“Canada’s diversity is our strength,” said Justin Trudeau in 2015. His statement marked the 45th anniversary of the Official Languages Act–a policy ratified by his late father Pierre Trudeau–that gave the English and the French equal status in the government of Canada.
For many Canadians, bilingualism is more than just a civic duty or the means to a coveted government job. It is what keeps them connected and serves as a unique bridge between cultures and worldviews. However, in a country as large and varied as Canada, the framework of official bilingualism is insufficient from a practical standpoint and, arguably, at odds with Canada’s self-image as a ‘mosaic’ of cultures and languages. In particular, the continued dominance of English and French as the ‘founding races’ of Canada not only tends to marginalize other groups and languages within Canada, but also presents an image of Canada, to itself and to the world, that does not reflect the changing demographical and linguistic complexity of the country.
Canada’s Language Wars
Ever since New France became a colony of Britain in 1759, francophones in what is now the province of Quebec have fought to keep their language alive. Beginning with the nation’s first constitution, the Constitution Act of 1867, French-speaking citizens were given significant language rights, including a clause establishing English and French as the official languages of the Canadian Parliament and courts. While francophones had been granted substantial language and cultural rights through the ratification of the constitution, they still faced several challenges in their home province. The fact than the anglophone minority controlled the most elite positions in Quebec business and industry worried the French, and so in the 1960s they strived for reform in a period that is presently known as Quebec’s Quiet Revolution. The separatist movement created the first provincial department of Cultural Affairs, nationalized private hydroelectric plants, and opted out of federal government programs including the Canada Pension Plan. For the first time, the issue of French cultural and language politics was brought to the forefront of Canadian politics, and those supporting a united Canada faced the issue of accommodating this diverse and unique linguistic cultural group in the nation.
By the end of the decade, in 1969, the Official Languages Act, which declared both French and English to be the official languages of Canada, was ratified. Over the next thirty years, the act was amended to better incorporate bilingualism into the country through mandatory requirements for citizens seeking hiring in the federal public service, second language instruction and immersion in public education, and bilingual consumer packaging. These buffers have, for the most part helped maintain bilingualism in the nation; however, according to a linguistic breakdown of Canadians published by Statistics Canada, a government agency, the francophone population has been unable to weather the erosion of the English tide.
The number of Canadians proficient in both French and English is relatively small–17.5 percent of the population. That number, however, only accounts for conversational bilingual residents and not the number of people who can meet the government’s more demanding language standards. Moreover, reports of shunning and punishing English speakers and users are vast and varied. In 2012, a French-speaking paramedic refused to interact with an English-speaking man whilst treating his convulsing toddler. Furthermore, inspectors from L’Office Québécois de la Langue Française–the Quebec French language office (or defacto language police)–frequently fine shop owners who do not have French signs that are at least three times as large as their English counterparts. Tensions are running high in a province that previously seemed to have struck a linguistic peace of sorts in the early 20th century. Official and equal bilingualism is simply not working.
A Tale of Two Trudeaus
Outside of the conflicts between the anglophone and francophone communities, the onerous dual language requirement overlooks those who speak a language other than English or French at home. The federal government has over half a million employees subject to English-French bilingual requirements and with numbers dwindling, attracting millennials is not just a goal but a necessity. Canada welcomes more than 250,000 immigrants a year, many of whom are well educated and have substantial vocational skills. Yet the immigrants from China, India, and the Philippines, which constitute the top immigrant-supplying countries in Canada, do not speak French and are thus discouraged from even applying to federal government positions.
Justin Trudeau’s liberal government prides itself on being forward-thinking and sympathetic to the needs of minorities, but government language policies don’t reflect those values. Perhaps the Official Languages Act made sense in 1969 when Pierre Trudeau enacted it, but Justin Trudeau does not live in his father’s Canada. The country has changed considerably since then and continues to do so every year as it admits more and more immigrants from countries that have neither English nor French as their mother tongue. If the government wants to position the public service for the challenges of decades ahead, it would do well to focus on the future, not the past. As Canada becomes more multinational, the government will need more public servants with diverse cultural and language understanding–a goal they will not achieve with current hiring practices.
“O, Canada,” Now Also in Mandarin and Cantonese
Outside of the English-French variety, bilingualism is growing at a healthy rate in Canada. Immigrants are mixing one of the 200 languages reported as a mother tongue in the census with English at home. With immigration making up most of Canada’s population growth, it’s hardly surprising that newcomers arrive speaking a variety of languages.
The latest census data released by Statistics Canada found that in just the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) alone, nearly one in two people spoke a non-official language at home. It’s a trend shaping not only the GTA’s linguistic make-up, but those of other metropolitan centers as well. Overall, across the country, one in five Canadians reported speaking a language other than French or English at home. Indeed, bilingualism is surging in Canada, but not necessarily in the country’s two official languages.
In particular, Chinese languages are becoming more predominant in Metro regions of cities and across Canada in general, according to 2016 census figures. Surely, twenty years of continuous migration must represent a trend–one that is seeing recent acceleration. China alone is now the second largest contributor to tourism in Toronto and Vancouver. With over 100 direct weekly flights linking the two nations, three times as many since 2012, it seems reasonable to assume that increased exposure to Canada has increased the rate of settlement. Apart from the Chinese languages, Tagalog was the fastest growing language in Canada in the last decade followed by Arabic and Hindi.
In a country where multiculturalism is seen as a virtue, even a defining aspect of Canadian identity, the language revelations in the census ought to be noted as a positive sign. Canada, after all, is a nation with full awareness of the amorphous and fluid nature of its own culture. Canadians are bound together by a set of values and beliefs which are able to accommodate a broad range of cultural expressions and do not demand strict homogeneity – and therefore should not demand the same of a language.
Abandoned Aboriginals of the Arctic
In one instance, the 20th century need for Canada to conform to the English-French duality has now confused Canada’s 60,000 strong Inuit population. Today, Canada’s aboriginal population has nine different written language systems, making it harder for them to communicate with each other to keep their language and culture alive.
Across the Arctic, linguists encouraged Aboriginals to use the Roman alphabet to universally encapsulate Inuktitut, the Inuit language, in written form. The phonetic sounds represented by such a rich language, however, could not be represented by only 26 Roman letters, and so with no agreed-upon way of writing the language, standardized writings have diminished in volume. The move intended to promote the usage of one of Canada’s official languages–English–was successful, but it also began to slowly kill Inuktitut. In fact, the percentage of Inuit able to carry a conversation in Inuktitut has plunged over 10 percent in the last decade, according to the Canadian census.
In 2011, a report on Inuit education found that 75 percent of the Inuit population failed to complete secondary school because of the impediments stemming from a curriculum that not only fails to reflect their culture and history but is taught in English and French rather than their mother tongue. But without a unified writing system, which would make it possible for education to be offered in Inuktitut, the development of a sustainable solution to the educational barriers faced by the scattered communities of Canada’s vast north seems unlikely. Experts now believe that if the Inuits are to preserve their language, they must opt for a system based on the Roman alphabet–one that discounts years of culture and symbolic script.
A land that houses millions of citizens on its soil, all from different backgrounds, must definitely search for some sort of inclusive concept that brings all their varieties under one accepted model. Unification, however, is inherently antithetical to the model of multiculturalism.
Multiculturalism, as a comprehensive communal doctrine, came to be the right answer for the nation of Canada to create its unique, coherent, and inclusive society which guarantees equality, freedom, fairness, and reverence for all its citizens. The various cultures, religious documents, social values, and ethnicities merit equal respect. Canadian origins are from every corner of the world, reflecting a wide range of cultural environments.
It then does not seem sensible that a nation should be advocating for an English-French language obligation of its citizens. Enforcing such a duality only serves to poison the richness and diversity of other cultures, languages, and histories that the nation has been a home to. With its immigrant population expected to double by 2031, the nation would do a disservice to the very tenets on which it was built upon to force its citizens to conform to a duality. Reducing over 200 ethnicities and languages into a duality–a duality which has begun to wipe entire Intuit cultures and languages out of history books–is contradictory to the “land glorious and free” promised to Canada’s citizens in its national anthem. Echoing the words of Trudeau himself, Canada should indeed leverage its diversity as its strength and embrace not just two, but all languages that find a new home in the Great White North.