Le Francais dans les Airs: Digitizing a Legacy

By: Sandford BorinsA message left by a voice from the past: Jean-Luc Patenaude, a former Quebec air traffic controller whom I'd interviewed for Le Francais dans les Airs, my history of the bilingual air traffic control conflict, was calling to say that he would be appearing on the popular Radio-Canada television program “Tout le Monde en Parlait.”For those not familiar with the historical background, here it is in brief. In the early 1970's francophone pilots and controllers in Quebec began introducing French into an air traffic control system that used only English. Anglophone pilots and controllers resisted, claiming that adding a second language would reduce safety.The Trudeau government, however, supported the francophones. The anglophone pilots and controllers, drawing on public dissatisfaction in English Canada with Trudeau's bilingualism policies, launched a wildcat walkout bringing all air traffic in Canada to a halt in late June 1976, two weeks before the start of the Montreal Olympics.To end the walkout, the Trudeau government agreed to appoint a judicial commission of inquiry to determine if bilingual air traffic control was indeed safe. Francophone anger at this agreement contributed mightily to the election of the Parti Quebecois in Quebec five months later.Ultimately, the commission of inquiry endorsed the government's position, and bilingual air traffic control was implemented in Quebec in 1979.Besides telling me about the program revisiting the conflict, Patenaude asked how he could get copies of Le Francais dans les Airs for his colleagues. The question made me wince. Shortly after Le Francais dans les Airs (the French translation of The Language of the Skies) was published in 1983, the publisher went bankrupt.I acquired all remaining copies from the receiver and distributed most to Quebec libraries and the francophone members of the Institute of Public Administration of Canada, which had been a partner in the original publication. I had several dozen copies in my basement, and sent most to Jean-Luc.This led me to consider digitizing the entire book and making it freely available. The easiest way to do that is as part of Google's ambitious project to digitize all human knowledge.So I sent a copy to Google and I specified that the entire book would be viewable. Go to, search on Sandford Borins, and click on “Full view”and it is there to download or read online in full or in part.Putting it online led me to reflect on four themes: contested narratives, evidence-based policy making, innovative public servants, and preserving a legacy.The book is about a contested narrative.For sovereigntists, the narrative is of one of the many humiliations of Canadian federalism because of the English Canadian opposition to the use of French in Quebec airspace. For federalists – and this is the story I told – it is one of an ultimately successful accommodation of francophone distinctiveness within a federal state.The two conflicting narratives, however, are not mutually exclusive. Certainly francophones, including powerful ministers in Pierre Trudeau's cabinet such as Marc Lalonde and Jean Marchand, felt humiliated by the concessions they had to make to convince the pilots and controllers to end their walkout.But the solution to the problem, providing air traffic control in either official language in Quebec, was fully implemented three short years later.The implementation itself is a clear instance of what we would now call evidence-based policy-making. In preparing to make its case to the judicial commission of inquiry, Transport Canada developed a simulation of air traffic control operations, using real controllers and pilots, and compared bilingual and unilingual operations under every imaginable condition (such as thunderstorms on a peak travel day).The resounding conclusion that emerged from the data was that the bilingual system was just as safe and efficient as the unilingual system.The impetus for bilingual air traffic control in Quebec came from innovative public servants – francophone controllers like Jean-Luc Patenaude who believed that safety would be enhanced if pilots whose mother tongue was French were served in French and who therefore informally started using French.The French version of my book came about because the then head of the Canadian Air Transportation Administration, Walter McLeish, wanted it translated. He made the translation happen by assigning it to the department's translation service, which produced it at no cost to either me or the publisher.Translating scholarly books was not part of Transport Canada's mandate narrowly defined. My sense – and I'll never know, because McLeish passed away a few years ago – is that McLeish did this because he thought it was the right thing to do and he didn't seek permission from his minister, deputy minister, or Treasury Board.When interviewing the participants in the conflict, many said that they wanted to write a book about it. But writing your first book in your spare time isn't easy; in essence, I was writing their book and preserving their legacy.(The only participant to have written about it was then Commissioner of Official Languages Keith Spicer who gave it a chapter of his 2004 book Life Sentences: Memoirs of an Incorrigible Canadian. Spicer asked me to comment on a draft and frequently referenced my book.)Much, perhaps most, of what is posted on the Internet is transient, but it is also a place for enduring knowledge. Having Le Francais dans les Airs digitized and posted online is my attempt to make sure the authoritative history of this important episode of Canadian linguistic conflict and reconciliation, and part of my own scholarly legacy, is widely and permanently available.To view this blog in French, please click here.

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