A Canadian Press story, reproduced by National Newswatch, says that “The federal government unveiled its action plan on official languages Wednesday, funded with an extra $500 million over five years that will go toward a host of services for minority-language communities across the country.” Prime Minister Trudeau is quoted, in the story, as saying that “”It’s not a secret that the French language outside Quebec has regressed over the past few years,” and it is, equally, no secret that English is fading away in many parts of Quebec. So, after nearly 50 years (since Pierre Trudeau pushed the Official Languages Act through parliament in 1969) what do we have? Billions and billions of dollars have been spent ~ some, including me would say wasted ~ and the “two solitudes” grow farther and father apart.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, of course, blamed Prime Minister Harper, but the truth is that both Conservative and Liberal governments have treated official languages with something akin to both reverence and fear, and neither has done anything to impede the quest, by bureaucrats and activists, to create a bilingual country out of one that wants little or nothing at all to do with it.
Of course there is a rising demand for French Immersion courses in elementary schools because many (most?) parents see the value of children learning a second and third language while they are young … but I think that French programmes are popular mainly because they are subsidized, I saw some polling a few years ago that said parents really wanted their children to learn Mandarin Chinese, Spanish and Hindi rather than French but that since French was “free” in Canada it was the best available option.
Also, and also of course, French matters in Canada … one in five Canadians speaks it as her or his mother tongue and, thanks to the Official Languages Act, it is required to be used in many roles, places, organizations, agencies and functions where it is less than an optimal “fit,” because French speaking Canadians are, broadly but not completely, entitled to services in their native language.
We have spent billions of dollars and will, almost certainly spent billions more, to attempt, but, ultimately, fail to rectify a problem that dates back to 1760. The problem is that language promotes divisions because any two people, even those of the greatest goodwill, who speak two different “mother tongues” are very likely to perceive the world around them differently, based on what they have heard and read. Enhancing the use of French in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s might have actually promoted Québec nationalism and separatism in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.
The policy failed because it was never grounded in reality … Québec needs to be a bilingual province in order to prosper in and after the 21st century because there is just a small island of Francophones in a vast sea of English and, increasingly, Spanish speakers in the Americas and of English, Mandarin Chinese and Hindi-Urdu speakers in the world. But Francophone nationalists are afraid, with real, good reason, that giving Quebecers a choice will lead to a rapid decline in French use in Canada … and I understand their fear and I understand that fear is a very powerful policy driver and I am pretty sure that were I a French speaking Canadian I would share their fears.
There is nothing much to be done … even if official bilingualism was a bad idea ~ and it is not ~ it is practically impossible to remove political entitlements. What needs to happen includes:
- Preserving and protecting the language rights conferred in the 1760s and 1860s ~ French must continue to be used, by anyone who wants to use it, and in full equality with English, in the parliament of Canada and in the legislature of Québec;
- Convincing both Québec and New Brunswick to be bilingual provinces;
- Providing services in French by the federal government (and in English by the Québec government) wherever number warrant … recognizing that ~
- The number of Canadians wanting French services are declining across Canada, and
- Those numbers are politically difficult to define ~ Francophone nationalists, for example, want a low number for French and a high number for English while others want the reverse.
But it is time to admit that the overarching aims and policies promoted, in the 1960s and ’70s, by Pierre Trudeau, have failed.