Language has been controversial in Quebec for decades. Francophone Quebecers have complained about people not using French on signs or in business. Its language law, Bill 101, was implemented in part to require the use of French on signs and in business.
Now, similar problems are occurring in other Canadian provinces. The B.C. town of Richmond has gotten national attention for Chinese immigrant residents only using Mandarin on many of their businesses’ signs. English-speaking residents have complained to the Richmond City Council about the lack of English on business signs, and filed a human rights complaint on the use of Mandarin, rather than English, at a condo board meeting.
The Richmond controversies show how all Canadian provinces would benefit from language laws similar to Bill 101. Almost 40 years after its introduction, Bill 101 is credited by multiple sources as establishing French as the common language in Quebec, making room for immigrants and the English minority and strengthening Canadian unity.
Most people outside Quebec don’t realize that Bill 101 provides special status and exemptions for English, including education and public administration. Quebec isn’t the only part of Canada that defines specific languages for administration and education, either. The Northwest Territories’ language laws provide for English and French, and also for the use of Indigenous languages like Tlicho and Gwich’in in the legislature and the courts.
Other provinces’ language laws could enshrine English as the main language of education and business, and provide special status and exemptions for their Francophone minorities the way Bill 101 does for the Anglo-Quebecois. Like the NWT, they could also enshrine the status of the Indigenous languages that are spoken in their part of Canada. In Alberta, these would be languages like Blackfoot, Cree and Saulteaux. Translation services should also continue being provided as needed for people who are voting, or dealing with the courts or police.
English, French and the Indigenous languages have an institutional, constitutional and historical place in Canada that other languages, such as Tagalog, Spanish and German, do not. They are the languages of our courts, our constitutions and our legislatures and largely of our schools, the languages that built Canada.
Which languages should Canadians use to talk to each other, if not these ones? If I were to immigrate to someplace like Mexico or China, the locals would have every right to expect me to learn and use Spanish or Mandarin to communicate with them, as these are some of the languages that built their societies. This was what frustrated many Francophone Quebecers and led to the passage of Bill 101-the concern that new arrivals to the province were not learning and using French. Now, as the Richmond example shows, similar problems are coming up elsewhere in Canada.
Native citizens are in an odd position–how are they supposed to communicate with new arrivals, if the new arrivals won’t use their languages? Are they expected to be the ones to learn the language of the new arrivals? And if there are multiple new groups of arrivals, which language should be used at which times? Is everyone expected to learn everybody else’s language? A far more practical solution would be to follow Quebec’s example and establish English or French as the “lingua franca” of society while also ensuring that the minority language and its speakers have appropriate recognition and protection of their rights.
Nothing would prevent new arrivals to Canada from using their ancestral languages to talk to people in their own cultural group at family gatherings or community events. However, new arrivals generally need to use English or French to communicate with others across cultural lines if they come from different parts of the world. People who make Canada their home need English or French if they really want to get by. Otherwise, they frequently end up with lower incomes and much more limited career options.
Fortunately, most immigrants already get this. Many Asian voices are now speaking out in support of English in Richmond. They also make an admirable effort to learn and speak our official languages. In my experience, many immigrants tend to integrate into the Anglophone or Francophone communities, and as their children grow up in Canada they become as skilled at speaking our official languages as anyone born here. They also have just as much right to consider themselves Anglophone or Francophone Canadians, as well as Canadians in general, as anyone else.
However, problems can still occur. Enshrining our official and Indigenous languages in legislation would help address them, and contribute to social harmony.
Bill 101 has helped accomplish this in Quebec. Other provinces would also benefit from similar legislation.
This article was originally published in the St. Albert Gazette on January 27, 2016.