Bilingualism In Canada: a brief overview

Bilingualism is an official act in Canada. It was first enacted in the British North America Act in 1867, as part of Confederation (union of Canada as a country). The section recognized the equality of English and French in the legislative and judicial government of Canada, and placed both as the mandatory in Federal office. In 1969, bilingualism was entrenched in an official act called the Official Language Act.

How Bilingualism Works

Many non-Canadian people are under the impression that bilingualism in Canada means that all Canadian citizens are bilinguals; or that all Canadians are forced to learn two languages from birth. This is not the case. (French class is mandatory until the ninth grade; see conclusion). Most Canadians are not bilingual.

According to the Canadian yearbook, roughly 17% of Canada’s population is officially bilingual (speaking both English and French). (60% of Canada’s population is native tongue English-speakers; 22% French-speakers and 18% other–most of the other are Allophones.) Most of these bilinguals are native-tongue French speakers. That is, they identify French as their first language (spoken in the home and by their parents). These native-tongue French speakers account for 87% of bilinguals in general. This means that only 13% or less of bilinguals identify English or another language as their native tongue.The truth of the matter is, it’s more convenient for French speakers in Canada to learn English than vice versa.

 So, how does bilingualism work? In practice, bilingualism is only important in the government. Bilingualism means that the Federal government must publish official documents and reports in both English and French. All senior executives, including the Prime Minister, must be bilingual. All federal or government signs must be in English and French, and all services from the government must be offered in English and French. Case in point: If I approach a government official and start speaking French, someone must be available to respond to me in French. I should also be allowed to browse the government of Canada website in either language.

Moreover, bilingualism affects businesses also. Businesses operating in Canada, particularly in Quebec or a bilingual province (see provinces) must offer business in French. Since businesses are private however, the government cannot force them to print, publish documents or offer services in French (except for Quebec, whose laws say that they must do this). On the matter of labels and signs, it is mandatory that all businesses operating nationally publish these in English and French. This means that in Canada, if you buy a drink and want to read the ingredients, you’ll notice that the ingredients will appear in French and English on the container. On a side note: Google.ca can be browsed in French or English, also.

Bilingualism In Stats and Province

In Canada, federal and provincial (state) language policies are not complementary. While the federal government continue to push bilingualism, the provinces have been slow to accept it, despite the incentives.

 Quebec
The majority of Canada’s 22% French speakers live in the province of Quebec. Quebec accounts for over 80% of French speakers. Quebec remains the only province to entrench French as its official and sole language. Moreover, Quebec does not have a secondary language immersion program, along with Nunavut. The primary reason is that the province and territory are concerned with preserving their native languages (Nunavut is a First Nations territory).

Manitoba
Manitoba exists north of Quebec, and entered the battle of bilingualism in the Manitoba Question issue, which saw French rights and the rights of Catholics in the province disappear after the loss of a significant portion of French-speaking Catholics.

Ontario
Ontario, once part of larger Quebec before it was split into Upper Canada (Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec), borders Quebec. Ontario has the second highest percentage of native tongue French speakers outside of Quebec. Signs in Ontario, especially in the country’s capitol (Ottawa), are bilingual. Most, if not all Canadians who live along the Ottawa Valley are bilingual.

New Brunswick
 New Brunswick is the only official bilingual province in Canada. The province has an Arcadian population accounting for 33% of its population; therefore, making it officially bilingual. According to the Official Languages Act, any province with a significant portion of its population speaking one of two languages must be considered bilingual. New Brunswick has its own provincial Official Languages Act, parallel English and French school systems and legislation requiring equal government treatment of both language groups.

ISSUES AND CONTROVERSIES

French Immersion Schools
French Immersion schools in Canada are elementary and high schools designed to churn out fully bilingual Canadians. Roughly 6% of all Canadian elementary and post secondary students are enrolled in these kind of schools. This is an increase of 40% since 2001. However, these schools are still seen as unsuccessful.

Quebec Schools Controversy
In Quebec, the government is quite in control of language policy. The government decides what language your child can be taught in, depending on your language background. In Quebec, if you are a French-speaker (Native tongue), you cannot send your child to an primarily English-speaking school.

THE CONCLUSION
How does bilingualism affect your private life in Canada? Unless you live in a bilingual province or want to work with the Federal government, it doesn’t really affect you. If you want to become a high ranking federal official or Prime Minister, then you must speak French and English–with some fluency.

 READ MORE on Canada’s language policy history
Canada’s Yearbook language stats

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About TCDH

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