By Adam Slight
Est-ce que tu peux parler en francais?
Well according to the latest census, less Ottawans can truthfully answer “oui” to this question. As a part of a greater Canadian trend, young Ottawans are statistically less bilingual than they were even just several years ago.
In 2002 Ottawa declared bilingualism as an official policy for the conduct of municipal business, implying at the time that if you wanted to conduct any business in Ottawa you had to be completely functional in both French and English. This policy, along with our city’s close proximity to Quebec put Ottawa as the largest city in Canada with two official languages.
The idea behind this policy was that being the capital of Canada—a country founded on two official languages, French and English—Ottawa should reflect this identity of bilingualism. Of course, this policy also had its share of resistance and controversy, as many believed state-imposed bilingualism was unnecessary and alienated otherwise qualified/educated workers who were now required to learn French or English to be eligible for certain jobs.
I remember this being a part of my high school experience, being urged by my teachers and parents to learn French while I was in school, or else I would “never get a job.” While I didn’t really heed their warnings, I notice that many of my English-speaking peers were the same. Most people that I know who are bilingual grew up in a mixed English-French environment, and don’t attribute their knowledge to language education in school (which at least for me was highly ineffective!)
So now it seems like bilingualism is on the decline, in favour of the English language. English speakers are learning the French language less across Canada, and children of French birth are growing up learning English and abandoning their tongue of heritage.
So what does this mean for bilingualism in Ottawa and Canada as a whole? To some, this is reason for alarm. Some see this as an English assimilation of French Canadians, who represent a major party in the founding of Canada (France). With Quebec historically expressing a sense of alienation from the rest of the country, this trend indicates a possible degradation of French culture in Canada, which is already perceived to be under attack. As an officially “bilingual” country, is this drop in bilingualism the death of our perceived cultural identity? Or is this identity a rigid post-colonial relic from a Canada-past that needs to be revisited in light of current global shifts?
Its worth noting that while Canada was once recognizably divided between French and English, that now close to 20% of Canadians are immigrants from areas of diverse range in culture and language, including China, the Middle East, the Philippines, Germany, Ukraine, Poland, Italy, Russia, and Norway to name a few. Ottawa is one of Canada’s largest centers of recent immigrant settlement, with recent immigrants making up of 6.8% of Ottawa’s population. With immigration rates on the rise, it’s easy to see that Canada is becoming less of a bilingual nation, and more of a multilingual one.
When immigration rates rise, the rules on the ground change regardless of the official policies in place. Such is the case in Vancouver where many businesses are forced to adopt Chinese languages due to the high population of Chinese immigrants in the area. Many times Mandarin is favoured over French when push comes to shove.
This makes me wonder then: Are bilingualism policies effective, or does pragmatism reign supreme? I know in Ottawa many municipal jobs end up going to workers from Hull who are naturally raised bilingual—more bilingual than many of their Ottawan peers (and its not like they’re raised bilingual for these jobs—English just seems to hold more muscle in North America, as it does in most of the western world). And then there is the population of young professionals and entrepreneurs who simply leave Ottawa to city centers like Toronto, Edmonton, and Vancouver partly due to these language restrictions. Is the bilingualism policy encouraging bilingualism, or discouraging young talent?
That’s not to say that Ottawa shouldn’t be officially bilingual. It’s just that we live in a world where flexible, organic policies have a much higher chance of surviving. Such is the case when you have neighbourhoods functioning in completely other languages, not because there was a policy involved, but simply because it just organically happens that way.
If we want the French language to survive in Ottawa, and in Canada as a whole, I’d recommend more attention to be placed on developing French culture as opposed to developing French-speaking restrictions and policies. Give people a reason to appreciate French culture beyond the fact that “they have to or they won’t get a job.”
The reality is, the world is facing complex cultural identity changes that go well beyond our understanding and ability to artificially monitor and control them. Celebrating our cultural difference and allowing difference to flourish organically is often the best way to strengthen our ties to our heritage.
What are your thoughts on the decline of bilingualism in Ottawa?