Is Canada Bilingual?

IS CANADA BILINGUAL? © David Watts, 18/07/ 2000

Canadian Specific ®

On the law books, it is: “English and French are official languages of Canada and have equality of status and equal rights and privileges…”

In reality, it depends on who you talk to, and what part of the country you’re in.

Language is a large part of the story of Canada, perhaps the biggest part after the land itself.

Canada started out multilingual, with the many languages of the first peoples from Asia. Some their language families, such as the Algonkin group, were not limited to one tribe or area but spread out across what we now call Canada.

When these tribes needed to communicate, they used sign language or found an interpreter—like Jerry Potts, who traveled widely and learned to speak more than one.

That’s what the first Europeans did too. Except for the ports of Halifax and St. John’s and parts of Newfoundland, the first European language of Eastern Canada was French.

New France included the land along the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes in what’s both Québec and Ontario now, and most of the maritime provinces, which were called Acadie.

After it fell to Britain, and after the US War of Independence, we had American refugees coming to Canada—our first major English speaking population.

That’s where Ontario came from. They split what was then just “Quebec” into two parts: Upper Canada above the Ottawa River, where most of the Europeans spoke English, and Lower Canada where most of them still spoke French.

So then Canada was bilingual, with two parts: one French and one English.

Except there were still pockets were people spoke a language different from those around them:

The City of Montreal, where at least half the people spoke English,

Parts of Northern Ontario, where large areas were French speaking

And the Maritimes, where English speaking settlers lived in the St. John River Valley, and the north shore, where a majority were French speaking.

After uprisings in both Upper and Lower Canada in 1837, Britain tried putting the two parts back together in a single province with one language—English.

But it didn’t work. The French speaking half of the population used its votes in the Legislature to block anything that weakened the French position.

That’s where Confederation came along. Since the government, to work, had to get a “double majority” for everything anyway, they decided they might as well give French Canadians their own government back. That’s how we got provinces.

In the 1867 constitution there was one bilingual province—Québec—and three English speaking ones: Ontario, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

But while the English speaking people in Québec got to use their own language, the French speaking people in New Brunswick and Ontario were left on their own.

A lot of English speaking people probably just hoped they’d disappear in the English mainstream.

Some even felt that about Québec. They felt that although they’d had to give in on language to get Québec in Confederation, they thought that Canada would eventually be English, and hope that the language issues would just go away.

But when Louis Riel set up a government on the Red River, the issue fared up again. Manitoba joined Confederation as the second bilingual province.

Later English speaking settlers changed that, so Québec could say it was the only part of Canada where French Canadians could be safe in their own language.

That was one of the things that led to the rise of separatism in Québec. By the 1960’s many Québécois looked on the rest of Canada as a foreign country.

At this point many Canadians felt that language was too important an issue to be left to the provinces, if Canada was to stay together.

So the Federal Government took responsibility for making French and English equal in Parliament and the courts, in the public service, in national parks, in Crown corporations such as Air Canada, the CBC, Canada Post and VIA Rail.

At the same time New Brunswick became a bilingual province, and the courts ordered Manitoba to restore the French language rights it had taken away, even though there were now not many Franco-Manitobans left to benefit from them.

Other Canadians in English speaking centres such as Calgary began sending their children to French immersion schools so they could become bilingual.

These changes didn’t seem to make much difference to Québécois, many of whom had give up on Canada. But they made a big difference to the rest of Canada.

Having opened the door to bilingualism, Canada went on to multiculturalism. Eleven languages are recognized in the North West Territories, for instance.

With immigration from Asia on Canada’s west coast, Chinese could become the language of half the population of British Columbia by the mid-21st century.

Is Canada bilingual? Not in the way those who designed the Official Languages Act had hoped. The Government of Canada is officially bilingual, but only one province—New Brunswick—is.

But Canada has gone on to be something more than that. We’re becoming a truly pluralistic society, in which difference are not only tolerated but embraced as the riches we have to offer each other. That is our gift to the world.