According to Canada’s most recent census, only 17.9 percent of Canadians claim to speak both French and English, which means 82.1 percent of Canadians are ineligible to occupy the multitude of government positions reserved by law or custom for those fluent in Canada’s “two official languages.” This includes not only flashy jobs such as prime minister or Supreme Court justice, but also 43 percent of all positions in the Canadian federal bureaucracy, according to a 2017 report by the Clerk of the Privy Council.

Bilingualism requirements are heavily biased to the benefit of native French speakers in Quebec. About 94 percent of Quebec’s population of 8 million claims to speak French, with 44.5 percent claiming to be bilingual – by far the highest rate in the country. A 2017 Treasury Board “snapshot of Canada’s federal public service” revealed that 32 percent of all federal executives speak French as their first language, though only 21.4 percent of Canadians do.

When power in a society is unequally distributed, that must be rationalized with a patriotic fable intended to present the inequality as natural and proper. In Canada’s case, this has required much myth-making about the country’s being far more functionally bilingual than it actually is. Ottawa has contributed to the myth in ways ranging from silly, such as commissioning official flags to honor the tiny French-speaking populations of places like Newfoundland and Saskatchewan, to extravagant, such as pumping millions into the Yukon’s French schools.

Provincial politicians play along, particularly in Ontario, which likes to imagine itself as Canada in miniature. Though only 11.5 percent of Ontarians claim fluency in French – with over 97 percent of these claiming to speak English, too – Ontario’s provincial government goes out of its way to affect a bilingual persona. Premiers lapse into French during speeches, French is showily affixed to public signage and the province provides a multitude of French-language services, at an estimated cost of $623 million (Canadian dollars) a year.

New heights of delusion were reached in 2017, when the Liberal administration of then-Prime Minister Kathleen Wynne announced plans to open an $83.5 million French-language university in Toronto. It would be “governed by and for Francophones,” declared the provincial minister of Francophone affairs.

The Franco-Ontarian community – those 4 percent of Ontarians who claim French as their “mother tongue” – is usually said to be to about 600,000. Their cultural relevance is vastly eclipsed by the 3.8 million Ontarians whose mother tongue is a non-official Canadian language, such as Chinese, Punjabi or Spanish.

The election of conservative populist Doug Ford to the premier’s office in June initially suggested a willingness to collapse some of bilingualism’s architecture of mythology. Upon taking power, Ford eliminated the Francophone affairs minister as a separate Cabinet-level office, folding the duties into the attorney general’s portfolio. Last week, as part of a much-promised government cost-cutting effort, it was announced that Ontario’s Office of the French Language Services Commissioner would be abolished, and the French university in Toronto canceled.

The swift backlash came from every corner of Canada’s bilingual ruling establishment, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer, Quebec Prime Minister François Legault, the Franco-Ontarian history research chair at Laurentian University and so on.

As the data above should suggest, Ford’s interest in scaling back some of Ontario’s overzealous bilingualism infrastructure was defensible on utilitarian grounds, given the small population affected and his province’s dire financial situation. Yet the enormous backlash against his measures – which has inspired a partial climb-down – reminds just how ferociously bilingualism’s defenders will react to any suggestion that their favored policy should be judged according to something as crass as numbers.

“The worrying thing is that he compares us to all other minorities in the province,” an employee for the French Catholic school board in Ottawa complained to the Ottawa Citizen. Legault bristled at the thought of French Canadians “being compared to the Chinese or other cultures.”

Ideas, as philosopher Eric Hoffer famously stated, have a tendency to evolve from causes to rackets. In Canada’s present multicultural age, official bilingualism long ago mutated from an ill-conceived but forgivable effort to numb French-Canadian separatism into an indefensible racket to preserve a small slice of the public’s disproportionate grip on state power.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: