Canadian Identity and Language

Language policy has been a periodic concern of states and other governing institutions in the West since at least the time of the counter-Reformation Church.

Canadian Identity and Language

Language policy has been a periodic concern of states and other governing institutions in the West since at least the time of the counter-Reformation Church. In Canada, it was not until 1901 that questions related to language were posed in the census, but by the time the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was established in 1963, it was clear that language had come to claim an important place in the politics around CANADIAN IDENTITY. This reflects the evolution of Canada's "two solitudes," a term that originally referred to Canadians with either French or British ancestry (See New France, Acadia, Conquest, English, Scots, Irish, Biculturalism, Cultural Dualism), their chief distinguishing mark being religion more than language, but that nowadays invokes either the francophone and anglophone linguistic groups or, more specifically, the national communities of francophone Quebecers and English Canadians (See Francophone-Anglophone Relations). Not everyone is comfortable with identifying the latter two as "nations," although the label has become far less controversial as regards the Québécois whereas its use remains rare in the case of the English Canadians (who nevertheless need to be distinguished from the larger group of anglophone Canadians: "English Canadians" consist strictly of those anglophones who identify in a significant way with English Canadian culture). Regardless, these ambiguities and complexities are characteristic of the vexed question of Canadian identity, which has become increasingly tied to language politics in the country.

Broadly speaking, three main positions regarding language can be identified today. The first takes its cue from the Royal Commission and favours an officially bilingual Canada as a means of reaffirming the historical thesis that the country is the product of two "founding peoples" (See Official Languages Act, 1969) A variant of this approach, one originating with former prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, endorses official bilingualism but rejects the claim that two "peoples" or "nations" deserve any sort of recognition in Canada today; on the contrary, it argues that we should be giving due regard to Canada's multicultural reality instead. Trudeau's "Dream of One Canada" has also gone further, expressing the hope that one day all Canadians, and not merely their federal government and institutions, will be fully bilingual.

The second position arises from an arguably more coherent take on the multiculturalism thesis: since, according to one interpretation, it implies that no linguistic group deserves special status, the country should have no official languages. That said, those who favour this position tend to believe that the federal government should operate in English for purely pragmatic reasons, it being the language that most Canadians are able to speak (85% according to the 2011 census).

Finally, the third position is derived from a multicultural conception of Canadian identity that is also "multinational:" it argues that French and English should have official status because this provides recognition of the specificity of two of the country's nations. As for the various Aboriginal nations (See Aboriginal People, Languages), many adherents to this approach suggest that while efforts should be made to help with the preservation of their languages, it would be far too impractical to require the federal government to use them in its day to day operations.

Further Reading

  • Charles Blattberg, "Federalism and Multinationalism" and "The Importance of Language in the Life of Nations," both in Patriotic Elaborations: Essays in Practical Philosophy (2009); Will Kymlicka, Finding Our Way: Rethinking Ethnocultural Relations in Canada (1998); Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism and Hugh R. Innis, Bilingualism and Biculturalism: An Abridged Version of the Royal Commission Report (1973); Pierre Elliott Trudeau, "Say Goodbye to the Dream of One Canada," Toronto Star, May 27, 1987; Pierre Elliott Trudeau, "Statement on Multiculturalism," in H.D. Forbes, ed., Canadian Political Thought (1987)

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