Canada has two official national languages: French and English. These are the languages of the countries that invaded the continent during the period of European colonisation, but now, in 2018, it is worthwhile reconsidering what a “national language” in Canada should look like. Languages other than French and English existed in Canada before colonisation and continue to exist today. Languages from outside of Europe are also on the rise in Canadian households. Knowing this, Canadians need to push for a change in the legislation of national languages so that our legal system better reflects Canada’s linguistic diversity.
The 2011 census reported that over 200 languages are spoken households across the country (Government of Canada, “Linguistic Characteristics of Canadians”). More recently, the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages recognised that while English and French are the most commonly spoken languages in Canada, they are followed by Mandarin, Cantonese, and Punjabi, respectively. While most people in Canada reported in the 2016 census that their “mother tongue” was either English or French, 22.3% claimed an “immigrant language” and 0.6% claimed an Aboriginal language. Both of these statistics are important for very different reasons. For the “immigrant language” group, we need to recognise that more than a fifth of people in Canada have a first language that has no official status in the country. That’s 7,749,120 people not being linguistically represented. When it comes to the 213,230 people who claimed a primary language that is Indigenous to Turtle Island, we need to take a moment to consider why there are so few speakers of Indigenous languages in Canada compared to the actual population of Indigenous people.
Largely, the low speakership of Indigenous languages was by design. The Canadian state has throughout its history, been a force for erasing Indigenous languages. According to Karen Rice and Michelle Filice, The Canadian government has attempted to eradicate Indigenous languages through the Indian Act and the Indian Residential School System, which ran until 1996. The government of Canada has, at least historically, been invested in the dominance of English and French over languages native to the land that parliament occupies. The role of government in Canada is to represent the values of individuals through a single representative. These representatives are tasked with creating legislation, managing government departments, and seeing that the needs of their constituents are met. The question is: how well is parliament doing at reflecting Canada as a linguistically diverse country, when the only languages anyone can speak in the House of Commons (without giving special notice) are English or French?
Language is a reflection of a culture. The words that we use most commonly represent the things that we value. That English has an incredibly diverse array of words to describe colours like blue and red demonstrates that colours in the sky are important for English speakers. This makes sense for a language that began on an island in Europe and read the skies for signs that the waters would be safe to travel in for the better part of 300 years. That some languages have words to differentiate the density and moisture content in snow shows that the culture that formed around that language is in a region where snow is a near-constant part of the speakerships’ daily experience. When languages disappear, the culture embedded in them also vanishes.
It is for these reasons that we have a moral obligation to protect dying languages. Every language that dies because English or French is more convenient to pass on to the next generation is an act of violence against a culture. Against a family. The first change must come from the federal government. Canadians must call for amendments to the Official Languages Act that recognize all Indigenous languages as official national languages regardless of speakership, and that also recognises any language with a speakership of over 10% of the population as an official language. Furthermore, the government must put in place legal and financial frameworks to protect and revitalise languages that it has historically targeted for erasure. This is the first step in reconciling the linguistic genocide that Canada has been actively pursuing since it’s confederation in 1867.
To summarise, Canada has a diverse linguistic population, with millions of people who have had their language rights interrupted, or stolen entirely. The Canadian government has been responsible for a great deal of language loss, and is guilty of genocide because of it. Language is not only a tool for cultural communication, but for forming a national identity. If Canada wishes to be considered a nation, it must celebrate the diversity of languages that people in Canada speak. This responsibility is linked to reconciling past wrongs but also to building a better, more inclusive country. By amending the Official Languages Act, Canada will establish itself as a country that represents its citizens and embraces its role as a protector of human rights.
Karen Rice and Michelle Filice, “Indigenous Languages in Canada.” https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/aboriginal-people-languages
Konstantin Prodanovic, “The Silent Genocide: Aboriginal Language Loss FAQ.” https://www.terry.ubc.ca/2013/10/16/the-silent-genocide-aboriginal-language-loss-faq/
Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, “Top 5 Languages Spoken in Canada.” https://www.clo-ocol.gc.ca/en/newsletter/2018/top-5-languages-spoken-canada
Statistics Canada, “Linguistic Characteristics of Canadians.” https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2011/as-sa/98-314-x/98-314-x2011001-eng.cfm
Statistics Canada, “Proportion of mother tongue responses for various regions in Canada, 2016 Census.” https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/dp-pd/dv-vd/lang/index-eng.cfm