Everyone has a role to play

Robert Whalen remains an ardent advocate of "dialogue"

If anyone understands the sensitivities surrounding linguistic duality that can, when the conditions are ripe, arise, it’s Robert Whalen, an academic, educator, author and community organiser who has inspired a generation of French- and English-speaking New Brunswickers.

Born in Boiestown, and educated in Fredericton at the University of New Brunswick and, subsequently, in Paris at the Sorbonne, where he pursued graduate studies in the French language and literature, he became the chairperson of UNB’s Department of French for about a decade.

But it was his role as chairman of some of the public meetings associated with the Poirier-Bastarache Report (also known as the Report of the Task Force on Official Languages) in the 1980s that was, he says, one of the biggest “eye-openers” in his long career. “This was one of several efforts of the government at the time to define and implement official bilingualism,” he says. “In reality, this report’s recommendations did not result in direct political action. But it was interesting for me to chair the public meetings on it, held in Saint John, Fredericton, Miramichi, St. Andrews. The public reaction was a real education. Many people who heard the task force’s recommendations did not have much appreciation or understanding of the issues and of the degree of social change it implied.”

In 2012, Dialogue New Brunswick presented the Lieutenant-Governor's Dialogue Award to Robert Whalen.  As one of his supporters eloquently testified, “In his tireless and inspired life-long devotion to bridging the gap between our  ʻtwo solitudesʼ, Professor Whalen clearly embodies an honourable citizen, one who exemplifies unwavering service, leadership and commitment to both his province and his country.”

Indeed, Whalen was an early promoter and driving force behind the English Language Program (ELP), established at UNB in 1950. Now in its 62nd year, ELP specialises in English second language instruction to students from around the world, though it continues to attract most of its students from the Province of Quebec.

Within learned societies and other professional circles across Canada, he has been a forceful promoter of Acadian and French Canadian literature, stimulating dialogue among experts within English language and French language university centres. In the mid-1960s, he served as a contributing researcher with the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism.

As for the present and the future, Whalen is resolute: “In forging New Brunswick’s official languages legislation, you have to respect opposing viewpoints while clarifying your own arguments so as to ensure that your stand on the issues is clear. So, for me, the principles that organisers, such as Dialogue New Brunswick, put forth are the best guarantees we have to achieve an effective, just and harmonious society.”

This feature is a copyright (2013) of Dialogue New Brunswick, which promotes and celebrates understanding, respect, appreciation and inclusion among the Francophone and Anglophone cultures of New Brunswick.


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