Bilingualism a Boon for Canada

Two official languages affirm pride in our past, prepare us for the future

Historian Matthew Hayday observes the symbolism associated with Canada Day celebrations. Photo by Dean Palmer

Canada Day fetes the anniversary of Confederation, when Canada became a country separate from the British Empire in 1867. Originally called Dominion Day (Le Jour de la Confédération), it became a national holiday in 1879. Not until 1982 did the name officially change to Canada Day, divesting it of what many Canadians, particularly French-speaking ones, perceived as subservient overtones. Along with national pride, controversies over bilingualism in Canada often surge around July 1.

History professor Matthew Hayday frequently attends the annual “birthday party” on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill, where celebrations include the noontime playing of “O Canada” and flights by the Snowbirds aerobatics team. But he isn’t there just for fun; he is a keen observer of the symbolism connected with Canada’s identity, a researcher who focusses on issues of public policy, English-French relations, and federalism and identity politics in Canada.

“The selection of who performs on Parliament Hill for Canada Day indicates that bilingual performers are prized and bilingualism is more incorporated than ever,” Hayday says. “Bilingual representation reinforces this aspect of Canadian identity.”

This year’s evening show will highlight outstanding Canadian musicians such as Alberta’s Feist, who has performed her hit “1, 2, 3, 4” in French; Quebec’s Simple Plan, who released an English and a French version of their single “Jet Lag” on their website last year; and New Brunswick’s Roch Voisine, who sings fluently both in French and in English.

Not all Anglophones are aware that our national anthem has francophone roots. The original lyrics of “O Canada” were written in French for the 1880 Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day ceremony; a literal translation into English was done in 1906. Another English version was created in 1908, and that set of lyrics has since been revised twice. The version we know today was not officially recognized until 1980. The French lyrics haven’t changed since 1880.

“In the early 1970s, bilingualism was not yet a defining factor in the Canadian identity, but the federal government was promoting it and providing the provinces with strong financial support for French as a Second Language (FSL) instruction in addition to minority language education in schools,” says Hayday. “Individual bilingualism was also advanced by a variety of governmental, quasi-governmental and civil society groups. Ironically, the most fervent objections to Ottawa’s official languages policy from Alberta and British Columbia were balanced by the popularity of FSL in those provinces, where immersion instruction really took off.”

Hayday, himself, was not enrolled in French immersion classes, but he did learn French. He was highly motivated because it was the language his parents chose to speak when they didn’t want their kids to understand what they were saying. One of the first words he picked up was crème glacée (ice cream).

“I also recall playing board games developed by the Commissioner of Official Languages promoting language learning. In the Oh! Canada game, we had to spin a dial and translate phrases from English to French in order to make our way around the board – a map of Canada. It fostered national unity at the same time.

“In the 1980s, there was a similar game, called Explorations, but this one aimed to demonstrate how useful Canada’s two official languages could be in an international context. There was a growing awareness of globalization; international travel and business was expanding. Correspondingly, the value of bilingualism was increasingly recognized and accepted.”

Despite FSL education’s solid foundations, however, funding became a real issue in the 1990s and the federal purse strings have been tightening ever since.

“Today, Canadians tend to favour schools offering language learning opportunities. This is the outcome of more than four decades of promotional activities as well as the influence of the cohort of students who have graduated from French immersion and other language programs. Yet, our provincial governments often seem to regard second language instruction as a luxury rather than a core subject like math or science.”

There may be a gender aspect to this attitude, Hayday observes. Mathematics and science are still considered “hard skills” and are dominated by males, whereas languages are viewed as “soft skills” traditionally thought to rest squarely in the “feminine” domain. Tellingly, the majority of the members of Canadian Parents for French, an FSL education advocacy group, are female.

Hayday believes the benefit of understanding another language should not be underestimated. “Language abilities are useful skills. And, although many immersion students discontinue their French studies after Grade 9 or 10, the economic value of bilingualism is obvious in the government sector and international business.”

Related to Canada’s national identity, Hayday says: “Language is an integral factor in understanding our nation’s development. Recent events in Quebec, whether the “orange crush” of the NDP in the 2011 federal election or the current student protest movements, demonstrate that what happens in Quebec has tremendous ramifications Canada-wide. To be able to tap directly into another language community rather than rely upon third-party translation can offer important cultural insight.”

French Canadian culture is not only historically and politically relevant, but also dynamic at home and abroad, he adds. Cirque du Soleil, for example, has been introducing Canadian talent around the world in spectacular style and with formidable success since the 1980s. And Monsieur Lazhar, a 2011 French-language film directed by Quebec-born Philippe Falardeau, won six Genie awards and was nominated for the Oscar for best foreign-language film at the 84th Academy Awards.

“Since the Official Languages Act was passed by the Trudeau government in 1969, ratifying Canadians’ rights to access government services in the language of their choice, all major political parties have fostered bilingualism to one degree or another,” adds Hayday. “While the present government may be trying to step back from enforcing English-French bilingualism in the federal civil service, demand for third and fourth languages is emerging across Canada.”

Beyond our borders, we cannot assume the predominance of English will remain as strong as it is today, says Hayday. “Anglocentric attitudes in North America will not necessarily be borne out in future.

“Bilingualism is here to stay. Vive le Canada!”

Read More:  A U of G economics study shows bilingual employees earn more than their unilingual counterparts.

 


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