information, the Lau­rendeau-Dunton Commission is hampered by the scarcity of pertinent information and has had to commission its own special studies.

Let us now tackle these two problems in turn.


Leaving aside charges of lack of objectivity, of the slanting of news and of the interrogations to which we have been subjected, I do not wish to put others on trial, but simply to put questions to ourselves. What should be the nature of this communication?

The universities are the strongholds of the two cultures ( at least they ought to be). Is there among them, as uni­versities, truly operative, easy communication leading to mutual enrichment, communication which fosters close relationships, and by close relationships, respect, nay, con­sideration of “the other person”, that other person who presents to me a precious and sought-after asset, his cul­ture, an asset I wish to add to my own, an asset I recognize as a factor in my own cultural development?

In this area there have been some (all too few) indi­cations of favourable attitudes. Several projects under con­sideration are aimed at organized communication, in the hope of mutual enrichment.

There are also, here and there, study groups on French Canada. We welcome them but we do not think that is the way to bring about true communication. We wish that such studies should view French Canada as part of a common heritage rather than as a somewhat distant object of inter­est, outside one’s own frame of reference, imposed by po­litical necessity, a burden to be gladly shaken off … or treated as if it were a museum piece.

If the institutions, as such, have nothing to offer but random impulses, are the people involved, professors and administrators, doing any better? Each of them is a leading representative of his own culture; who is more capable of understanding the other culture? Admittedly, there are true friendships between academic men of the two cultures; are they sufficiently numerous to constitute a climate of friendship?

As members of the university community, have we taken the trouble to communicate with the public we can reach? Limited as this public may be, it is composed of in­fluential people. I know of several successful projects but I doubt that they are numerous enough to be effective on a national scale.

What is the cause of this deficiency? The explanation I offer is not flattering, but I must be frank in saying what I think. Genuine communication, which etymologically means “union with”, assumes at least these two factors:

1) understanding on the language level;
2) real interest in the other person. Psychologically speaking, genuine interest is not found on the level of in­telligence alone; there has to be feeling as well, construc­tive feeling in this case -not only that of fear which makes one defensive, but that of desire for a real asset sought for oneself and for one’s personal enrichment (the other benefits being far from negligible but accruing as by-products).

Let us pause over these two factors: language and interest.

Language. There are, in several quarters, indications of good intent. But are we, educated people in general, on the way to becoming truly bilingual? Let us be more spe­cific and more direct: have university people set an ex­ample? In fact, are they morn bilingual than the rest of the population? If we take into account their level of edu­cation, in proportion to their numbers the answer, I be­lieve, must be negative.
More than that. Few English-speaking Canadians have learned French because they have seen little necessity to do so, and this is disturbing to university people. For their part, French-speaking Canadians have learned English above all because they had to, which is an inadequate motivation for academics. How many among us and all our colleagues have mastered the other tongue for purely cultural reasons, from a desire to fathom the soul of the other person, to live with it, in communion with its rich traditions? Please note that I do not consider myself free from blame in this regard.

That is the cultural aspect of the question.

With respect to this cultural aspect, is it necessary to mention one’s duty as a citizen of a bicultural country? When we realize where we stand we almost begin to won­der what our concept of culture is. This is not the place to analyze the legal definition of “bicultural nation”; rather it is an occasion for accepting a fact of Canadian life. No matter what the law of the past has been, we are con­cerned with the law of the future which we must apply to the facts and, when the time comes, embody in the written law.

What must be done now?

  • Can we not make more exacting linguistic requirements as a condition of granting higher degrees?
  • At the undergraduate level, is it beyond our compe­tence to require really good instruction in the other lang­uage and, consequently, a respectable level of mastery of that language?
  • Have we paid enough attention to the training of lang­uage teachers for secondary schools? In that respect there is an obvious deficiency to correct.
  • Have we done all we can to step up the teaching of languages to adults?

The spirit in which all this is done is more important than what is done. If one among you, placed in a responsible position, can answer “yes” to any one of the questions posed, let him not be smug, for all four questions must be answered satisfactorily. Only if they are can we feel that we have done our best in demonstrating our love of Ca­nada.

To throw the fullest light on the current situation, I must mention the strange paradox which exists. Until re­cently, English-language universities often turned up their noses at French-Canadians for the teaching of French, be­cause they did not speak “Parisian French” (I shall not pause to discuss this gross error). Today these same uni­versities are seeking French-Canadian teachers, but few respond to the invitations, partly, probably, because they are sensitive to the negative attitudes which were prevalem not so long ago. Results on the practical level of communi­cation are thus no better than before. Must we accept this situation? No! Let us study it and find a way out of it.

What have academics done individually? Have they learned the other language? What do we see at meetings of the learned societies if not a unilingualism which offends the intelligence and feelings of national pride of a con­siderable proportion of the participants? There are many marginal references to the existence of the other group, but the other group is never regarded as part of the main group. If there were no “other group”, what difference would it make? Is it a dream, or are there actually whisper­ings of “so much the better … “?

Is it easy to arrange for the exchange of professors, so necessary, from Halifax to Vancouver, among all universities, language being only a secondary factor in a country effectively bilingual, especially at the level oi higher education?

Because it is not, are we not forced to admit that con­tacts among intellectuals are weak and that lack of understanding at the language level impedes understanding at other levels? This being so, can it fail to result in a certain amount of bitterness on the part of members of the French-speaking community who feel tempted to withdraw into their own group, a danger to our country which is not by ­any means negligible at the present time? How can certain professors express competent opinions on the problems of Canada, on the relations between the cultures, etc., when ­they are not even able to enter into direct contact with one of those cultures?

And if there is a linguistic barrier, how are we to get rid of basic misunderstandings about such fundamental concepts as “nation”, “culture”, “state” – misunderstand­ings which, to a large extent, have a semantic base?

The lack of communication is explained, we have said, on one hand by insufficient mastery of the other person’s language, and on the other by the nature of the interest expressed in the other group.

Interest. Formerly, English-Canadians took little interest in the other group. Today that situation is beginning to change, but there are French-Canadians, especially in Quebec, who are becoming terribly egocentric.

English-speaking Canadians were already to some extent aware that the French-language group had its own liter­ature, theatre, art, etc. They are now astonished to learn that French-Canadians are also interested in economics and technology.

As for the French-Canadians, they have been well aware for a long time of the emphasis on economics and tech­nology in English Canada. But they have still to discover, perhaps, that the other group also has a culture worth knowing – a literature, an artistic life worth the trouble of looking into.

Is it not true to say that our perception of one another, even at a high educational level, has consisted largely of clich6s? Is this not a reason for creating organizations for mutual intellectual enrichment, especially at the university level? I have mentioned good intentions, impulses of the right sort, elsewhere in this address. But more is needed. Let us get to the point of action while there is still time, for the future is not reassuring. Attitudes are in fact deterior­ating, at least among French-Canadians. To be convinced of this, one has only to compare the younger generation with the older, one has only to compare the attitudes of students with those of their professors. On the French­Canadian side people are less and less interested in what the other side is thinking, indeed less and less interested in the other side. Meanwhile, the other side at last is taking an interest in the French-Canadian world. Will there be any meeting ground when one side draws back as the other advances? Consider the break-up of the Canadian Union of Students. And you are not unaware, I am sure, of the pressures to which the Canadian Association of University Teachers is being subjected. There is much cause for sober thought.

What conclusions have we reached under the heading of communication with its two components, language and interest? I suggest for your consideration:

  • that communication is a necessary condition of the sur­vival of our Canada;
  • that this communication must begin at the top, i.e. at the university level;
  • that tolerance is not enough; it is resented as if it were the same as contempt. We must arrive at understanding, based on real interest;
  • that all this discussion will be in vain unless each of us of the present generation is prepared to pay the price of this communication; for the next generation the opportune moment will have passed. Voluntarily and immediately we must stir ourselves in order to build a better world in our cherished Canada and not to have to rebuild after clashes which would make it necessary to start all over again.

So much for communication.


Assuming that we wish to know each other better, we are faced with a new difficulty: it is that the other scarcely knows himself. The obvious under-development of the social sciences by comparison with the exact or natural sciences gives rise to a special problem in this country: few studies have been made of the characteristics of the two groups, and even fewer on the relationships between them.

Here we are revealing an enormous gap in our univers­ity programmes.

There has been little work done in this field, especially worthwhile, objective work: French-Canadians have con­centrated on the defence of their way of life; English­-Canadians on folklore.

We lack studies which are at one and the same time ob­jective, unemotional, rigorous, comprehensive, based on sufficiently wide-ranging comparative data.

Therein lies one of the heaviest responsibilities of our universities. We must think about it in terms of long-term financial support.

It might well be pointed out that it is not merely a question of work bearing strictly on the other culture; what is necessary also is to integrate the point of view of the other culture in the teaching of many disciplines, e.g. political science, sociology, etc., not to mention history …

In the face of this immense task there is one encourag­ing sign: universities and members of their staffs have given a warm reception to the appeals of the Laurendeau-­Dunton Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Bicultur­alism.

Are we going to stand idly by and see Canada end up as a tower of Babel? It is not enough to look back and deplore, however sincerely, what has happened and not do anything else; and even less to say, as is sometimes said, “If the English way had been imposed at the conquest, we would not have these problems today.” Those who speak in that fashion give a special meaning to the words of the Gospel, “The poor you have always with you.” Such people do not deserve our attention. We believe there is more historical truth in the contention that it was the loyalty of the French­-Canadians which made the United Empire Loyalists from the other side of the 45th parallel feel at home here. Why make the French-Canadians wonder whether they made a mistake then?

In a world which is becoming one, in which languages are spreading to the point where soon each of us will have to be able to speak three or four, in which the races are learning to live together (not without difficulty, I admit), in such a world are we Canadians about to be lost, left behind?

Must we in Canada give to the word “culture” a defi­nition which denies the notion of open-mindedness, of receptivity, of communication, of the desire to share the intellectual and spiritual riches of others? Are we for­getting that in the world of the spirit, all sharing results in increase, in multiplication, not in division? Could that happen in Canada where exchanges are within our reach? Unthinkable!

Is there any need to specify that there would be no question of biculturalism in the sense ( if it makes any sense!) of the synthesis of the cultures? It is a matter of understanding and communication between two cultures each developing in its own way. And the other ethnic groups of which Canada is made up? Note that I have not touched on the political aspects of biculturalism. (I would refer you to Faribault’s statement, in Fredericton.) We French-Canadians will never admit that our rights can be compared with those that could be claimed for the many ethnic groups, other than the French and the English, in Canada. That does not prevent French-Canadians from being considerate of such groups, from expressing sincere admiration for them, or from hoping that they may pre­serve their identity to the maximum extent possible in order to make us the richer by their cultural contribution. It is illogical to think that this would be more likely in a political environment where diversity is written into the law in favour of a strong minority, thus giving strength to weaker minorities!

A leadership role to play

In all fields the universities have a leadership role to play. At the present time nothing is more important than pro­moting harmony between the two cultures of Canada. Let us concentrate on changing the general situation rather than on any particular project. What is needed is a change of attitude -in a new, calm, healthy atmosphere the teaching of French, exchanges of professors, adult edu­cation, the training of language teachers, all of these will have a chance to flourish and to bear fruit, the fruit of peace, neighbourhood, mutual admiration and cultural de­velopment.

Let us see whether we can profit by certain especially fortunate circumstances: I am thinking of the bilingual universities, of affiliated colleges, of different universities which are close to one another. We have not been very skilful so far in taking advantage of such circumstances. But they ought to help in the making of dynamic human contacts, so necessary in the present situation.
As universities and members of the academic commun­ity, we already bear a large share of the responsibility for the present misunderstandings and tension. If things were to get worse, or even become hopeless, our responsibility would be overwhelming.
But we are all men of good will. And we love Canada dearly. May the achievement of peace be our memorial!