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As recently reported in Globe and Mail, it has become evident that Canadians have not confined themselves to speaking just its two official languages, English and French. Rather Canada is like the Tower of Babble speaking in over 200 other languages. But this is obvious and has been the case for years.
Despite that Canada is supposed to speak in the tongues of its original European settlers, our nation is multilingual. It has been that way for a long time, in fact from inception. But just how Canada adopted English and French as part of its official linguistic identity is a question for historians and constitutional scholars. The story is well documented in our grade ten history books where we are told about Samuel de Champlain’s journey to what is now known as Quebec in the 1600s.
But growing up in a predominantly English speaking household in Toronto, the fact that French was on the books was mildly interesting to me but not very relevant. At the time, no one I knew spoke French other than my French teachers. And the only out of class exposure I had to the language was through cereal boxes and instruction manuals. French to me was a subject in school and a minor obstacle to avoid when reading government signs.
But as the years past, my relatively insulated anglophone bubble began to burst. I began to notice in the public domain like shopping malls, subway stations, and school hallways, the audible buzz of foreign tongues. The buzz grew louder and louder, eventually reaching a crescendo such that Punjabi, Chinese, Korean, Arabic and other languages became part of the day to day.
Yet despite the rise of Omni TV, the explosive growth of ethnic newspapers and businesses offering a dizzying array of goods and services from faraway lands, I was still learning French and hearing about Bill 101.
The reality on the ground, however, just wasn’t reflective of public policy that continued to promote, dare I say, force-feed English and French to Canadians.
Immigration trends were and are clearly at odds with the government’s desire, empowered by special interest groups from Quebec and English Canada, to maintain its grip on language. The justification for maintaining the status quo continues to be history and heritage. All nations have a story to be told but history, by definition, is a thing of the past. It should be remembered of course but not arbitrarily imposed on present day reality The problem with enforcing language laws in the face of clear demographic trends to the contrary, is that social and economic progress sufferers. No one wins.
Take the case of many businesses owners, athletes professionals who speak neither of our official languages or at least don’t do so very well, but somehow thrive. Their success is obviously attributable to the same hard work, risk taking and innovation that Anglophones and Francophones demonstrate. Hard work has no official language. Further many of these “unofficial” speakers end up learning English or French anyway though social osmosis in interacting with their customers, fans and the media. In a matter of time, we not only get the benefit of the fruits of their labor but we can indeed communicate with them in the end.
The governments response to the the Canadian Tower of Babble is not to celebrate it and its obvious contribution and enrichment to our Canadian experience but rather to tear it down at its root. Imposing arbitrary language requirements in immigration law designed to stem the tide in advance, making it impossible for many to immigrate is an effective form of censorship. For instance, requiring that Skilled Worker applicants speak, read and write English or French at an almost fluent level keeps out unwanted speakers who are deemed a threat to what already is an unravelling of our official bilingualism.
The justification the government gives these days is more diplomatic, staying away from anything even suggesting its about our history and culture. Such arguments would amount to political suicide. Rather, their stated “concern” is that in order to successfully integrate into Canadian social and economic life, you have to communicate in either English or French. But nothing can be farther from the truth as is demonstrated every day in every street corner.
In my view, the real thrust behind these restrictive language laws is some form of protectionism fuelled by fear that we will somehow loose who we are if we allow the unfamiliar unknown and untested to infiltrate–despite the evidence to the contrary. A very human fear built in by evolution. It may have made sense thousands of years ago when such threats were real and meant life or death. But in today’s global world, it’s quite the opposite. Diversity is good. It works culturally and economically.
Ironically, many in government are immigrants themselves whose parents would have never passed immigration requirements based on today’s rules. But these parents, some of whom still don’t speak English or French, managed to make a life for themselves and for their children. Imagine where they would be today if mom or dad were required to write the IELTS test?
I therefore am opposed to any language laws whatsoever–in immigration especially. Holding on to one’s identity does not require forcing silence in others. Since the invention of the printing press in the 1400s, and even before that, we have have been able to document our history and learn from it. And what we have learned is that repeating it is not always a good thing.
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