The many tongues of Canada: Official languages and social integration

-Jared Milne-

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.

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3 thoughts on “The many tongues of Canada: Official languages and social integration

  1. While I agree with the general importance of having official languages in Canada for the sake of integration, I don’t think Quebec’s Bill 101 is the model to follow. Canada already has an Official Languages Act, which establishes French and English nationwide as official languages of government business, and ensures people the right to not be discriminated against at work or anywhere else for speaking English or French. Under this law, things like the Mandarin-only condo board meeting are already not allowed (which is, I’m sure, why there was a human rights complaint in that case).

    Bill 101 goes much further than this in Quebec, by, for example, forcing children of non-native English speakers to attend French schools, forcing French to be larger in size or number than any other language on any public sign, and having a language police (Office de la Langue Francaise) that aggressively enforces these rules (leading to absurdities like Italian restaurants not being allowed to have the word ‘pasta’ on their menus: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/01/quebec-language-police-ban-pasta). Far more than Bill 101 adds anything to integration, it: (a) creates an impression among English Quebeckers (which, full disclosure, I am) and non-English- or French-speakers that we are an unwelcome underclass; (b) prevents French speakers from becoming bilingual, hurting their job prospects; and (c) keeps international business (and the jobs that come with this) out.

    The other main problem you argue this new language law would solve is the lack of English/French knowledge among some immigrants (who currently can stay within their own ethnic communities, if the communities are large enough, e.g. Chinese immigrants), but I don’t think that’s true either. Most of the immigrants I’ve encountered in Canada who didn’t learn English/French and self-isolated within their communities are ones who came to Canada when they were older–either to reunify with their families who were already here or to bring their children over for a chance at a better life, and are therefore not as concerned with their own job prospects as they are with their children’s/relatives’. The children of these immigrants 100% do learn English and French. Even if there are some who immigrate and don’t learn English/French who would benefit from learning, I still don’t think it’s the government’s job to force them to, given that they’re not hurting anyone else. All that does is create an impression of racism and second-class citizenship. If, on the other hand, it really was the case that the number of immigrants with no English/French skills was damaging society, Bill 101-style laws would still not be the answer. Instead, you would want to raise the standards of proficiency needed to immigrate in the first place. Also, if the damage was native English/French speakers being discriminated against in certain workforces or other settings like condo boards, there would–as I mentioned above–already be recourse under the Official Languages Act.

    So in summary, I don’t think Bill 101-style language laws would do the rest of Canada any good. I think it would do little to solve the problems motivating your piece–which already have recourses in existing Canadian law–and would risk adding a veneer of second-class citizenship/racism and discouragement of investment to Canadian society (though I know that was not your intention in proposing it).

    One last thing I will say is that I personally appreciate the pockets of Canada where immigrant cultures have been preserved to the point where signs are commonly in languages other than English or French (including parts of Richmond, where there’s some amazing Chinese food and culture; again, full disclosure: some of my in-laws are Chinese-Canadians from Richmond). I think these parts of Canada only add to the overall cultural richness of the country.

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    • Thanks for your feedback, Matt.

      I support Bill 101 and language laws like it in part because of the sympathy I have for Francophone Quebecers and Indigenous peoples who have critiqued the Trudeau bilingual/multicultural model because they think that it doesn’t fulfill what they see as the most important challenges of maintaining their communities, a part of which language fulfills a very important role.

      It’s easier for us as English-speakers to downplay such concerns, given that we live on a continent where our language is the dominant one, but I can imagine the frustrations and annoyances a lot of Franco-Quebecois feel about the issue, particularly when it seems to them that the new arrivals weren’t interested in trying to integrate into the community and expected to have the locals do all the adapting to them, instead of the other way around. I mean, if I were to immigrate to Mexico or China the native citizens would be perfectly justified in expecting me to learn Spanish or Mandarin and using those languages to communicate with them in everyday life.

      The problem that many established citizens have with the current multicultural model that seems to have taken hold is that the exact rules and expectations for new arrivals into Canadian society, and the exact balance between cultural diversity and the common social expectations we should have of each other. When questions are asked about such things, and related issues like what expectations new arrivals should have to meet to fully participate in the community (e.g., getting citizenship before being able to vote) is just as often replied to with implications that people who express such concerns are racist. That, as much as anything, is what has aggravated so many people, and not just on the conservative side of the aisle.

      Bill 101, which has been taken too far in some cases (e.g., Pastagate) nonetheless enshrines the special status of English in Quebec-one of the benefits for similar laws in other provinces, with the language statuses reversed, is that it would further enshrine the special status of French and the Francophone minorities outside Quebec. Without that type of recognition, people in other provinces have continually asked why French should have a special status outside la belle province, when other language groups are more popular. Conversely, they often expect English to have exceptions and exemptions made for it in Quebec…which is what drove so many Franco-Quebecois nuts and prompted support for Bill 101. That goes double for Indigenous Canadians, who are adamant about the fact that they are *not* in the same multicultural boat as new arrivals.

      Quebec has also at least tried to address these types of questions and tensions with the recent debates on reasonable accommodation and interculturalism, which is more than most of the rest of us can say as the same concerns and controversies that led to those debates show up more and more in other parts of Canada. The implication either seems to be that when it comes to culture it should be “anything goes”, or that everybody should only practice a uniform lifestyle, neither of which is obviously practical.

      I disagree that Bill 101-style language laws would add a veneer of second-class citizenship and racism-rather, they would serve to establish the basic rules and expectations for integrating into society. If anything, such problems already exist in Canada even without such laws, as people who don’t already speak English or French often can’t communicate effectively with people, including emergency workers, doctors, police officers and others who can provide the social assistance they might otherwise need. Legislatively establishing a “lingua franca” through education and business can reduce the risk of these problems. Otherwise, exactly which languages are people supposed to use when communicating with each other? Is everybody expected to learn everybody’s language?

      Many Canadians outside Quebec don’t see any need to become bilingual either, which has drawn complaints of hurting their own job prospects in Ottawa (see any number of tirades against the “bilingual Laurentian elite”) and is international business not already impacted by bilingual labeling practices (see any number of tirades against French on cereal boxes)? I disagree with such complaints, of course (and some of them are just plain absurd), but they do illustrate the challenges French has faced and continues to face even today. If not a Bill 101, what should the response of Francophone Quebec be when so many people outside Quebec expect it to support English but refuse to accord any similar support to French in other parts of Canada?

      I am all for multiculturalism, but I think it needs to be better situated in a specifically Canadian context-I want to hear more about the stories of black Loyalists and other immigrants of African descent who came up to Canada from the United States, about the Asian immigrants who faced issues like the head tax and the theft from the Japanese Canadians in World War II, about the impact of Ukranian dance and cuisine in central Alberta, and how the people who’ve brought these traditions have integrated and continue to integrate into a Canada with British, French and Indigenous roots.

      We really do have three founding communities in this country-Anglophone, Francophone and Indigenous-and new arrivals continue to integrate into them and make them evolve and grow. However, while change and renewal are an important part of life, there’s a difference between change and tabula rasa-type replacements, and I think that’s what a lot of people are concerned about. At their best, language laws similar to Bill 101 would address many of the issues highlighted above, and provide a base for new Canadian stories to be told.

      Like

  2. Thanks for your feedback, Matt.

    I support Bill 101 and language laws like it in part because of the sympathy I have for Francophone Quebecers and Indigenous peoples who have critiqued the Trudeau bilingual/multicultural model because they think that it doesn’t fulfill what they see as the most important challenges of maintaining their communities, a part of which language fulfills a very important role.

    It’s easier for us as English-speakers to downplay such concerns, given that we live on a continent where our language is the dominant one, but I can imagine the frustrations and annoyances a lot of Franco-Quebecois feel about the issue, particularly when it seems to them that the new arrivals weren’t interested in trying to integrate into the community and expected to have the locals do all the adapting to them, instead of the other way around. I mean, if I were to immigrate to Mexico or China the native citizens would be perfectly justified in expecting me to learn Spanish or Mandarin and using those languages to communicate with them in everyday life.

    The problem that many established citizens have with the current multicultural model that seems to have taken hold is that the exact rules and expectations for new arrivals into Canadian society, and the exact balance between cultural diversity and the common social expectations we should have of each other. When questions are asked about such things, and related issues like what expectations new arrivals should have to meet to fully participate in the community (e.g., getting citizenship before being able to vote) is just as often replied to with implications that people who express such concerns are racist. That, as much as anything, is what has aggravated so many people, and not just on the conservative side of the aisle.

    Bill 101, which has been taken too far in some cases (e.g., Pastagate) nonetheless enshrines the special status of English in Quebec-one of the benefits for similar laws in other provinces, with the language statuses reversed, is that it would further enshrine the special status of French and the Francophone minorities outside Quebec. Without that type of recognition, people in other provinces have continually asked why French should have a special status outside la belle province, when other language groups are more popular. Conversely, they often expect English to have exceptions and exemptions made for it in Quebec…which is what drove so many Franco-Quebecois nuts and prompted support for Bill 101. That goes double for Indigenous Canadians, who are adamant about the fact that they are *not* in the same multicultural boat as new arrivals.

    Quebec has also at least tried to address these types of questions and tensions with the recent debates on reasonable accommodation and interculturalism, which is more than most of the rest of us can say as the same concerns and controversies that led to those debates show up more and more in other parts of Canada. The implication either seems to be that when it comes to culture it should be “anything goes”, or that everybody should only practice a uniform lifestyle, neither of which is obviously practical.

    I disagree that Bill 101-style language laws would add a veneer of second-class citizenship and racism-rather, they would serve to establish the basic rules and expectations for integrating into society. If anything, such problems already exist in Canada even without such laws, as people who don’t already speak English or French often can’t communicate effectively with people, including emergency workers, doctors, police officers and others who can provide the social assistance they might otherwise need. Legislatively establishing a “lingua franca” through education and business can reduce the risk of these problems. Otherwise, exactly which languages are people supposed to use when communicating with each other? Is everybody expected to learn everybody’s language?

    Many Canadians outside Quebec don’t see any need to become bilingual either, which has drawn complaints of hurting their own job prospects in Ottawa (see any number of tirades against the “bilingual Laurentian elite”) and is international business not already impacted by bilingual labeling practices (see any number of tirades against French on cereal boxes)? I disagree with such complaints, of course (and some of them are just plain absurd), but they do illustrate the challenges French has faced and continues to face even today. If not a Bill 101, what should the response of Francophone Quebec be when so many people outside Quebec expect it to support English but refuse to accord any similar support to French in other parts of Canada?

    I am all for multiculturalism, but I think it needs to be better situated in a specifically Canadian context-I want to hear more about the stories of black Loyalists and other immigrants of African descent who came up to Canada from the United States, about the Asian immigrants who faced issues like the head tax and the theft from the Japanese Canadians in World War II, about the impact of Ukranian dance and cuisine in central Alberta, and how the people who’ve brought these traditions have integrated and continue to integrate into a Canada with British, French and Indigenous roots.

    We really do have three founding communities in this country-Anglophone, Francophone and Indigenous-and new arrivals continue to integrate into them and make them evolve and grow. However, while change and renewal are an important part of life, there’s a difference between change and tabula rasa-type replacements, and I think that’s what a lot of people are concerned about. At their best, language laws similar to Bill 101 would address many of the issues highlighted above, and provide a base for new Canadian stories to be told.

    Like

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