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 43 percent of all positions in the Canadian federal bureaucracy, according to a 2017 report by the Clerk of the Privy Council.
Ottawa is aware that this imbalance is not warmly received by all. As the Clerk’s report delicately noted, “for some public servants, mostly employees who did not learn French prior to entering the labor market, they expressed concern that this makes it difficult to acquire the language skills needed to advance in their careers, and could limit access to bilingual positions to individuals who entered the Public Service bilingual.”
“Employees who did not learn French prior to entering the labor market” euphemistically alludes to the fact that bilingualism requirements do not discriminate equally but 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 executives in the federal government 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, with French a familiar presence in everyday Canadian life. Over the decades, Ottawa has contributed to the myth in ways that range 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 French schools in the Yukon.
Provincial politicians play along, particularly in Ontario, which likes to imagine itself as the country in miniature. Though only 11.5 percent of Ontarians claim fluency in French — with more than 97 percent of these claiming to speak English, too — Ontario’s provincial government goes out of its way to affect a bilingual persona increasingly indistinguishable from Ottawa’s. Premiers lapse into French during speeches, French is showily affixed to public signage, and the state provides a multitude of French-language services for the benefit of what is flatteringly described as a robust “Franco-Ontarian community.” In 2012, the Fraser Institute estimated that Ontario spends $623 million (Canadian dollars) annually on French services.
New heights of profligate delusion were reached last summer, when the Liberal administration of former premier Kathleen Wynne announced plans to open an $83.5 million French-language university in downtown Toronto. It would be “governed by and for Francophones,” declared the provincial minister of Francophone affairs.
The Franco-Ontarian community is usually said to be to around 600,000, which describes those 4 percent of Ontarians who claim French as their “mother tongue.” Though politicians often describe this minority as an essential part of the province, in reality the cultural relevance of French-Ontarians 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 portfolio of Attorney General Caroline Mulroney. Last week, as part of a much-promised effort at government cost-cutting, it was announced that Ontario’s Office of the French Language Services Commissioner would be abolished, and the unbuilt French university in Toronto canceled.
The backlash was swift, coming 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 infamously dire financial situation. Yet the enormous backlash against his measures — a backlash that has now 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 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.
To be bilingual in contemporary Canada is to speak a language of little practical use outside the borders of Quebec or the halls of some powerful federal institution. It is precisely the arbitrary nature of this privilege that means it will not be surrendered easily.
J.J. McCullough, a political commentator and cartoonist from Vancouver.