Multiculturalism in Canada: Are We Doing Enough to Promote Linguistic Diversity?

By Sanah Matadar, Social Media Coordinator

Most people, both inside and outside the borders of Canada, are familiar with the generalization that Canada is a very multicultural nation. At the very least, this sentiment is always brought up when discussing Canada’s major cities. Every opportunity we get, we celebrate this image of diversity and openness to multiculturalism. Take the following stories and ads as examples:

Certain facts definitely reinforce this idea of multiculturalism in the nation, such as Canada resettling more refugees than any other country in 2018. But recently many have been speaking out and asking whether embracing multiculturalism in Canada is just an image thing, a matter of optics especially poignant when comparing the country to our southern neighbour, or whether it is our reality. This question itself is huge, even if you look at it solely from the perspective of languages and linguistic diversity.

As a nation, Canada has two official languages: English and French. These are the two languages that are promoted throughout Canadian communities, with all official government documents and communications available in both. Speaking one or both of these languages provides an advantage to potential migrants. Students throughout the country are given the opportunity to learn the other language as a second language through public school curriculums (i.e. French or English Immersion). Officially, being a bilingual nation is a huge part of Canadian identity. One might ask however, why a country constantly announcing its level of multiculturalism to the world limits itself to these two languages. The truth is, Canada’s linguistic diversity is not best described in the domain of official languages and in fact, multiculturalism does shine through in other ways.

Take for instance the language section of the Canadian census. The questions asked in the official census paint a broader picture of Canada’s linguistic diversity. As opposed to asking which of the two official languages one might speak, the census provides an opportunity to indicate one’s mother tongue, home language, work language, as well as first official language. This might suggest that you don’t need to hide away or push back your ability to speak languages other than English or French, and that the country is interested in monitoring such things which could then serve to inform future policies or public services. For instance, if a community has very low English and French speaking ability, services in that community might benefit from offering interpreters and translators.

A further example that comes to mind when thinking of Canada embracing linguistic diversity is with educational language programs. Take for instance the Toronto District School Board’s (TDSB) International Languages Program, offered to all students, Kindergarten to Grade 8. According to the program site, this extracurricular program is a direct response to an “increasingly globalized world.” The school board recognizes the importance of speaking multiple languages beyond just the two official ones in Canada, and encourages students to take part in this program to help:

  • Preserve their mother tongues (which is particularly helpful for an increasingly newcomer population)
  • Provide an opportunity to all students to learn languages which they might not otherwise have access to

Unfortunately, with the provincial government’s cuts to education, the ILP is threatened.

A discussion on linguistic diversity in Canada cannot be had without mentioning the position of Indigenous languages in this country. These are the languages, as one writer for Canadian Geographic put it, “of the land beneath your feet…these have been spoken, and have been evolving, for thousands of years, far longer than English or French” (Walker, 2017). Approximately 229,000 Canadians claim an Indigenous language as one of their primary languages. And yet, three quarters of these languages are endangered.

Much is to be said about the colonial effects on the languages and the loss sustained as a direct result of the residential school system; this could very well be an entire blog entry of its own. There is even more recent debate on the revitalization and preservation efforts of these languages, through recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and how the Canadian government chooses to implement changes versus the efforts undertaken by Indigenous individuals themselves.For example, 2019 marks huge changes in the linguistic landscape of Canada, with amendments being made to the Official Languages Act as well as new legislation under the Indigenous Languages Act. Nevertheless, some Aboriginal Peoples believe that the latter legislation is lacking. More specifically, Inuit leaders claim that it does not represent their community’s needs, and that there’s no mention of providing critical public services such as health care or legal aid in Indigenous languages. Furthermore, in neither the Official Languages Act nor the Indigenous Languages Act is any Indigenous language granted official language status. This is something that the territory of Nunavut would like to see, with Inuktitut recognized on the same level as English and French.

I am not Indigenous, nor do I personally require services in languages other than English. However, I can acknowledge that every Canadian is not in the same situation as I am, and I respect and support their rights to receive services in the language they best understand. Language should never pose a barrier, but should always provide a way to connect. All this is not to say that Canada is a bad place. Instead, it is an opportunity to point out that while there is a lot of good to celebrate in Canada, there is still work to be done. To make public services multilingual no doubt requires a lot of resources. But if Canada paints itself as a nation thriving off of multiculturalism and accepting of all differences, it would be nice for that painting to be rooted in reality, rather than abstract conceptions meant merely for comparisons to other nations.