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Canada’s bilingual identity

Linguistic duality is a defining characteristic of Canada’s international identity. We are widely known as a bilingual country with large English-speaking and French-speaking populations. Our linguistic duality gives meaningful expression to Canada’s commitment to pluralism and human rights.

Linguistic duality’s contribution to Canadian interests abroad

Promoting Canada’s linguistic duality abroad is important for both historical and practical reasons. Canada has long attracted immigrants of various cultures from all parts of the world. We owe our reputation of welcoming diversity in large part to the way we have supported and managed our linguistic differences.

Linguistic duality also gives Canada a marked advantage in the global competition of national interests. In a world where recognition and familiarity are important marketing tools, Canada’s bilingual brand gives us that extra edge when it comes to selling our products and services. It stands to reason that this is especially true for countries and populations sharing either or both of our official languages.

Questions about linguistic duality’s integration in international policy

As stated in the federal government’s October 2004 Speech from the Throne, Canada’s domestic and international policies “must work in concert.” However, previous interventions by this Office raised concerns about linguistic duality’s place in international policy issues.

Our studies on immigration revealed that little was being done to connect the flow of immigrants with the interests of our linguistic communities. At the same time, our studies concerning the Internet identified untapped potential within our international policy to promote linguistic diversity on the Web.

In addition, questions were raised about the image being presented of Canada’s Francophone and Anglophone communities at international gatherings and conferences.

A broader study

A broader examination of linguistic duality’s integration in Canada’s international relations was needed to identify overall strengths and weaknesses. This study therefore considers Canada’s bilingual identity in the federal government’s international policy and important programs and activities.

Our findings are based on 150 interviews conducted in November and December 2003. As it is the lead department for Canada’s international relations, most interviews were with officials at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.1 We also met with officials at Canadian Heritage and Industry Canada, given the important roles of these departments in promoting Canada’s cultural and economic interests internationally.

Outside Canada, we interviewed staff at our embassies in Paris, Madrid, Brussels, Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Washington, Mexico City and Santiago, Chile, as well as at Canada’s consulates general in New York and Chicago and at our permanent mission to the Organization of American States. In addition, a member of our study team participated in the federal government’s December 2003 trade mission to Chile.

Some positive findings

Much has been done to build upon Canada’s bilingual identity. The federal government is working within international organizations such as UNESCO to support cultural diversity. Canada’s prominent role in La Francophonie helps to embed linguistic duality in the worldview of Canada. In addition, certain funding programs such as the Public Diplomacy Program and the Canadian Studies Program encourage a proactive approach to Canada’s linguistic duality in cultural promotion while favouring the pan-Canadian character of our linguistic communities.

Weak links and missed opportunities

Linguistic duality’s integration in policies, programs and activities in this sector of government operations is nonetheless far from complete. Key issues include the following:

  • large gaps between departmental programs promoting linguistic duality and their application by certain diplomatic missions;
  • linguistic duality’s absence in Foreign Affairs Canada’s strategic plans and priorities, other than as a human resource issue;
  • a tendency to dismiss linguistic duality’s contribution to Canada’s important relationship with the United States;
  • inadequate integration within diplomatic missions of cultural promotion with trade promotion, which means that linguistic duality’s value to Canada’s economic development is not being fully realized;
  • support within Canada’s Anglophone population for La Francophonie is underdeveloped; and
  • inadequate guidance, resources and monitoring in the relationship between headquarters and Canada’s diplomatic missions adversely affect linguistic duality’s most basic ingredient: service and information availability in both official languages.

The challenge and solution lie in Canada’s international policy

Linguistic duality’s incomplete status in Canada’s international affairs can be traced to its limited recognition in Canada’s current international policy. The policy places Canadian values and culture among the central pillars, or objectives, in our relationship with the rest of the world. However, left unsaid is linguistic duality’s connection to these values and to our cultural diversity, as well as that duality’s relevance to other international policy objectives. The result is unclear policy direction and commitment.

The priorities, objectives and orientations that have guided Canada’s international relations since 1995 are up for renewal, retooling or replacement. In the October 2004 Speech from the Throne, the federal government confirmed the forthcoming release of “a comprehensive International Policy Statement.”

Our report calls upon the government to ensure that projection of Canada’s linguistic duality is recognized as a government priority and is effectively integrated in all other priorities in the new international policy statement. The report includes 24 other recommendations for improvements and new ways of doing things in programs and activities that would reinforce our bilingual identity abroad.

The policy review presents a rare opportunity to set the tone for Canada’s relations with the rest of the world for years to come. It is in Canada’s best interests that linguistic duality be firmly entrenched in the new tone. To fail to do so would mean continuing inefficiencies in our international relations and uncertainty in our national identity, thereby undermining the promotion of Canadian interests around the world.

Government response

The Government of Canada responded positively to the report and supported most of the recommendations. The Commissioner expresses her appreciation for the constructive comments provided and for the excellent cooperation of all departments concerned during the study. The report includes in bold type the federal government’s main comments on each recommendation. Additional comments by the Commissioner follow in italics. The complete text of the federal government’s response to the preliminary version of the study report can be found in the Appendix.2


1. The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade was divided into two departments at the end of our study: Foreign Affairs Canada and International Trade Canada. For the purposes of this report, all observations refer to the structure in place at the time of the study whereas the recommendations reflect the new structure.

2. In taking into account the Government of Canada’s response, the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages has revised or deleted some of the recommendations contained in the preliminary report.

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