Archived - Notes for a keynote address on Canada's linguistic duality in a multicultural framework
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Colombo, Sri Lanka, May 15, 2013
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Ladies and gentlemen,
This is not my first visit to Sri Lanka. I was here 10 years ago, on a delegation visit. Like all visitors who have an opportunity to visit your beautiful country, I found my experience in Sri Lanka fascinating. It is a great pleasure to return as Canada's commissioner of official languages.
Since I became Commissioner, I've had the privilege of talking about Canadian language policy in many countries and on many platforms—in Israel, Finland, Ireland, and India, at two United Nations conferences, and now in Sri Lanka. Today, I would like to repeat a point I have made on all of those occasions: If, indeed, there is a Canadian formula for developing a language policy, it is not necessarily applicable to other countries. I have been pleased to welcome delegations from countries as different as China and Nepal, who have come to our office to learn more about how we address language issues and I am only too pleased to share our experience with them. However, I don't want anyone to think that I have come to Sri Lanka to say that Canada has the answer that applies to your situation.
Before adopting its language policy, Canada studied the examples of other countries extensively. During the 1960s, our Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism looked into South Africa's individualist approach, whereby citizens could use both official languages at the time, English and Afrikaans, throughout the country. The Commission also studied the territorial approach taken by Switzerland and Belgium.
Finally, it examined the Finnish compromise: a mix of bilingual and unilingual regions, with central services provided in both languages. Finland was an example of compromise between the individualist and territorial approaches—Helsinki, the capital, is bilingual. Canada is too vast for a singular, individualist approach, and it has too many minority-language communities to permit a purely territorial approach.
The lesson I have taken from this experience is that it is useful to look at what other nations do. But, in each case, it is essential not only to draw from other countries' experiences but to also adapt their approaches to our specific context.
The report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was published 50 years ago this year. It is worth noting that its recommendations were adapted by governments using different legislative approaches—and not all of those recommendations were accepted. Some of the key recommendations are now in the Official Languages Act, and key elements from the Act were subsequently enshrined in our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Canada's multiculturalism policy also has its origins in the recommendations in the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism's report. Canada's multiculturalism and language policies both stem from our belief that all citizens are equal and that we must ensure that they can retain their identities, take pride in their ancestry and have a sense of belonging.
Those recommendations seem like self-evident statements now: that discrimination on the basis of race, creed, nationality or place of origin be prohibited; that the same conditions for citizenship and for the right to vote and to stand for public office be accorded to all immigrants, with no regard to their country of origin; that the teaching of languages other than English and French be incorporated as options in elementary school where there is sufficient demand; and that special instruction in the appropriate official language be provided for children who have an inadequate knowledge of that language when they enter the public school system.
Canada is often described as a bilingual country. This is misleading shorthand for the fact that Canada has an official bilingualism policy, which is a very different state of affairs.
Let me explain. Some 200 languages are spoken in Canada, including 50 Aboriginal languages. However, 98% of the 33 million Canadians speak at least one of Canada's two official languages, English and French. Of those 33 million, only 5 million are bilingual in English and French. There are 24 million who do not speak French and 4 million who do not speak English.
There are, in effect, two language communities living side by side in Canada, both of which are largely unilingual.
Among these two broad language communities, however, are minority-language communities of substantial size. There are almost a million French-speaking Canadians living outside Quebec, Canada's only majority French-speaking province, and almost a million English-speaking Canadians living in Quebec.
The basic tenet of official bilingualism is that the federal government must be bilingual, so citizens don't have to be. Ironically, countries that are not officially bilingual often have more bilingual citizens than we do, because their people must learn the language of the majority to deal with the state.
The cultural and linguistic duality that exists throughout Canada can create tension, and it has led to conflict, in the past. In fact, the proposal to examine language policy and the relationship between the French-speaking minority and the English-speaking majority emerged during a period of terrorist violence.
Between 1962 and 1970, tension was prevalent in the province of Quebec. During this time, the Front de libération du Québec—a Quebec nationalist and Marxist revolutionary group commonly known as the FLQ—bombed mailboxes, buildings and other symbols of the federal government. Dozens of people were injured; eventually, six people were killed. Canadians were shocked.
These bombings were visible manifestations of serious and divisive discrimination along language lines. At the time, French-speaking Canadians were largely excluded from the senior ranks of the private and public sectors, federal parliament, the military and most other major institutions.
In October 1970, six months after the first commissioner of official languages arrived in his office, the most significant terrorist activity in Canadian history occurred. It became known as the October Crisis. A provincial government minister and a diplomat were kidnapped, and the minister was murdered. Although there is an intrinsic link between language and national unity issues in Canada, no one should assume that discussing Canadian language policy was a magic solution to the social tensions of the time. Nor that a constitutional debate would end the violence or take Quebec independence off the table.
It is becoming more and more difficult to link language with culture, as these two concepts are no longer necessarily connected in the minds of people trying to define themselves in relation to others. Having a common language does not necessarily mean having a common culture or the same values.
In Canada, there are two majority official languages—English and French—but officially, there are not two majority cultures. Language is a transactional element. However, unlike in some other countries, in Canada, English is not a politically neutral language.
Here in Sri Lanka, the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (1978) recognizes Sinhala and Tamil as the national languages and English as the link language. In Canada, English cannot be used as neutral terrain on which different national and linguistic communities can meet because of the historical dominance of English domestically. In Canada, it is linguistic duality that serves as a link between the cultures—this is why I believe that linguistic duality and cultural diversity are complementary, and not contradictory. This is, in my view, the foundation of Canadian multiculturalism—acceptance of a society that speaks more than one language laid the groundwork for creating a country that welcomes newcomers. Canada's multiculturalism approach aims to recognize the vitality of diverse minority cultures, without hindering the individual development of their members.
In Canada, multiculturalism policies have been intended as a way of integrating newcomers and connecting them to the broader society, as a stepping stone on the path to citizenship. Whether you call it multiculturalism, pluralism or interculturalism, Canadian society is constantly seeking a balance between cultural respect and social cohesion.
The situation today is very different from the one that existed in 1971, when the multiculturalism policy was first introduced. When the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism made its recommendations, immigration was still predominantly from Europe, while refugees came from countries behind the Iron Curtain. The vibrant literature of immigrant communities was a literature of culture shock and cultural adaptation to an often hostile majority. And immigration was a one-way street: immigrants came, adapted, integrated and stayed.
Canada is one of the few countries in the developed world where one can find not only consistently high levels of immigration, but also a very positive public attitude in this regard. Since 1986, immigration levels have almost tripled. However, the government has recognized that this great increase in immigration does represent a challenge for official language communities.Footnote 1
Take, for example, the Francophone community of Manitoba, one of our Western provinces. Over the past five years, there has been a specific government policy to encourage Francophone immigrants to move to communities outside Quebec, and recent statistics show that Manitoba's Francophone communities are undergoing changes due to growing immigration. Winnipeg, in comparison to other cities outside Quebec, has the largest proportion of French-speaking immigrants from Africa.Footnote 2
For a Francophone minority community whose identity has historically been based on the traditional cornerstones of parish and church, making the transition from a French-Canadian community to a Francophone host community is a challenge, to say the least. Such communities are experiencing a certain degree of upheaval. They have a lot of preparing to do, both before immigrants arrive and even more so when the newcomers are settling in.
The enhanced vitality of Canada's official language communities as a result of the arrival of French-speaking immigrants is great news for the Francophonie. The issues of immigration, diversity, integration and accommodation are important both in Canada as a whole and in Quebec specifically, but they are sometimes seen as threats to “national identity.” Canada is faced with a major challenge. How can we enhance the sense of belonging to a community? How can we change communities that already have solid, cultural identity reference points? How can we help immigrants find their place among “us”?
Our traditional “French-Canadian” communities are gradually changing into “Francophone” communities; their cultural identity is being shaken. And this is no smooth process. Both the immigrants and their host communities are experiencing a “culture shock” to which they must adapt. And our whole perception of linguistic duality in Canada is being affected.
The fact that Canada has two dynamic languages and cultures is not only a source of tensions—it is also a source of creativity and ongoing dialogue. And the fact that two language groups must constantly work together has helped Canadian society develop values such as respect, compromise, empathy and acceptance.
Canada's approach to identity and linguistic duality is unique. Our conception of citizenship, our attitude towards those who come to our country, our experience with colonialism—all of these factors have meant that pluralism is not merely a policy, it is a reality. And it's a reality that, in contrast with that of some other countries, is overwhelmingly supported by Canadians from all origins.
As a result of globalization, identities are more fluid, roots are less evident and human relationships are characterized by movement. International market forces are redefining the value of languages and a good number of countries have been quick to understand that they can no longer flourish using only one language.
One of the important areas of progress in Canada has been the degree to which the sense of inclusion has grown. For example, faiths or religious customs that were marginal 50 years ago are now part of the Canadian landscape.
The next step is for Canadian society to develop the same acceptance towards faiths and customs that have recently appeared on the Canadian radar; that is the cultural dynamic that is now changing Canada.
Even today, 40 years after the Official Languages Act, 50 years after the creation of the Royal Commission, there are still language controversies. When I talk to Canadians, I still need to repeat that the policy's objective is not—and never was—to make all Canadians bilingual. Canada's design consists in two unilingual majorities living side by side—and its language policy is in place to ensure that the members of those two language communities get services from their federal government in their language of choice, and that minority-language communities are given the support they need to flourish.
When I come out with recommendations, they are sometimes on the front page of newspapers and they at times provoke irritated reactions. But language issues can now be discussed in a much calmer, rational way than 50 years ago when there was relatively little common ground between the two majority communities.
Canada's experience shows that it is essential to have flexible tools and policies that help its citizens adapt to their country's current linguistic reality. Communities continue to diversify more and faster than ever. Laws and policies have been established to protect linguistic minority communities in Canada, and they work. But in our globalized economy, no modern society can afford to ignore the lingua franca of its era. The future lies in versatility and bilingualism—or better yet, multilingualism. That will be a measure of our success at harmonious coexistence.
Thank you. If we still have time, I'd like to answer any questions you may have.
- Footnote 1
CANADA, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Canada – Permanent residents by province or territory and urban area, 2008–2012, Research Data Mart, Preliminary 2012 Data. On-line version of footnote 1 source accessed March 20, 2013.
- Footnote 2
According to Statistics Canada data, the country's rate of demographic growth has increased since the last census, and has now reached 5.9%. The province with the highest rate of growth is Alberta, at 10.8%. In 2006, 11,955 immigrants arrived in Canada from French-speaking African countries. In 2008 that number jumped to 13,777, and in 2010 it jumped again to 15,608.