Canada’s linguistic duality at the heart of inclusiveness and diversity

Our linguistic duality lies at the heart of the Canadian values of inclusiveness and diversity. Over the course of our history, accommodating two languages has helped Canadians understand that diversity and difference are strengths, not weaknesses, and to some extent has fostered greater openness toward other cultures.

Coming to terms with our linguistic duality has helped us learn how to welcome others and to think of ourselves as a diverse society. The Constitution Act of 1867 included special protections for the English and French languages and for Catholic and Protestant religious minorities.

This spirit of inclusiveness had its limits. Canada imposed harsh and racist policies against Indigenous peoples, Asians, Germans, Italians, Jews and other groups. These policies were grounded in ignorance and fear of cultural differences. The legacies of this racism can still be felt today. With time, however, the need to accommodate two distinct language groups has helped many Canadians understand that it is actually possible—and beneficial—for different peoples to coexist within the same political community.

After the First World War, some advocates of Anglophone-Francophone accommodation began to explore how linguistic duality gave Canadians a foundation upon which to build a greater respect for all cultures. “Just as the world is better for its infinite diversity of character, so the State is better for diversity,”Footnote 1 declared Ontarian William Moore in 1918. Moore was an English-speaking advocate of Francophone minority rights.

Library and Archives Canada/PA-027607
Source: Library and Archives Canada/PA-027607

In 1927, Canada’s 60th anniversary celebrations also highlighted linguistic duality and the country’s broader diversity. Canada’s Governor General, Freeman Thomas Willingdon, opened the festivities in Ottawa with a bilingual address that celebrated British and French heritage, the arrival of a diverse immigrant population and Canadians’ ability to share a common “devotion to the land of their birth or adoption.”Footnote 2 The celebrations in Ottawa were conducted in both English and French and included bilingual parade floats and musical performances that showcased Canada’s increasing ethnocultural diversity.

The official bilingualism and multiculturalism that Canadians enjoy today share the same origins: the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (1963–1969). The commissioners believed that official bilingualism and multiculturalism could be mutually reinforcing: “A country like Canada must admit diversity within unity, show itself hospitable, and refuse to tolerate any kind of discrimination,” they explained. “The presence in Canada of many people whose language and culture are distinctive by reason of their birth or ancestry represents an inestimable enrichment that Canadians can not afford to lose.” Every Canadian, continued the commissioners, should be encouraged to integrate into either or both of the official language communities without “the loss of an individual’s identity . . . [or] original language and culture.”Footnote 3

These recommendations became the basis for the1969 Official Languages Act and the 1971 Multiculturalism Policy—the first of its kind in the world. Eighteen years later, a new Official Languages Act and a new Multiculturalism Act were passed within a week of each other. Both pieces of legislation affirmed “the importance of preserving and enhancing the use of languages other than English and French while strengthening the status and use of the official languages of Canada.”Footnote 4

Today, a strong majority of Canadians agree that having two official languages has made Canada a more hospitable place for immigrants from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds.

Published on Wednesday, December 13, 2017

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