Amid this backdrop, Trudeau’s administration now seeks to wander into another potentially fraught realm: language policy.
Much of the Canadian government’s public-service architecture is erected around the notion that Canada is composed of two linguistic communities — French speakers and English speakers — and the state ’s primary linguistic challenge is to service French-speaking minorities in the English provinces. This is the logic underpinning Canada’s Official Languages Act, a landmark statute passed under Trudeau’s father, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, in 1969. Trudeau the younger has vowed to “modernize” it on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, but has given little indication the project will represent a good-faith effort to grapple with Canada’s changed linguistic realities.
Officially kicking off last month, the government’s cross-country consultations on modernizing the languages law have a narrow mandate to only engage with representatives of “official languages communities.” In practice, this means conversation is invariably dominated by various Ottawa-subsidized French advocacy groups. Discussion inevitably then centers on how to best entrench and strengthen the infrastructure the federal government already provides to French minorities across the country, including public schools, bilingual civil servants and language rights ombudsmen. The situation is only slightly different in Quebec, where it is representatives of the province’s beleaguered English minority whose interests tend to dominate.
This tendentious listening tour and the government’s formulaic rhetoric surrounding the modernization of the languages act itself suggests little interest in Canadians whose linguistic experiences occur outside these dated frames. At best, this offers a vivid example of bureaucracy’s talent for creating weird little empires of clients and rent-seekers. At worst, it demonstrates a remarkable failure of ambition and imagination at a critical moment for a rapidly changing country. It’s hard to imagine modern Canada’s diverse populace playing along for much longer.
At some point, Ottawa will simply be forced to answer a number of awkward questions that the “Two Official Languages” industrial-complex would prefer to avoid.
For one, if Ottawa is indeed serious about reconciling with its indigenous population and “decolonizing” its institutions, then why is there so little interest in making aboriginal languages part of the Canadian state? Why is Canada not making greater efforts to emulate New Zealand or South Africa, where indigenous languages not only enjoy official status, but are incorporated into things such as parliamentary debate and the national anthem?
Likewise, where is the state’s appreciation for immigrant languages as part of the inherent character of Canadian culture? Seeking to justify cuts to French language services in Ontario, Premier Doug Ford allegedly contrasted the relatively small number of French Canadians in his province to the much larger population who speak nonofficial languages such as Chinese or Italian. In every English province except New Brunswick it is these “allophones,” not Francophones, who comprise the majority of Canada’s non-English-speaking population. So where are the Cantonese public schools? Where is the ombudsman for Punjabi speakers?
To date, Ottawa’s only concession to such realities has been unpersuasive half-measures and distractions, continuing to subsidize “cultural” projects of allophone communities and providing legislative tools to assist in the project of “reclaiming, revitalizing, maintaining and strengthening” threatened indigenous languages. (The Trudeau government’s recently introduced Indigenous Languages Act merely allows that an agency of the federal government “may” choose to translate some of its work into an indigenous language — a far cry from the many “shalls” that dominate the Official Languages Act.)
The integrity of left-wing politics in Canada, carried out through Liberal Party governance, is threatened by unavoidable power struggles within its coalition. When it comes to language, there is a looming danger that progressive voters in the English provinces will cease regarding Ottawa’s French language protections as the social justice corrective it was presented as in 1969, but rather as an anachronism of white privilege that arbitrarily denies linguistic accommodation to racial minorities.
But a corresponding trouble is that any future Liberal government that attempts to enlarge Canadian language policy could alienate critical French Canadian voters who tend to view their linguistic protections as zero-sum. It would also undermine the disproportionate power that French-English bilinguals hold over the Canadian state and a patriotic “bilingual Canada” ideal the public service class has spent decades defending. The question is whether war with these types is more painful than the alternative.
Lavscam has illustrated the difficulties that arise when a prime minister overly loyal to 20th century Liberal shibboleths attempts to govern modern Canada. Unless Canada’s progressives devise a strategy to shed their dependence on the dated strategies of their past, language policy could one day provoke another explosion.