September 20, 2010

Canada is not a Bilingual Country

Canada is not a bilingual country, and the debunking of this myth is long over due. Canada is, however, a country with two official languages, which is a reality that is vastly different than the pretension of Canadian as being bilingual. This misconception of Canada’s linguistic situation began in the wake of the institutionalization of both French and English as Canada’s official languages at the federal level of government. 

The establishment of a federal linguistic regime encompassing both English and French was a logical concept for Canada, initialized by the Liberal government of Lester B. Person. Only to be advanced by the guarantee of French/English minority education rights, which were entrenched within Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s 1982 constitutional project, in the form of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.


However, stating that Canada is a bilingual country conveys the false representation and the expectation that Canadian society as a whole can communicate in both French and English; an unrealistic notion when one considers Canada’s vast socio-geographic make-up and decentralized federal political structure.

The false politic of bilingualism has resulted in resentment coming from both sides of the French-English linguistic divide in Canada, as well as doing more harm than good for Canadian unity; leaving English Canada feeling like the French language is being "forced down their throats," while leaving francophone communities, namely that found in the province of Québec, feeling weakened politically in their movement to preserve the French language amongst the sea of Anglophone culture that surrounds them.  

This misperception of a ‘bilingual’ Canada began with the institutionalization of Canada’s two official languages in 1963, when then Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson established the Royal Commission on Biculturalism and Bilingualism (the RCBB). The RCBB was in response to the growing unrest among French Canadians in Québec, who called for the protection of their language and culture, and the opportunity to participate fully in political and economic decision making. 

The socio-economic demands of French Canadians were justified, as they were being systematically excluded from obtaining economically important positions, even within Québec. In fact, the 1969 the final report from the RCBB, revealed that Francophones didn't come close to occupying the amount of important positions in the economy nor in the decision-making ranks of government that their population numbers warranted. The RCBB’s final report also found that educational opportunities for the francophone minorities were not commensurate with those provided for the Anglophone minority within Québec, and that French-speaking Canadians could neither find employment nor be served adequately in their language in federal-government agencies.

Regardless of the socio-economic revelations of the plight of French Canadians, which were brought to light by Royal Commission on Biculturalism and Bilingualism (which should not be negated and go a long way in explaining Québec nationalism), at issue here is the linguistic ramifications.

Following the final report of the RCBB, Parliament passed the Official Languages Act in 1969, which was a federal statute declaring French and English were to be the official languages of Canada. The Official Languages Act also decreed that all federal institutions must provide their services in English or French at the customer's choice.

However, the 1969 Official Languages Act did not implement bilingualism in Canada; the law only applied to federal institutions, provinces were not forced to adopt a policy of bilingualism. That being said, New Brunswick did declare itself officially bilingual. Whereas Ontario did not, but did greatly extended its services in French and its French-language rights. Nevertheless, all the other provinces did not embrace a policy of bilingualism and the Official Languages Act was poorly explained, leaving French and English Canadians to believe that a regime of bilingualism was being imposed on them.

Even more of a disservice in stirring-up the unrealistic ideal of bilingualism in Canada, came as part of Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s battle against Québec nationalism in the guise of sections 16, 20, and 23, of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which was the cornerstone to the repatriation of Canada’s Constitution in 1982.

Prime Minister Trudeau's underlying purpose for the Charter was to establish a sense of pan-Canadian rights, especially linguistic rights, which would challenge directly the ideals of Québec nationalism and integrate the Francophones of Québec into a generalized notion of ‘Canadian’ society. Essentially, Trudeau wanted to undercut the belief that existed for most Francophone Québécois of a Canada made up of a duality of two linguistic communities, with the French Canadians linked inseparably to the province of Québec. Trudeau looked to achieve this goal by instead institutionalizing a sense of a Canadian linguistic duality entrenched within the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which would re-enforce French and English as the official languages of Canada. 

However, just as it was the case for the 1969 Official Languages Act, the Charter simply implemented the institutionalization of French and English as Canada’s official languages, and again only at the federal level of government and services;
Section 16 (1) of the Canadian Constitution Act of 1982 simply states that, “English and French are the official languages of Canada and have equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of the Parliament and government of Canada.”
This article of our constitution rightfully entrenches the idea that Canada has two official languages, and that Canada’s Federal government is to function equally in both French and English, but it does not suggest or imply that Canada is functionally bilingual. In fact, institutional bilingualism only exists at the federal level under section 20 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (although section 16.1 (1) does establish New Brunswick as being Canada’s only true bilingual province).

Beyond Canada’s linguistic regime at the federal level, the Charter does also ensures educational rights for French and English linguistic minorities in all provinces of Canada under section 23. Therefore, aside from section 16.1 (1), which establishes New Brunswick as being officially bilingual, section 23 of the Charter is the only one demanding that provinces respect linguistic rights regarding education for their respective French or English linguistic minority communities. Or, in other words, the Anglophone minority in Québec located in Montréal, and the Francophone minorities located in English Canada. 

Therefore, other than education for localized Francophone and/or Anglophone minority communities, New Brunswick remains Canada’s only bilingual province, as all other provinces have rejected the ideal of bilingualism; Québec remains Canada’s only French province and all of the other provinces remain officially Anglophone (although, Ontario and Manitoba have put into place a policy of “unofficial” bilingualism).

The final chapter in the institutionalization of Canada’s two official languages came in 1988, with an updated version of the Official Languages Act. The 1988 Official Languages Act specifies the linguistic obligations of federal institutions, provides for a permanent review of the Official Languages Program by a Parliamentary Committee, provides for an application to the Federal Court for a remedy, and takes precedence over all other acts of Parliament except the Canadian Human Rights Act. Thus, once again, although the Official Languages Act of 1988 further rooted the concept of Canada having two official languages, it did not establish that Canada is a bilingual country.

Therefore, although Trudeau’s dream of a bilingual Canada did not come to fruition in reality, it did take hold in the mindset of many Canadians, as the Canadian psyche was permeated by the idea that the principles of official bilingualism at the federal level where actually applied universally in Canada.

Maintaining the false perception that Canada is bilingual serves no purpose and has done very little to build on Trudeau’s vision of pan-Canadianism amongst French and English Canada. The fact is that bilingualism is impossible given Canada’s socio-geographic reality. However, before elaborating on this insurmountable obstacle for the realization of a bilingual Canada, it is important to reiterate and justify maintaining English, as well as French, which is the mother tongue for only 22% of Canadians, as Canada’s two official languages.

The justification for maintaining two official languages is Canada’s history, tradition, culture, and identity, without all of which a country is nothing more than a collection of individuals in the same geographic location, sharing the label "Canadian."          

Folks in my province, British Columbia, often complain to me that there is no sense in learning French in B.C. when there are more people who speak Mandarin. I simply reply in pointing to the fact that Mandarin does not have the same historical privilege that French does, in terms of being a part of the fabric of our Canadian history and identity. 

Demographics change over time, but a country’s identity rooted in its history should never waiver. The history of the unfolding of Canada as a country will always include Jacque Cartier, Samuel de Champlain, George-Étienne Cartier, Wilfrid Laurier, etc.; and as Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on September 12, 2007, “Canada was born in French.” Therefore, it makes sense that Canada has English and French as its two official languages as a means of reflecting Canadian identity to the world and holding on to a sense of our shared history. However, this does not mean that Canada is, or could ever evolve into, a bilingual country, especially not the ‘Canadian’ ideal of bilingualism.

Canada covers an enormous geographic territory consisting of a relatively small population, concentrated primarily in urban centers, which are politically and culturally divided along provincial and regional lines. One of these Canadian provinces, Québec, is the home and the rapport de force for the French Canadian nation within Canada. Although only 22% of Canadians speak French as their first language, 80% of Quebeckers are Francophone. Therefore, Québec is the bastion of the French language and culture in Canada, and arguably, a lifeline for the bordering Acadian population in New Brunswick and the Francophone community in Ontario.

That being said, there is no direct influence or necessity for a functional presence of the French language to take hold in other parts of Canada (acknowledging fully that there are Francophone communities elsewhere in the country). The reality is that there is as much need for a functional knowledge of French in Calgary as there is of English in Québec City, and a Francophone can be served in French at a restaurant in Regina just as easily as an Anglophone can be served in English in Rimouski (in other words, it would be almost impossible). Therefore, although there is a strong presence of French language and culture in Canada, it is concentrated primarily in Québec, meaning that the transmission of French is limited throughout the country. 

This is one of the underlying reasons why I support the measures taken by the Québec government to protect the French language in that province with the passage of bill 101 in 1977, which made French the official language in Québec, as well as making it the normal and habitual language of the workplace, of instruction, of communications, of commerce and of business, and also making education in French compulsory for immigrants. Furthermore, contrary to popular belief outside of Québec, bill 101 does not restrict English on signs and billboards, but rather demands that a presence of French be predominate. Frankly, I see nothing wrong with Québec protecting the French language, and resisting the imposition of Anglophone cultural hegemony in the one province that is officially French and the lifeline for French culture, history, and traditions in Canada; and therefore by extension, an important component to the Canadian identity.

Allow me to illustrate this idea differently. I come from the Greater Vancouver region of British Columbia, which has considerable East and South Asian communities. It is very easy to find signage in Greater Vancouver that is exclusively in Mandarin, Korean, Sanskrit, etc. In listening to my fellow British Columbians voice their opinions on this phenomenon, I would wager heavily that if the British Columbia government passed a law demanding that there be a predominate presence of English on all signage, based on the fact that the Charter and the Official Languages Act state that English is one of Canada’s official languages, and that English is the official language of British Columbia, the vast majority of British Columbians would support such a measure - and rightfully so. 

As much as Québécois (as well as Acadians, Franco-Ontarians, etc.) should be allowed to protect the French language against the tide of the surrounding sea of Anglophone culture, so too should Anglophone provinces be able to ensure a presence of, and integration into, the English language.   

The point of all this is that the ideal of French/English bilingualism is not going to overcome the socio-geographic realities of Canada. Québec will remain French, just as Alberta and Newfoundland-and-Labrador will remain English. Therefore, although all things concerning the federal level of governance in this country (including the Supreme Court in my opinion) should remain bilingual, the expectation and idea of Canada being a bilingual country needs to come to an end.

This is not to say that the Federal government and provinces should not promote learning French or English as a second language; this is a practice that should fully continue for the academic benefits at the very least. Nevertheless, the promotion of learning French and/or English should not be done as a means of attaining Canada’s bilingual ideals, but rather based on the advantages of communicating with fellow Canadians, and more importantly, based on the historical and cultural traditions of Canada and the Canadian identity, as a country having two linguistic communities and two official languages.

Pan-Canadian Bilingualism is a dream whose time has come (with the exception to the rule always being New Brunswick). There is not a country in the world having even a small majority of its population being functionally bilingual. And although there may exist regions where bilingualism does have a presence in the world (Montréal and Brussels are two examples), it is simply unrealistic to expect that a country’s society as a whole will communicate in two languages while performing routine aspects of life  whether it be work related, or simply socializing. 

Canada is, however, a country having a history rooted in English and French, and therefore, Canada should remain as a country having two official languages; with Québec as the protectorate of a presence of the French language and culture, and without the expectation that functional bilingualism will one day be realized in everyday Canadian society.


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© 2010 - 2013 Benjamin Berman