For three days in April, Chantelle Prentice camped outside in Salmon Arm, B.C., guarding her place in line – not for concert tickets or the latest iPhone, but to snag one of 17 coveted French immersion spots at Bastion Elementary School for her five-year-old son, Taylor.
An anglophone who hated her own high-school French courses, Ms. Prentice still feels strongly that bilingualism is central to Canada’s identity, as well as a gateway to other languages.
“I don’t think there’s enough young people speaking French and keeping it going in our country,” she said. “But I also appreciate diversity. So Mandarin and Punjabi, all those are absolutely great. If my son has an opportunity to dabble in other languages, then I would definitely be supportive of that as well.”
Demand for French immersion programs has been steady or rising across the country for the past decade.
But with more than five million Canadians speaking a mother tongue other than English or French as of 2006 – and projections say that number will rise when the 2011 census data is released this fall – school boards have begun adding other languages to the curriculum. Employers will say that while French is still highly valued as a second language, others are gaining ground, notably Spanish and Mandarin.
Given this, is bilingualism as an official policy still relevant to Canadians?
On the eve of St. Jean Baptiste Day, which celebrates Quebec francophone culture, heritage and the French language, The Globe and Mail asked readers to respond to that very question.
Based on responses to our reader callout, 57 per cent said they think it’s important for Canadians to speak both official languages. The cross-country snapshot also showed that 53 per cent of the respondents said they are bilingual, with another 20 per cent describing themselves as passable in French.
Few would say that Canada should do away with the Official Languages Act. Instead, there is a growing movement toward embracing institutionalized multilingualism as a part of Canadian identity.
With the deadline for doubling the proportion of youth bilingualism looming, the target seems all but unreachable.
On top of that, the census data from 1996 to 2006 indicate that bilingualism has stagnated for francophones in Quebec and is on the decline for anglophones outside Quebec, according to a 2008 Canadian Council of Learning report. The group also found that knowledge of a second language tends to diminish after leaving school.
Education, however, is a provincial, not a federal matter, so while Canada’s official languages watchdog called Ottawa’s 2003 goal laudable – a doubling of bilingualism by 2013 – it was never the idea behind the Official Languages Act.
“The policy was never to make all Canadians bilingual,” said Graham Fraser, Canadian Commissioner of Official Languages. “Instead, what it guarantees is that no matter which language you speak – English or French – you can get the same level of service.”
It’s not cheap. The Fraser Institute’s January study showed taxpayers foot an annual bill of $2.4-billion for federal and provincial bilingual services.
The Conservatives’ commitment to bilingualism came under fire last year over Supreme Court Justice Michael Moldaver’s inability to speak French, and became further inflamed with the selection of Michael Ferguson, an anglophone accountant from New Brunswick, to be the next Auditor-General.
Figures from the Office of the Commissioner for Official Languages show that 72 per cent of Canadians favour bilingualism across Canada, with the strongest regional support in Quebec, followed by Atlantic Canada. Even in Alberta, which has the lowest level of support, close to six in 10 favour bilingualism for all of Canada.
Some, like Senator Mobina Jaffer, say it’s time for Ottawa to move beyond recognizing English and French. When Parliament resumes in the fall, she will introduce a private member’s bill that asks the government to play a leadership role in promoting other languages in schools.
“European and Asian countries do it so much better,” she said. “It’s given in the schools that students will learn to speak two to three languages fluently. We need to get there, too, because that will help us economically with trade opportunities and promote more cross-cultural dialogue.”