Mr. Chair, ladies and gentlemen, I am very pleased to be with you today and to address your committee on the topic of the modernization of the Official Languages Act.
With me today is Roger Farley, a former director at Health Canada, and now the executive in residence at the Official Languages and Bilingualism Institute.
I should first congratulate the committee for undertaking these important tasks.
My time is limited so I will get right to the point. Today, I would like to address the need for more clarity in the act, the role of a more modern definition of bilingualism and linguistic duality, and the importance of universal access to French and English teaching, in order to promote that linguistic duality.
I would like to start by focusing specifically on Part VII of the act, sections 41 and 43. Section 41 stipulates that: “the Government of Canada is committed to…fostering the full recognition and use of both English and French in Canadian society”.
In section 43, the implementation of that commitment is described as follows: “The Minister of Canadian Heritage shall take such measures as that Minister considers appropriate to advance the equality of status and use of English and French…”
These two sections reveal all of Parliament’s good intentions. However, I share the opinion of a number of experts who have already testified before you in saying that one of the weaknesses of the act is a lack of precision on the specific measures and concrete expectations that must accompany the implementation.
I therefore recommended that Part VII of the act be revised so that the obligations and expectations of the government are more specifically defined. As to what those specifics may be, I am not a legal scholar, but, as a researcher in applied linguistics, my suggestions would focus on the concrete objectives that linguistic duality and bilingualism are intended to achieve. Other witnesses before me—I am thinking of Benoît Pelletier, for example—have told you that the act is quite silent on the concepts of linguistic duality and bilingualism.
In fact, although Canada’s bilingual character and identity are mentioned in the act, it often deals with French and English separately. It focuses specifically on minority francophone and anglophone communities. This approach reinforces a vision of bilingualism as parallel, but still separate, monolingualisms—the famous “two solitudes”—rooted in communities of native speakers that are often represented as homogeneous, uniform, and quite well defined. What I would like to highlight today is that this representation is quite a poor reflection of the modern version of bilingualism found in the research.
The problem is that in the absence of a precise definition or representation of what we expect with bilingualism, what often remain for the public are myths that hinder the promotion of language learning and development. People end up believing myths, such that languages should be learned and preserved in isolation from one another, or that one needs to show loyalty to a single-speech community. Worse, people feel that they cannot call themselves bilingual, like so many of my students.
When I ask who among them identifies themselves as bilingual, few hands go up because they have this idea that, to be bilingual, you have to have a perfect and equal knowledge of both languages.
However, in reality, we know that it is very rare to be able to attain that level because each language, or rather access to both languages, is never used in the same way.
In such cases, the problem is that it leaves people with an ideal that is unrealistic and, therefore, they often hesitate to identify as being bilingual or even to look for bilingualism.
We need a definition that values and appreciates the multilingual capacity of every Canadian, in whom a number of languages, dialects and identities actually exist together. We are all multilingual, hence the importance of the idea of linguistic duality rooted in the Canadian context that goes beyond school walls and that includes all the facets of interaction in which individuals evolve.
Even though the act seeks to “provide opportunities for everyone…to learn both English and French” and to foster the use of both languages, we must ensure that linguistic duality is seen as an attainable reality, not just for official language minority communities, but for all Canadians. The good news is that linguistic duality and bilingualism are already seen by a large majority of Canadians as fundamental values that are enriching, both collectively and individually.
As underscored by the Minister of Canadian Heritage in the official languages action plan 2018-23, linguistic duality enhances cross-cultural understanding and communication, broadens perspectives and allows Canadians to shine on the global stage through the ability they have—as I'm doing now—to move from one language and one culture to another, and back and forth.
That's still impressive. We are not the only ones who can do this, but we are often the only ones in North America.
However, to ensure that the added value materializes, this more modern vision of bilingualism and linguistic duality must be reflected in the act and be accompanied by specific targets. I therefore recommend that the new legislation include provisions whereby the Government of Canada undertakes to promote, support and facilitate—with provincial and territorial governments—the learning of both official languages and linguistic duality in the school system. To do so, there needs to be an inclusive definition of bilingualism and a notion of institutional completeness, from early childhood to post-secondary education, including the public sphere for all Canadians as well.
I also recommend that those intentions be accompanied by an audit system that would report to Parliament on the results, that is to say, the rate of bilingualism achieved and the specific mechanisms used to achieve those levels, particularly when it comes to transfers to the provinces and territories.
I would like to illustrate the importance of these comments with a specific example of linguistic duality for immigration.
I will read an excerpt from a webpage from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada:
English or French language skills are very important to help you settle in Canada. You may choose to focus on learning or improving one or the other. This will likely depend on which of the two languages most people speak in the area where you live.
Let me draw your attention to the words “or” and “one or the other” and to the dichotomous choice immigrants have to make. As a result, they are implicitly pointed toward a linguistic repertoire associated with one language and the majority. Once immigrants have made their choice, it is no longer possible for them to have access to programs to learn the other official language. They have to choose one or the other. We are falling back into a monolingual vision that limits, not encourages, linguistic duality and multilingualism.
Year in, year out, Canada welcomes between 250,000 and 300,000 newcomers each year. In addition, a number of studies show that those newcomers are often already multilingual and that they welcome opportunities for themselves and their children to learn both official languages. This happens even if, sometimes, in schools, they are told that they should focus on English if they live in an English-speaking region because it is the language of the majority.
I propose that, in addition to encouraging francophone immigration—which is very good—a more inclusive and modern vision of bilingualism would ensure that all immigrants see the possibility of being bilingual as a reality through legislation that recognizes, ensures and asserts that linguistic duality is an option for everyone.
I therefore recommend that the modernized Official Languages Act include a provision requiring the government to encourage, facilitate and support second official language learning and linguistic duality for all newcomers, and to report to Parliament on the results achieved. With the significant contribution of newcomers each year, such a provision would undoubtedly have a long-term impact on Canada's linguistic duality.
In conclusion, the sustainability of Canada's linguistic duality and bilingual character and the increase in bilingualism among Canadians are not immutable assets. They require the Parliament of Canada to take bold and innovative measures to encourage this linguistic duality not only among minority populations, but among all Canadians by ensuring that the opportunity to learn both official languages and achieve a high level of bilingualism is unfailingly and verifiably available.
These measures should target all school-aged youth, college and university students, newcomers and adults in the workplace who provide services to the public, such as health professionals.
These provisions, along with strong accountability mechanisms, will be transformative for Canada and future generations and will make Canada a global model for bilingualism.