Jerry Amernic: The myth of bilingualism

Nearly four out of five Canadians could never be prime minister because they don’t speak fluent French
Signs are pictured on Parliament Hill prior to Canada Day, in Ottawa on Monday, June 27, 2022. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.

Bill Davis, Premier of Ontario from 1971 to 1985, passed away one year ago.1Bill Davis Younger people may know his name from Wikipedia but by everyone’s account, Davis was a thoroughly decent man devoted to public service, and with Davis that is no cliché.

The one exchange I had with him was early in my writing career. I was covering an event for a magazine and he was speaking. When he finished I scribbled a note, approached the head table, and handed it to him. I was looking for freelance work from the provincial government and who better to ask than the premier?

Davis didn’t know me from Adam but read the note and promised to respond. He then arranged a meeting for me with his deputy premier. That’s the kind of man Bill Davis was.

Later there was a move afoot for him to run federally. I have observed the federal scene for decades and if there has ever been a politician—from any party—better suited for prime minister than Bill Davis, the name escapes me. But Davis didn’t speak French and his foray into federal politics was nipped in the bud.

A lawyer from Brampton, Ontario, Davis didn’t speak French because he had no need, just as I’ve never had any need in my work. I am born and raised in Toronto, the place National Geographic once called the most multicultural city in the world. But there is little need for French here and, for that matter, in most of Canada. Unless you work for the federal government.

Canada parades itself as a bilingual country, but it isn’t.2“French is the mother tongue of 22.3 percent of the Canadian population or about 7 million Canadians.” This is a myth designed to pretend we are something that we aren’t. Part of the reason we are what we are is history and part is geography. I won’t debate here the English win over the French on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, but one thing beyond argument is that there are over 4,000 kilometers of country west of the Ontario-Quebec border where French is of little consequence.3“28.36% of the population of New Brunswick speaks French as their mother tongue, the second highest in the country. Nunavut, Alberta, Saskatchewan, British Columbus, and Newfoundland have the smallest populations of French speakers with less than 1% of their population speaking French. On average 20.61% of the Canadian population speak French at home on a regular basis. However, the figures indicate a decline in the proportion of the Canadians who are using French as their mother tongue.”

Take the Greater Toronto Area with more than six million people and thousands, if not millions, who speak another language besides English. They speak Italian. German. Russian. Spanish. Tamil. Mandarin. Portuguese. Greek. Farsi, Arabic. Hindi. The list goes on and on. But French barely registers.

This isn’t to say that all French speakers should be beheaded or disenfranchised. Of course not. But by the same token those who don’t speak French—which is the great majority of Canadians—should not be beholden to this grand delusion of bilingualism.

Canada is symbolically bilingual, but symbolism costs money and effort. Symbolism means you have French road signs across the country’s busiest highway—the 401—even though a dozen other languages are in more use than French by the motorists who drive that highway. Symbolism means federal government services are available in two languages no matter how much or how little one of them is spoken. Symbolism means Canada brands itself as bilingual when it’s not.

Americans like to boast that anyone can be president, which may or may not be true, but it’s certainly more true than the case here. In the current political context, I couldn’t be PM because the poorly-taught French I had in high school never got me far, and once I left French class there was never any need for it. My daughter was in French immersion as a child but after moving to the English-language curriculum her French waned because she never used it. I guess she couldn’t be PM either. And neither could Bill Davis.

Davis was a man of integrity and principle, two commodities in precious short supply in the political arena today. He didn’t get a chance to become prime minister because of the pendulum. What do I mean? Prior to Pierre Trudeau, Canada had a prime minister who didn’t speak French: Lester Pearson. Before Pearson, there was John Diefenbaker and he didn’t speak French either. Back in those days, Canada was led by non-Quebeckers who spoke no French or Quebeckers who spoke both languages.

Granted, if I was a Quebecker and my prime minister didn’t speak my tongue, I wouldn’t be too happy. And so the pendulum started to swing the other way and hasn’t stopped.

Bilingualism in Canada is a myth perpetrated by mythmakers, many of whom reside in Ottawa. Every country engages in this sort of thing, but myths have led to the most horrible atrocities in history. Witness Russia invading a peaceful neighbour with the myth that the place was taken over by Nazis and must be cleansed. Language is a factor. As the myth goes, Russian speakers should enjoy the fruits of Russian citizenship. What fruits that may bring I will leave with you. But as far as Canada goes, let me offer a reality check.

  • Nearly four out of five Canadians (77 percent) could never be prime minister because they don’t speak fluent French,4The Canadian Francophonie by the numbers so right away the available talent pool for the job eliminates people like Bill Davis.
  • While Justin Trudeau was born in Ottawa making him a native of Ontario, we all know his heart isn’t there. He’s a Quebecker. Using this reasoning, our prime minister has been a Quebecker for 41 of the past 54 years. Pierre Trudeau for 15. Brian Mulroney nine. Jean Chretien ten. Justin Trudeau seven.
  • Barring the unforeseen, the chief combatants in the next federal election will be Justin Trudeau and Jean Charest, another Quebecker, or Pierre Poilievre, a westerner who grew up in Ottawa and is bilingual.
  • For over half a century only one PM who is not a Quebecker has held power longer than 26 months: Stephen Harper. This means the top office in the land is not representative of the people in this country.

Indeed, bilingualism is a prerequisite for the job and for leading any political party even though nearly 80 percent of Canadians don’t speak fluent French and have little or no use for it. And this when the province of Quebec serves up a new language law—Bill 96—which provides authoritarian powers of search and seizure without a warrant if a business employing 25 people or more is not conducting itself in French.5Bill 96: An Act respecting French, the official and common language of Quebec The language police can go after your emails and other forms of communication to make sure you toe the line. You can also be under the gun if new to the land and don’t speak French within six months of your arrival.

Only in Quebec is such language lunacy tolerated in Canada.

Only in Quebec can a government restrict what kind of religious garb civil servants can wear.

Only in Quebec is it okay to have a federal party running candidates in one province.

Only in Quebec does a provincial legislature call itself the national assembly.

Frankly, I feel like my nose is being rubbed in the dirt, but here is the long and short of it. If a man like Bill Davis has no chance of being PM because he doesn’t speak French—a language little used outside of government circles in most of Canada, a language not fluently spoken by the vast majority of Canadians—and we get a never-ending line of prime ministers who are academics, policy wonks, and the offspring of Quebec politicians, all of them fluently bilingual, then something is seriously out of whack in this country. On the other hand, they say we get the government we deserve.

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