I’m often asked if multiculturalism and bilingualism can co-exist. My default answer is “Why not? Pourquoi pas?” Multiculturalism does not exist in a vacuum in Canada. It is built on a pre-existing bilingual framework that still frames the content of the Canadian character.
Most Europeans who arrived in the peak years of immigration to Canada had the notion of preserving their mother tongue quickly drummed out of them by social pressure and the school system. They were forced, in other words, into a unilingual understanding of what it meant to be a Canadian.
Multiculturalism served, in many ways, as the celebration of newfound respect for the cultural heritages of non-British, non-French immigrant groups. But, having preached the virtues of multiculturalism for a generation, as a country we have failed to recognize the virtues of appreciating the importance of the notion of bilingualism.
Bilingualism is not a romantic idea, it is a purposeful and powerful one. It’s obvious that, in a North American context, the English language will trump all others, especially as English becomes a global Esperanto. But if what makes Canada truly distinct are its Anglo-French roots and its bilingual national character, then we should take the initiative to make sure that Canadians – no matter what their cultural heritage – are able to appreciate and communicate in our two official languages.
It’s not just a question of building a better citizen; it’s also a matter of making sure that there is a more equitable representation in our political institutions.
Why is it that we have so few representatives of non-British, non-French immigrant groups in the halls of power in Canada? As a country of immigrants, we have failed to ensure that every Canadian has the means and the ability to exercise a political voice that requires bilingualism and the kind of political understanding that is opened up through a knowledge of both languages.