Sunday, January 22, 2017

Is Canadian Bilingualism Dead?

If you're wondering what the heck Prime Minister Trudeau was thinking when he answered in French, a question put to him in English, at a town hall meeting in Quebec, your aren't alone. Almost the entire media missed the point.

Justin responded to the Anglo questioner rather smarmily, telling her; “Thank you for using our country’s two official languages, but since we’re in Quebec I’ll respond in French,” ..Yikes!      Link
 One can only imagine Justin telling a Francophone, that he would respond in English to a French question because it was asked in Manitoba!

Justin's bizarre performance can actually be understood as he has been thoroughly roasted recently in a spate of articles in the French press for not protecting and promoting the French language in Ottawa and his reaction was nothing more than an ill-conceived and feeble attempt to reverse that perception.

But his desire to appear as the defender of the French language backfired in more ways than one, the first being the vicious backlash in the ROC (Rest of Canada) over his disrespect of an Anglo-Quebecer and the second and more serious consequence is that his unintentional action sent a message that his vision of Canada is a unilingually French Quebec and a unlingually English ROC.

So not surprisingly, the usual suspects of French language militants were largely silent over the issue because supporting the decision of the Prime Minister, to speak only French in Quebec weakens the argument of a bilingual federal government. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place, there seems no position that can satisfy their desire of a French only Quebec and a bilingual Ottawa.

His poor father, Pierre-Elliot Trudeau, father of the Official Languages Act and the policy of a bilingual Canada, must be spinning in his grave at Justin's stupidity.
Now to be fair, Trudeau 'light' probably did not understand the consequences of his maladroitness and as the song lyrics go;
I'm just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood
But the affair begs the question; is bilingualism going down the drain, the once vaunted idea of a bilingual Canada A Mari Usque Ad Mare?

Almost fifty years ago Trudeau senior enacted the Official Languages Act, legislation that enshrined the rights of Canadians to be served by the federal government and the courts in either English or French.
But more than that, the law which was generally well received set the table for a different Canada, one where French was treated equally to English.
While I say the law was generally well-received, not so in the civil service where the entrenched English majority held 91% of the jobs and were loathe to part with any one of them.
While there was some opposition, the law generally fostered an era of linguistic detente and the country embraced bilingualism much as we have embraced environmentalism today. French immersion schools were opened in Western Canada where parents chose to expose their children to the French language in order to afford them more opportunity in the future bilingual Canada.
But the success of the French immersion programs are dubious, about half the students move back to English classes and those who graduate have their French skills eroded due to lack of practice. Today only 10% of Canadians living outside of Quebec can hold a conversation in French and if you don't count francophones living outside Quebec, that  figure drops to about 6%, a pretty grim number.
While bilingualism is rising in Quebec, it is falling in the ROC.

What happened?
Well it boils down to a demographic shift and the negative reaction to French in the rest of Canada in response to the sovereignty movement

Firstly the population and indeed the influence of French in Canada declined through demographics, where an inspired immigration surge left French on the outside looking in. Today less than 20,000 of the 300,000 odd immigrants Canada receives each year end up adopting French as their language of assimilation. This language time bomb has been rightly criticized by French language defenders but there's little to be done about it.
Quebec will receive about 50,000 of the 300,000 immigrants coming to Canada in 2017, only about 17% of the total which is substantially lower than Quebec's 23.4% size relative to the Canadian population total. But worse than that, about 10,000 of those immigrants will skedaddle to other provinces and of the remaining, half will adopt English as the language of assimilation, meaning that of the 300,000 new immigrants Canada receives each year, less than 7% will adopt French, a paltry number indeed. (This assuming that all immigrants to other provinces adopt English.)
By my rough calculation, because of this immigration reality, the proportion of French in Canada will drop by 1% every eight years, bringing the French proportion to under 20% in about 25 years from today's 23.2%, a calamitous drop.

Secondly, separatist fervour took its toll as English Canadians grew tired of the never-ending bashing of their language and culture by separatist Quebec governments and interest in accommodation waned, perhaps not officially, but certainly among those who lived in the ROC.
And so the language scene has perhaps not turned full circle, but certainly reversed to a serious degree, with French returning to the back seat it occupied historically.

Now those of you who have read this blog for a while know that I come down hard on the French media for biased and inaccurate reporting, BUT...
I must say that the gloom and doom articles that I mentioned at the top of the blog are largely accurate.

Even the insufferable Mathieu Bock-Coté was more or less right in his complaint that the Trudeau cabinet is bereft of French speakers, where bilingual ministers are no longer the norm, a shocking development. He further complained that Trudeau has made common cause with Canada's minorities to the detriment of Francophones in general and Quebec in particular.
The idea of the two founding nations sharing control of the country reduced to a joke and highlighted as of late by the French language debate for the Conservative leadership, which was such a linguistic disaster that it was downright humiliating. That the English participants showed up with pigeon French was telling in that they weren't even embarrassed.

A non French-speaking leader for the Conservatives?
Now comes the unthinkable news that the unilingual Kevin O'Leary is running for the Conservatives and will in all likelihood win.

Even Maclean's magazine got into bilingualism bashing in running an article entitled: Canada’s prime minister shouldn’t need to be bilingual, where perhaps a more honest title should have read "Canada’s prime minister shouldn’t need to speak French." 
Would Maclean's be okay with a Prime Minister who could not speak English?

Perhaps the most telling story of the decline and fall of the French language in Canada is the story that emerged from the World Junior Hockey tournament played in Canada recently where the Canadian team (which included seven francophones) were told by coaches that all communication would be in English only and that included conversations between francophone players.
The cherry on the sundae was that the coaches making the rules were francophones!
The coach Dominique Ducharme, explained that the team needed to communicate in one language in order to foster team spirit and to have everyone on the same page, so to speak.

It is quite simply an allegorical tale of what is going on right now in Canada.

9 comments:

  1. As a non Francophone I was a defender of Quebec and the French language; but that was many years ago. With the advent of Bill22 and the subsequent decimation of the confounding English communities my support has been killed. Through their legislative interference, the provincial governments have actually ensured a very negative picture of all things French. Promoting language and culture is up to the individual and not government unless one is hoping to create some sort of caliphate.

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    1. Ron Hillman writes:

      "Promoting language and culture is up to the individual and not government unless one is hoping to create some sort of caliphate."

      Excellent.

      That sums up what I feel about the issue. Indeed, it is pretty much what Maxime Bernier says (although not in those exact words). That's why I am more excited about his candidacy for Leader of the Conservative Party than I have for any other Canadian federal politican in my 62 years.

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    2. Yo, Ron, Tony: Did either of you at least file a complaint with the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages against the Trudeau action? I sure did!

      Attack the Trudeau Dynasty with its own weapon! What a concept! What an idea! Now get busy!

      Mr. Sauga

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  2. There is NOTHING in Quebec's language Laws that could be considered Non-Bigoted and non-xenophobic.... I will Never support any Politician or Political Party that supports this law, or ANY law that attempts to regulate language or Culture... and any individual that does so, is either Ignorant or Bigoted, or most likely BOTH!!!

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    1. To paraphrase Mary McCarthy's famous line about Lillian Hellman: everything in Bill 101 is bigotted including "and" and "the".

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  3. Even more confounding than Justin's insistence upon unilingual responses in Quebec was the following gem:

    "Quebec has to be French in order for Canada to be bilingual.”

    Some sort of Zen Koan? Not sure.

    But the best line on bilingualism I've ever heard was said by Bill Shaw, one-time Union Nationale MNA for a West Island riding:

    "What's the point of bilingualism if everyone is?"

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  4. It's obvious from the stats and common sense that the will of the provincial (and federal) technocrats and "pundits" like Bock Cote is not enough to overcome the political destruction of pre-1960s Quebec's traditional culture and the high birthrate that came with it. The actions of the technocrats are only creating an artificial construct at the very best. An immigrant immersed in the French language will never be a francophone. Even if all 50,000 annual immigrants learned French (a goal that they fall way short of), demographically the francophonie would still lose.

    Not sure if they care though. Maybe the concern for the demographic decline is fake, a ruse going back to the 1960s when the match was lit to start the demographic fire by exactly the same people who smugly assumed the role of the firemen committed to putting out this very fire.

    Qc elites, especially the pequiste wing of it, complain about the decline in francophonie but act to speed it up through their policies. It seems that they may want a reduced local population served by the waves of immigrants, while at the same time pretending that this state of affairs is breaking their hearts.

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  5. Demographics is destiny. Quebec's focus on French speaking immigrants (most who hail from North African countries) and the riciculous language laws, has had the effect (desired or not) of blacklisting Quebec. We receive far fewer immigrants than we should and our retention rate is pathetic. Quebec has effectively become the back door into the ROC for immigrants looking to move ahead in life. We need a policy shift and we need to let go of this idea that Quebec must be a French only jurisdiction. The data is there, the trends are clear. We need to boost our population now or we're heading for a rude awakening.

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    1. Whaaaa....? Let the French influence sink! Let Quebec separate! Sr. Trudeau recited decades ago that if Quebec separates, they'll have to speak more English than ever as nobody will cater to French anymore. Let's save $10 billion in equalization payments! Let Quebec separate! Let's force the issue! Let Canada save fortunes in bilingual packaging and having to produce translations of legislation outside Quebec only read by Oncle Gaston and a few of his minions. French translations for the five people in the Solar System that look at P.E.I. legislation in French? Absurd!

      Mr. Sauga

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