Public opinion letter: Two Years into the Pandemic, Canadians’ Support for Core Values of Official Bilingualism and Diversity Remains High
Gatineau, Quebec, March 14, 2022
Good news hasn’t exactly been easy to come by lately, but we could all use some, and I’ve got some good news that I’d like to share.
According to a recently published telephone survey conducted by Environics and the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, an impressive 87% of Canadians support the aims of the Official Languages Act, which promotes the equality of English and French and ensures federal services in the two languages. A number that speaks volumes.
What’s more is that this level of support is virtually unchanged from a similar survey conducted for our office in 2016.
Why is this such a big deal?
For starters, the federal government recently tabled a new official languages bill, so these results are timely.
But more broadly, the results are important because of what they tell us about ourselves and the resiliency of our shared values under trying circumstances.
In the last half decade, we have experienced a creeping populist majoritarian discourse south of the border and around the world, two federal elections resulting in two hung parliaments, a proliferation of knee-jerk responses and disinformation on social media that has undermined trust in academia, in journalism, in science and in government, and a once-in-a-century global pandemic that has stretched the patience and tolerance of us all. In spite of everything, an overwhelming majority of Canadians continues to support official bilingualism, one of the core principles that lie at the heart of Canadian diversity, inclusiveness and human rights.
That is why this is such a big deal.
The national consensus in favour of official bilingualism has held, and the naysayers, although loud and never shy about sharing their negative views, clearly do not speak for any one particular group or region. Indeed, support for the Official Languages Act was high across the board, including
- in Western Canada (82%), Ontario (87%), Quebec (95%) and Atlantic Canada (86%)
- among English (85%), French (96%) and other (87%) mother tongue populations
- among younger (90%) and older (84%) adults
- among racialized groups (87%)
- among people born in (88%) and outside of (86%) Canada
In addition to supporting the Act, Canadians are in general agreement with other specific measures in support of official bilingualism and official language minorities, for example, minority language education and better access to second-language education.
The survey also found that support for official bilingualism is consistent with support for other forms of diversity. Too often we read commentary that reduces diversity to a “zero-sum game,” weighing different minorities against each other – not for the purposes of expanding language rights, but rather to roll them back. This is why I was encouraged to see that Canadians agree that official bilingualism and other forms of diversity can work well together. For instance, most agree that having two official languages, instead of just one, “sends the signal that Canada values linguistic diversity” (86%), and that it “has made Canada a more welcoming place for immigrants from different cultures” (79%).
Perhaps most encouragingly in the context of reconciliation, 78% agree that Canada can and should promote both official languages and Indigenous languages at the same time.
All this being said, we must never take public support for our core values for granted. Governments at all levels and in all regions must work hard to advance official languages and minority language rights, policies and programs and help promote them among Canadians. In the Prairies, where people are more likely to feel disconnected from the federal government, support for the Act remains high (79%) but below the national average. The survey also shows that in Quebec, people continue to have far greater exposure to the two languages than elsewhere, which may help to explain some of the mounting anxieties about the future of French. Across Canada, problematic myths persist. An online component of the survey revealed that: many still think all federal employees must be bilingual (not true, only 42% of positions in the core administration are designated bilingual); most Anglophones and most Francophones think that outside Quebec French is no longer the second-most common language (it still is, and by far); and nearly half of Francophones think that the English-speaking minority in Quebec is more socio-economically privileged than the Francophone majority (which is not the case).
But if the glass is 13% empty, let’s not forget that it’s also 87% full. Too often, we amplify the negative voices in our public discourse. It’s time to acknowledge the quiet majority of Canadians.
Support for cultural-linguistic minority rights does not always fare well in times of crisis, want and hardship. Remarkably, however, support for official languages today is just about as strong as it was in “the beforetimes,” in the halcyon pre-pandemic days of 2016. Much has changed since then, and not a great deal of it for the better. In spite of it all, when it comes to the fundamental value of official bilingualism, we have remained true to ourselves. We may have lost our innocence, but in this respect, at least, we have hung on to our humanity.
Raymond Théberge, Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada
Raymond Théberge is the Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada, an independent Agent of Parliament.
The survey by Environics Research and the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages was carried out in September and October 2021 and included a national telephone probability survey of 1,507 adult Canadians (margin of error +/- 2.5%, 19 times out of 20) and a national online panel survey of 1,500 adult Canadians. Specific figures mentioned in this article refer to the telephone results unless otherwise indicated.