Monday, September 5, 2011

How Much Longer will Canada Pretend to be Bilingual?

A little while ago I wrote about French crusader Michel Thibodeau, the man who has made a career out of playing the court system when he couldn’t order a 7-Up in French on Air Canada flights. While that article focused on the outrageousness of his case, I’d now like to consider the broader issues exacerbated by forcing bilingualism where it just isn’t needed.

We can look back to a time when bilingualism was relevant and needed. Back in 1867, when Canada had a population of 3.4 million, almost 40 percent of Canada’s population resided in Quebec. We had an English Prime Minister followed by a French Prime Minister, among other commonalities.

Fast forward to 1982, where Pierre Trudeau’s brainchild, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, includes a carrot for Quebec to sign on to the idea: official, enforceable bilingualism. We know how that story goes: Quebec still refused to sign, and yet the entire country is bound to bilingual status.

This status isn’t cheap either. The Fraser Institute estimates that official bilingualism costs Canadians $1.8 billion per year, mostly spent providing documents and services in both official languages. The same report also includes a revolutionary idea: instead of making every Canadian pay $55 for French translations, why not only charge those who want the documents translated to French?

Unfortunately, any challenge to bilingualism is hyped-up to be an attack on the French language and French culture. After all, the impetus to create the Bloc Quebecois was to “protect” Quebec culture and give that supposedly unique culture a voice in federal politics. But French is not going extinct by any definition; it’s simply becoming less important and less needed in a Canada that is growing and embracing new cultures and religions.

In the words of Quebec M.P. Maxime Bernier: “French will survive if Quebecers cherish it and want to preserve it; it will flourish if Quebec becomes a freer, more dynamic and prosperous society, not by imposing French and by preventing people from making their own decisions in matters that concern their personal lives.”

Not only are Quebec’s protectionist barriers bad policy, they’ll also mean less in the near future, requiring our federal government to negotiate a new language policy which will surely recognize the dwindling importance of French in Canada.

Let’s look at just a few statistics proving this fact:

  • The 2006 census saw 22 percent of Canadians claiming French as their primary language. An additional one or two percent are bilingual in both English and French or French and another “non-official” language. The remainder of Canadians—the vast majority—speak English or another non-official language.
  • 86 percent of Francophones reside in Quebec, with the remainder being dispersed throughout Canada.
  • Those making up the “non-official languages” portion of the 2006 census almost equal those speaking French—a statement of Canada’s immigration policy successfully attracting a diverse group of people.
    Population growth will be the most interesting change in Canada. Statistics Canada estimates that by 2036, Canada’s population will be, in a “low growth” scenario, 39.3 million in number, and in a “high growth” scenario, 45 million. Statistics Canada also predicts that current settlement patterns will continue, with enormous numbers of immigrants choosing to settle in the metropolitan areas of British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario. Quebec would remain the second-most populous province, with between 8.6 and 10 million residents, but it would barely account for 20 percent of a Canadian population of 45 million. Add in Quebec’s stagnating population growth without even considering immigration, and French will soon be challenged even within Quebec’s own borders.
Quebec will also matter less politically. Quebec currently holds 75 out of 308 seats in the House of Commons, or 25 percent. Legislation introduced when the Conservative government was in a minority situation would see the House gain 30 seats, with 18 new seats going to Ontario, seven to British Columbia, and five to Alberta. Not surprisingly, Quebec M.P.s were outraged that their influence would decline to only 23 percent of the seats.

Let’s add one more dynamic into the mix to truly illustrate the trouble bilingualism is in. Immigration figures show the majority of immigrants are coming from South Asia and China. 70 percent of immigrants’ mother tongues were not English or French; and of all immigrants, only about three percent report French as their mother tongue. Those immigrants usually settle in Quebec, with the remainder ending up in large, English-dominated metropolitan cities. In fact, one in five immigrants—the same number as Canadians who reported speaking French—speak a Chinese language. I don’t see anyone rushing to declare Chinese one of the official languages of Canada.

How much longer will Canada pretend to be a bilingual country? The statistics are clear that while the French population stagnates (at best) and dwindles (at worst), the number of Canadians speaking English and other languages will continue to rise rapidly.

The road ahead is not a bright one for Francophones, but that does not mean their language or culture needs to change in any way. I am merely suggesting we maintain relevant policies that reflect Canadian demographics, and those demographics say French is not a language that needs to be enforced by the federal government. If we’ve declared French an official language of Canada, and it’s only spoken by 20 percent of the population, we should soon be ready to declare Chinese an official language too.

The days should very soon be gone where bilingualism is enforced by any level of government. Bilingualism will remain where it makes sense to remain, such as in service jobs and employment in the Ottawa-Hull region. But for the other 78 percent of the country—and that number is increasing every day—bilingualism is irrelevant and no longer needed in a country quickly adopting new languages. Otherwise, we will very quickly see a country filled with citizens from a diverse group of backgrounds, forced to support a minority language that only 20 percent of the population speaks.