The many tongues of Canada

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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. city 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 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, French and certain 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 N.W.T., they could also enshrine the status of the indigenous languages that have been 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? Is everyone expected to learn everybody else’s language?

New arrivals to Canada may use their ancestral languages to talk to people in their own cultural group, but they generally need to use English or French to communicate with others. 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. Most immigrants also make an admirable effort to learn and speak our official languages, as well. However, problems can still occur. Enshrining our official and iundigenous languages in legislation would help address these problems, and contribute to social integration and harmony.

Bill 101 has helped accomplish this in Quebec. Other provinces would also benefit from similar legislation.

Jared Milne is a St. Albert resident with a passion for Canadian history and politics.

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