Official Languages Reform: Failure is not an Option

The current prime minister of Canada shares a father with the country’s seminal official bilingualism policies of half a century ago. That makes the protection of the French language more than a Liberal Party legacy for the Trudeau government. With the working paper on the modernization of the Official Languages Act now public and a likely election looming, updating Pierre Trudeau’s vision of a bilingual Canada for the 21st century will be a challenge.

Stéphanie Chouinard

On February 19, Official Languages Minister Mélanie Joly presented her working paper on the modernization of the Official Languages Act (OLA). Breaking from Liberal tradition, which always placed French and English on a scrupulously equal footing, the document recognizes the vulnerability of the French language in Canada. It vows to implement “substantive equality” between the two official languages, while also calling for a further integration of protections for Indigenous languages.

This document is a step in the right direction toward necessary reforms. But the OLA being only one of many pieces of legislation targeted by the minister, her mission is still far from accomplished. In her handling of an issue as contentious, yet as fundamental, to Canada’s national fabric as official languages, failure should not be an option.

But neither time nor context are on Joly’s side to make her plan a reality. She’s dealing with a minority House in which anything could happen, especially with the Liberals, the Conservatives and the Bloc Québécois all sensing the opportunity of winning more seats at home.

To some observers, this working paper was an unnecessary step, even a delaying tactic, towards the presentation of a full-fledged bill in the House of Commons to go ahead with the reform. Several years have passed since the beginning of consultations on this issue; both the House of Commons and the Senate have published reports on the matter, following the testimonies of myriad experts and minority-language community members. Even Official Languages Commissioner Raymond Théberge himself put out a paper highlighting, among other things, the ways his powers should be amended.

Other issues with the OLA, a legislation last revisited in 1988, are well known. Part IV of the Act, concerning communications with the public, needs to encompass the government’s use of electronic and social media—a matter that came under increased scrutiny since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Problems with Part V, which grants the right for bureaucrats to work in their official language of choice, have come up as recently as last month, when the Official languages commissioner reported the difficulty of working in French in the federal civil service. Part VII of the Act is seen as an empty shell since a 2018 Federal Court decision found that the obligations it states regarding the promotion of both official languages are too broad to be adjudicated. These issues were on the minister’s radar, and she promised to address them in her plan for the modernization of the OLA.

More urgently, the federal language regime is perceived as failing francophones, who are slowly but inexorably becoming less visible in Canada. Between rampant assimilation in anglophone parts of the country, the arrival of large contingents of immigrants to Canada in recent years, the vast majority of whom have (or choose) English as their official language, and few opportunities for anglophones to learn French in Canada, francophones are becoming an increasingly smaller minority of the total population. Even in Quebec, and particularly in Montreal, French is perceived as threatened, with English becoming an increasingly important language of work. This challenge was top of mind for the minister, as is evident in her approach to the reform.

To target this issue, Joly promises to support francophone minority institutions, especially in the domain of early education as well as post-secondary education, where a crisis is looming in places like Ontario and Alberta. She also wants to reach the target, set in 2006 but never met since, of 4.4 percent of all immigrants coming to Canada outside of Quebec having French as their first official language. She wishes to recruit massively from other francophone countries to address the teacher shortage in French immersion programs throughout the country, in order to give more anglophone children the opportunity to learn the other official language—a measure that should spur the interest of the linguistic majority in the OLA, perhaps for the first time.

Joly responds, in part, to Premier François Legault’s wish to see Bill 101 be applied to federally regulated private businesses, by encouraging French as the language of work in such businesses in Québec as well as in other regions, yet to be determined, where there is a strong francophone presence. She also wishes to bolster the protection and promotion of French in the country, notably through the reinforcement of Radio-Canada’s mandate in the dissemination of French-language cultural content.

Will these measures be sufficient to reverse the current linguistic trends in Canada? While some of her proposals respond to minority communities’ demands and answer pressing needs, none of them directly address some of the most important factors behind the assimilation of francophones, such as a lack of support for exogamous families, who make up the vast majority of households to which French-language speakers outside Quebec belong.

There are several hurdles to the implementation of Joly’s plan, and they won’t all be coming from the opposition bench. Her reforms will be rendered meaningless if the appropriate resources are not invested by the government to make them reality.

In the context of a weakened Canadian economy already reeling from the pandemic, and facing the biggest deficit of the country’s history, it is unclear how much supplementary funding will be made available to her, as different cabinet ministers will also be seeking their piece of a shrunken budgetary pie.

In times of financial constraints, minority communities are often among the first to be short-changed by governments; avoiding this trend will necessitate a strong resolve from PMO and cabinet to ensure official languages are—and remain—a priority.

Moreover, the bill that should emanate from this working paper is still in preparation, and it is uncertain at this point when it will be tabled in Parliament. In the context of a minority government, this means two things.

Firstly, the opposition will need to be convinced that the minister’s reform is sound. The Conservative Party of Canada has taken a keen interest in this file in the past months, and while elements of the working paper echo the official opposition’s demands, some others, such as mandatory bilingualism for all Supreme Court appointments, run against the traditional conservative stance. It remains to be seen whether Erin O’Toole will change his tune to better align with Québec nationalists, whom he has been courting relentlessly since he was named party leader. The NDP, for its part, has not yet presented a coherent point of view on official languages since it lost its “champion” on this file, François Choquette, in the 2019 election.

Secondly, the Liberals appear to be readying their troops for an election. It is expected the writs will be dropped as soon as vaccination rates make it safe to do so, possibly as early as late spring. Joly’s window of opportunity won’t be open for very long and her bill, if introduced, may very well die on the Order Paper… Right on time to be relegated yet again, like it was two years ago, to the status of an electoral promise.

Policy Contributing Writer Stéphanie Chouinard is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Royal Military College in Kingston, cross appointed to Queen’s University. She specializes in language rights, Indigenous rights, federalism and judicial politics.