Amid the litany of promises in his government’s throne speech last week, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed to pursue two deeply contradictory goals with little introspection.
On the one hand, his administration says it will tackle “systemic racism” and break down the “systemic barriers” that exclude people of color from full participation in Canadian life. On the other hand — immediately after, in fact — the speech also vowed to legally consolidate the status of Canada’s “two official languages,” French and English, emphasizing the need to “protect and promote French,” in particular.
The degree to which these objectives are at odds should be evident from a quick perusal of the people running Canada these days.
Here’s the Supreme Court of Canada:
Here are the nine officers of the federal Parliament:
Here are the heads of the Canadian armed forces:
Here’s the board of the Bank of Canada:
And here are the deputy ministers of the federal government’s departments — the people often considered the true leaders of the cabinet ministries — in early September:
The Toronto Star, for its part, has documented the overwhelming whiteness of the federal Canadian judiciary, noting that “there are currently two BIPOC judges — one Indigenous and one of Kurdish heritage — in the roster of 44 judges in the Federal Court,” which, the newspaper writes, mostly hears cases involving people of color.
Hiring this one-sided is usually blamed on overt and covert prejudices that combine to form the sort of “systemic barriers” Trudeau’s throne speech alluded to. In the Canadian public sector, one such systemic barrier has always been obvious — and is indeed routinely cited by diversity advocates: mandatory French-English bilingualism.
Though statutorily, the list of mandatory bilingual positions in the Canadian federal government is fairly short, Canada’s 50-year-old Official Languages Act nevertheless declares that French and English “are the languages of work in all federal institutions,” and obliges dual fluency for any job in which bilingualism is “objectively required to perform the functions” of the position.
In practice, this clause — the Section 91 rule, in Ottawa-speak — has been ever-more liberally interpreted in order to justify ever-more bilingual hires. Ottawa’s most recently issued “Directive on Official Languages for People Management” now demands that those in most executive, managerial or deputy-head-type positions be able to perform complicated tasks in both French and English.
The Official Languages Act also mandates strict and constant auditing of a civil service that’s apparently never quite bilingual enough, giving the whole project a fussiness that can even exhaust true believers. According to the most recent annual report of the federal Official Languages Commissioner, “Since 2014, commissioners of official languages have conducted more than 500 investigations into complaints involving more than 30 federal institutions regarding the language requirements of positions under section 91 of the Act.”
The discriminatory consequences of such a regime in a country that’s vastly more diverse than it was a half-century ago are pretty straightforward.
Language skills are generally acquired based on day-to-day communicative need. Given that English predominates in most of Canada, while fewer than a quarter of Canadians come from French-speaking backgrounds, those with impeccable skills in both French and English tend to be pulled from a rather narrow cultural-geographic-ethnic milieu.
“Self-starter” bilinguals, meanwhile, are frequently ambitious Anglo Canadians given French education or exposure relatively early in life — often for explicitly careerist reasons — implying priorities and privileges not all Canadians share. Canadian immigrants, or those otherwise from families in which a language other than French or English was their dominant one, face a uniquely uphill journey.
It’s always been curious how otherwise impeccably woke Canadians can turn into rigidly ideological meritocrats whenever the obviously discriminatory aspects of official bilingualism are raised. No less a wokester than Trudeau himself once declared Canadians who aren’t multilingual simply “lazy,” and this seems to be a popular rationalization. The fact that “anyone” can, in theory, learn to speak any language is often bluntly asserted as the reason why requiring French fluency can’t possibly be discriminatory — a logic many of these same people would surely find faulty if used to defend, say, exclusively hiring Ivy League grads or imposing a literacy test on voters.
Even more distressing, however, is when those with the most to lose from this system rush to defend it. Noted political celebrity Leslyn Lewis, for instance, is a Black immigrant from Jamaica who rose from humble beginnings to achieve an impressive legal career and came close to winning the leadership of the Conservative Party. Yet she embarrassed herself during her campaign by awkwardly and unsuccessfully attempting to gain overnight fluency in French, simply because that’s what Canadian received wisdom says you have to do to be taken seriously as a federal politician.
Canada can have a government that at least attempts to resemble the elaborately diverse nation it governs, or it can have one where the most important jobs are hogged by a small White subculture because 50 years ago we decided the most important issue of inclusion was accommodating the country’s French Canadian minority without English skills — a group that is now just 12 percent of the population.
But it cannot have both.
David Moscrop: Trudeau’s new agenda is full of old promises and unrealized hopes
J.J. McCullough: Canada’s French-English bilingualism is bad policy — and worse politics
J.J. McCullough: Some Canadians have always been considered more important than others. It’s time to end that.
Alicia Elliott: Canada grapples with a charge of ‘genocide.’ For indigenous people, there’s no debate.
El Jones: Black Canadians are suffocating under a racist policing system, too