Common Sense on Canadian Bilingualism

Back a few millennia ago in the age of Plato and Socrates, teachers uninterested in a search for truth but in scoring mere rhetorical points were known as sophists; a favourite tactic was to engage in specious rather than sound reasoning, this in an attempt to win public debates.

A modern example occurred last week when my good friend and fellow columnist, Naomi Lakritz accused me of a “churlish attack on the French language.”

This came after my recent column where I noted Albertans who claim French as their mother tongue are microscopic as a percentage of this province’s population and that French as a mother tongue declined overall in Canada to 22 per cent in the latest census from 29 per cent back in 1951.

In response, Naomi mounted the French barricades long ago breached by the English on the Plains of Abraham.

So Naomi claimed I “declared that French as Canada’s other official language is yesterday’s notion.” She asserted that “grateful Calgary ladies who feted the Quebec soldiers (who defended Calgary civilians in the 19th century) would be turning in their graves.”

There’s just one problem. The positions attributed to me are fiction. Nowhere in my recent column did I declare French as “yesterday’s notion.” Nor did I recommend an end to official bilingualism or suggest French history and service in Canada was negligible or should be unappreciated.

Nuts, if Naomi will invent positions for me, why stop there? In the spirit of the times, this debate could be even more fun if she launched a human rights complaint against me. (I have no objections; it would be a boon to my writing career.)

For the record, what I noted is that from census data, French, as a mother tongue is in decline and that will have ramifications both politically and policy-wise. What I recommended is that the demographic realities of the province in question be taken into account in the provision of government services.

Should that lead to abolition of French as a second official language? Actually, no –though if 400 years from now Urdu is the dominant language in Canada, perhaps a change to the official languages act might be considered.

In the meantime, if governments wish to spend money on language, it should be to make sure immigrants can speak one of the two official languages according to the dominant language of the province in which they reside: French in Quebec and English in Alberta. Beyond that, they shouldn’t go overboard.

The reaction on this matter, and not only from Naomi, stems more from a political disposition than from a reasoned analysis, a problem common in modern liberalism as is the predictable pattern which then ensues: become offended, grab the rhetorical rifle, and damn the torpedoes, cost, and analysis.

Those who think Alberta should print speeding tickets in French because it is one of two official languages (except for practical matters in Quebec where parents cannot educate their children in English if they move there) should be consistent: recommend that every government document in the country be printed in both official languages, even if, as in some suburbs of Vancouver or Toronto, pluralities of the population are neither English nor French.

After all, just because only 25,000 people speak French at home in metropolitan Toronto, while almost 1.4 million people speak a non-official language (and 3.5 million speak English), is no reason not to spend whatever amount of money is necessary to make sure every ticket, mail-out, brochure, and public advertisement is in both official languages.

And don’t stop there. Make sure every provincial law, every bylaw and every sign in every province and city is in English and French. In addition, don’t forget to provide translations in both official languages in every city, town and village. Demand, too, that English is translated and provided in every Quebec hamlet for every conceivable piece of printed material. After all, it is not as if money isn’t endlessly available for such priorities. As for hospitals, the military, environmental cleanups, and an expansion of the Trans-Canada Highway — all that can wait, perhaps forever.

Or one could take a sensible approach given that official bilingualism does not and has never required such ill-advised efforts, not in Alberta, not in Quebec, not in Prince Edward Island, not anywhere.

The kerfuffle over the supposed denigration of French in Alberta because tickets are not printed in French and the positions attributed to me by Naomi have this in common: both are invented controversies.

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Alberta’s Courts Should Recognize French is Passe Here

In the 2006 census, 58 per cent of Canadians reported that English was their mother tongue; that was a slight decline from 1951 when 59.1 per cent gave the same response. Compare the barely noticeable English reduction to French, identified as the first language of 22.1 per cent of Canadians in 2006. Back when Louis St. Laurent was in his third year as prime minister, it was the ancestral tongue for 29 per cent.

Over the same period, French dropped in Quebec though only slightly. In 1951, 82.5 per cent of Quebecers identified French as their first language compared to 79 per cent in the last census.

The French drop has been matched by a rise in non-official languages (neither English nor French) and this has the potential to refashion politics especially in Quebec, perhaps federal hiring practices, and one would hope — even court judgments in Alberta.

In Quebec, non-official languages account for 13.2 per cent of the population with Italian, Spanish, Arabic and Cantonese as the biggest blocks in the “other” category. That compares to just 3.7 per cent in 1951.

Might the new language realities have political ramifications? They already have. When in 1995 Parti Quebecois leader Jacques Parizeau in a fit of post-referendum racist demagoguery blamed the separatist loss on “ethnics and money,” he was at least half-right.

Parizeau’s distasteful rhetoric did identify the challenge for separatists: they have a higher hill to climb as Quebec becomes more ethnically diverse. But it’s a positive result for those of us who prefer Canada united and not divided.

There are two other possible consequences from the growth in non-official languages although only one might occur in the short-term. In Alberta, one hopes the demographic reality will persuade Alberta justices and higher courts not to issue more indefensible language rulings. Recall provincial court Judge Leo Wenden’s recent decision, which threw out a $54 ticket for a speeder because Gilles Caron was not able to get a hearing in French. (The Alberta government appealed the judgment on Thursday.)

Wenden’s judgment is likely on thin legal ice given that a Supreme Court decision in 1988 gave provinces the right to determine their own language rights legislation. But stranger reversals have occurred at the Supreme Court of Canada.

Whatever the legal merits of Caron’s case, the speeder’s attempt did highlight the demographic reality in Alberta: it is increasingly non-French. That language is now the identified mother tongue of just 61,225 Albertans, or 1.9 per cent.

In contrast, almost 10 times as many Albertans, over 583,000, name a non-official language as their mother tongue. That’s almost 18 per cent of Alberta’s population. It includes Albertans who in 2006 chose one of the Chinese dialects as their mother language (Cantonese, Mandarin and so forth) and also German. Both of those categories top French. It comes fourth in Alberta as the mother tongue.

This demographic reality is more pronounced in British Columbia. There, non-official languages make up almost 27 per cent of that province’s population. After English, Chinese dialects, Punjabi, and German all outstrip French as the first language of more British Columbians (and with Tagalog soon to overtake French).

In Ontario, French is still second after English, but it barely beat out the various Chinese dialects in the 2006 census. Overall, non-official mother tongues account for 26 per cent of Ontario’s population. Those who identify French as their mother tongue represent just over four per cent of Ontario’s language potpourri.

The diverse language and ethnic reality that is now Canada should lead to one more change in Canadian practice, but it won’t and for strictly short-term political reasons. As it stands, the ability to speak French in the federal civil service still leads to preferred hiring and promotions. That policy, where English-French bilingualism scores career points should be replaced by one where bilingualism of any sort (one official language plus any other) counts to an equal degree. It would be a sensible reform given Canada’s new language demographics, especially when services in Punjabi and Cantonese are more needed in Surrey and Richmond respectively than is French.

But it won’t happen soon and it’s because of the clout of the Quebec French vote and a fear of resurgent separatism. Thus, it may be a while before the obvious demographic realities are reflected in policy, even when such delays occur at the expense of the new and increasingly multi-ethnic Canada.