Canada will become more multilingual this year

By David Charbonneau
January 3, 2019 - 10:45am
Image Credit: Vadim Nikolaevitch Gouida /

THE TRUDEA GOVERNMENT intends to enact the Indigenous Languages Act before the next election in October this year. The act will recognize the use of Indigenous languages as a "fundamental right."

While Indigenous languages will not have the same status as Canada’s two official languages, it’s a significant step in preserving Indigenous culture.

When approved, Ottawa would financially support all 58 Indigenous languages. Let’s hope it’s not too late. Across Canada, only about 15 percent of young First Nations people can hold a conversation in their ancestral language. (Walrus magazine, June, 2018)

In British Columbia, only 8,435 people speak their mother tongue according to the 2016 census. The most common was Carrier, with a thousand speakers.

The act would not only preserve Indigenous languages but standardize them. As it now stands, Cree, Inuktut, and Ojibwe are the most common languages in Canada but speakers are spread across vast stretches of land. The result is a wide variety of dialects. Because of the lack of standardization, course materials may only apply to a single region. Ojibwe, as spoken across much of Ontario differs from that in Manitoba; in the U.S. it’s known as Chippewa.

The Indigenous Languages Act is one of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which called for an independent, national oversight body to monitor Canada's "post-apology progress on reconciliation."

The act is modeled after the fifty-year-old Official Languages Act (OLA). I hope that the new act to preserve Indigenous languages is more effective than the act to make Canada more bilingual.

The OLA compels the federal government to take "positive measures" to enhance "the vitality of the English and French linguistic minority communities in Canada" by "supporting and assisting their development and fostering the full recognition and use of both English and French in Canadian society."

One-half a century later, OLA is found wanting. Except for Quebec and New Brunswick –Canada’s only bilingual province — the number of French-speakers has been slowly declining. Other than in Quebec and New Brunswick, the mother-tongue francophone population is less than four per cent. Conversational French is a bit better. About 10 per cent of Canadians outside Quebec can carry on a conversation in both official languages; in Quebec nearly one-half can.

Meanwhile, immigration, not language acts, is the biggest contributor to the growing multilingualism of Canada. Fifty years ago, no one could have predicted that Filipino would have been the most widely used language in Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Calgary; second only to English.

Toronto has the largest number of Philippine immigrants but Winnipeg is where they make up the highest percentage of all residents. At least 50,000 people speak a mother tongue from the Philippines; the most common being Filipino based on Tagalog.

Montreal has more trilingual residents than anywhere else in Canada with French, English and Italian being spoken.

Canada will become more multilingual this year but let’s hope that it’s not at the expense of our Indigenous culture and bicultural identity. Let’s celebrate the chorus of global voices of our countryside and in our cosmopolitan cities while preserving what makes Canada distinct.