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Jerry Amernic: The myth of bilingualism


Bill Davis, Premier of Ontario from 1971 to 1985, passed away one year ago.Bill 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.“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.“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,The 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.Bill 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.

Brendan Steven: The Catholic doctrine of discovery is already null and void


At last, the Pope has apologized on Canadian soil for the Catholic role in this country’s shameful history of residential schools.

Will the apology be accepted? A friend reminded me that forgiveness is an act of the will. Every residential school survivor and family member will choose for themselves what this apology means to them. An APTN correspondent described the reaction of one woman: “The moment [the Pope] apologized, she felt all her sadness and anger leave her body.” If for that alone, this visit is worth it.

It is not my place to say whether the apology should be accepted. But for some of those rejecting it, one reason why casts a long shadow: the Doctrine of Discovery. The issue inflames passions. Just last week, at a papal Mass in Quebec, activists unfurled a banner that read “RESCIND THE DOCTRINE”.

To them, I am happy to report that the Church has done exactly that. There is no Catholic Doctrine of Discovery. The claim that one is part of contemporary Catholic teaching is simply untrue.

So, what is the Doctrine of Discovery? Things get a little confusing here. The term “Doctrine of Discovery” was first articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1832. It describes a principle whereby sovereignty over “new” lands was claimed by Europeans who first “found” them, whether or not Indigenous peoples already lived there. Today’s use of the term is broader. It is a catch-all that takes in a separate concept, terra nullius—the false notion that Europeans discovered empty land for the taking.

When you hear the Doctrine of Discovery and the Catholic Church referenced together, what is most often being described is a series of papal bulls promulgated during the Age of Discovery. What is a papal bull? First, it is not a doctrine in the theological sense. There is a misconception that, for Catholics, everything the Pope says is infallible, issued forth as if from the mouth of God himself. Only in some very specific cases is what the Pope declares considered an infallible teaching. Papal bulls are not one of those cases.

Bulls are political declarations made by the Pope. They are retractable. They come from a time when the Vatican had hard political power. There is not space here to give the fullest explanation for each of these papal bulls and their content. For that, I refer you to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ own condemnation of the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius. Suffice to say, together, these papal bulls provided something like permission for certain Catholic European powers to exert sovereignty over new territories.

Of course, those countries did what they pleased, with or without the Vatican’s permission. For instance, these infamous papal bulls include Inter Caetera of 1493. It gave Spain approval to rule over a large part of the Americas. This bull aimed to settle territorial disputes between Spain and Portugal. It failed in that purpose. Spain broke terms soon after, expanding past the boundaries the bull had set. Spain then went further, using the bull as justification for robbing local Indigenous peoples of land and sovereignty. No wonder the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action reference the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius at multiple points, including a call for religious denominations to repudiate it.

That is what the Catholic Church has done. It did not take long to do it. Inter Coetera began abrogating a year after it went into effect, all because Spain violated it. Keep in mind, as the Vatican itself has stated, subsequent papal bulls abolish previous ones. In 1537, Pope Paul III issued a new bull, Sublimus Deus, declaring that “Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property… and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.” The Canadian bishops list several papal decrees that follow the path set by Sublimus Deus:

  • Pope Urban VIII in the bull Commissum Nobis, condemning Portuguese abuse of Indigenous people under their rule;
  • Pope Benedict XIV in the bull Immensa Pastorum, condemning the enslavement and abuse of Indigenous peoples and excommunicating any Catholic involved in the slave trade;
  • Pope Gregory XVI’s apostolic letter In Supremo, condemning slavery in Africa and the Indies; and,
  • Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical In Plurimis, calling for the abolition of slavery in Brazil and worldwide.

Turning to the modern era, the Vatican repudiated the bulls before the U.N. in 2010, saying that Inter Coetera has already been abrogated” and is “without any legal or doctrinal value. They go on to say, “the fact that juridical systems may employ the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ as a juridical precedent is therefore now a characteristic of the laws of those states and is independent of the fact that for the Church the document has had no value whatsoever for centuries.”

More recently, in a 2016 statement condemning the principles which undergirded the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius, the Canadian bishops alongside other leading Catholic Canadian organizations declared that “we firmly assert that there is no basis in the Church’s Scriptures, tradition, or theology, for the European seizure of land already inhabited by Indigenous Peoples” and “we reject the assertion that the principle of the first taker or discoverer, often described today by the terms Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius, could be applied to lands already inhabited by Indigenous Peoples.”

And, of course, we have the words of Pope Francis himself, spoken earlier this week: “I am deeply sorry. Sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the indigenous peoples. I am sorry. I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the Church and of religious communities cooperated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools.” Organizers of the papal visit point to this last statement as a repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery.

Beyond denouncing the Doctrine, the Canadian bishops have strongly supported the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and that UNDRIP “resonates strongly with statements already made by the Catholic Church.” These include Indigenous self-determination, self-government, right to traditional territories, right to their own educational institutions, and more. The principles contained in UNDRIP are the antithesis of the Doctrine of Discovery. In his pilgrimage to Canada, the Pope explicitly says Canadian Catholic communities are committed to promoting Indigenous peoples and cultures “in the spirit of UNDRIP.”

Still, as Archbishop Don Bolen of Regina said this week, “those papal bulls are not operative, [yet] on the other hand, we resonate with the Indigenous desire to name those papal bulls, to say we completely distance ourselves from them.” The archbishop shared that a Vatican document is being produced that will provide even more clarity on the issue.

Clarity is only ever a good thing. But despite the confusion, we cannot forget the reality: when it comes to Catholic teaching, the Doctrine of Discovery is null and void.