The controversy over the place of language in Canada resurfaces. This is happening after a number of leaders have been appointed recently. Now Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also entered the picture.
The question became relevant when it turned out that none of the board members of Canada’s largest railway company spoke French. The company is called CN and is headquartered in Montreal. It is the largest city in the province of Quebec. In this province, approximately 80% have French as their mother tongue.
Should Canadian business leaders be bilingual? The subject caused a lot of ink to flow last fall. Air Canada President Michael Rousseau said he hadn’t had time to learn French. He had to publicly apologize for these statements a few days later.
SOEs are required under Canadian law to provide services in both French and English. It includes companies like CN and Air Canada, as well as airports and federal departments.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this week he was frustrated with the situation with CN.
“Francophone Canadians across the country should feel that they are reflected in our great national institutions,” said Trudeau. He himself is bilingual. He asked the responsible ministers to get CN moving quickly.
The uproar is a reminder that the French language is in a vulnerable position in a North American sea of English speakers. It is also reminiscent of earlier struggles to gain official language status. The French language has been covered by the Canadian Constitution since 1982.
But the government has failed to live up to expectations, according to prominent spokespersons. Canada has 37 million people. 8 million are French-speaking.
– This is clearly hypocrisy on Trudeau’s part, said Stéphane Beaulac. He is a professor of law and co-director of the Center for Linguistic Rights at the University of Montreal.
The Prime Minister is bothered by the CN saga. But last year, he chose to appoint a non-French speaker as governor general of Canada, he points out. This person is the official representative of Queen Elizabeth in the country.
Mary Simon is the first Governor General to have an Indigenous background. She is originally from the Nunavik region of Quebec, and she speaks English and the Inuit language Inuktitut.
English on Facebook
This week, the Prime Minister’s Office was also reprimanded by Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages. The reason is that they did not ensure that all video streams from the official Facebook page were subtitled or dubbed into French.
More than 90% of Canadians support bilingualism, according to recent polls. People believe that both languages are part of Canadian culture. However, less than 20% say they speak both French and English.
“Everyone must be able to be met in the language of their choice since so few Canadians are truly bilingual,” said Stéphanie Chouinard, professor of political science at the Royal Military College of Canada.
– But, she adds, since 2019, Canadians have been waiting for the official language law to be modernized.
For a long time, we were considered pro-separatist when we defended French, noted law professor Beaulac.
– Things have changed. Today, people are increasingly daring to challenge the dominant position of English, he says.
People are angry and shocked by the recent CN appointment, says language law professor Frédéric Bérard. The spirit is justified, he believes.
– Today, however, this type of situation occurs relatively rarely, especially in Quebec, he adds. Bérard leads Canada’s national consultations on official languages reforms.
The situation is much more complex for Francophones outside Quebec, he adds, although there has been progress in recent years.
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