Survival & La Survivance: Why we need to modernise the Official Languages Act

Updated: Mar 29

Opinion submitted by Kevin Hua


Recently, an opinion article by Canadian columnist J.J. McCullogh in the Washington Post incited a public firestorm of controversy over his critique of official bilingualism in the Canadian federal government and public service(1). The article faced public backlash, rebuke, and criticism from journalists, political commentators, academics, organizations, and other public figures and groups for its misleading and divisive nature. However, this isn’t anything new from McCullogh, having voiced his dissent to bilingualism in the past as “a scam” and the agenda of a “linguistic aristocracy.(2)”This attitude and line of argument are sorely misguided and contemptuous in ignoring the reality of the Canadian state and its history. The official policy of bilingualism in Canada should not only be preserved and defended but also strengthened and modernized.

The ability to speak fluently in more than one language is seen as an asset and an advantage to any individual seeking a job and to any employer seeking to hire someone in the competitive job market. Furthermore, the ability to speak fluently in a language that fits into the niche of employment is particularly enticing, such as Chinese proficiency if one was seeking employment in Toronto’s Chinatown. Unlike hiring discrimination on racial or ethnic grounds, which is illegal for the very reason of it being prejudicial - irrelevant to the employment and not within the control of the applicant - language proficiency is just like any other skill. To use it to distinguish between applicants in the hiring process is not prejudicial or arbitrary like McCullogh argues, but rather expected and logical. It is an entirely shallow and moot complaint of injustice and unfairness in the government’s hiring practices since it is a reasonable criterion in the general job market.

In an attempt to create a populist appeal, McCullogh targets the “bilingual elite” and “linguistic aristocracy” perpetrating bilingualism (3). This language promotes a manipulative and deceitful “us vs. them” mentality of division to give the impression of an elite powerful minority seeking to subjugate the common majority. It may be that only 18% of the population is bilingual (4) and 12% of the population can only speak French,(5) but that is not the full purpose of official bilingualism. The purpose of governmental services falls under the principle of equality: that is, equality in linguistic access and coverage is provided and afforded for all Canadians. The goal therefore is not to find the most minimalistic way to cover the most people – such as offering services solely in English - but the most maximalist way to cover and accommodate the most people reasonably possible. French, being the second most spoken language, a sizable proportion of the population in Canada, and with minority francophone communities geographically widespread, deserves universal coverage. With this aim of universality in mind, the concern is not just the minority who only speak French or who are bilingual, but all the people impacted, represented, and covered by the policy of bilingualism, which is 98% of the population,(6)the overwhelming majority.

Canada needs to strengthen and promote bilingualism and, in particular, the Official Languages Act needs to be modernised. The legislation was first enacted more than 50 years ago in 1969(7) with the last major overhaul being more than 30 years ago in 1988(8). In the 2019-2020 report by the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, the Commissioner of Official Languages received 1,361 complaints, an increase of 25% from last year(9) and the highest since 2009(10). For the past decade, the number of complaints has been steadily increasing, a reflection of the shortfalls and anachronisms within the Official Languages Act, particularly to minority francophone communities (11). During the 2019 election, the policy of modernisation was spearheaded and advanced by the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada to local candidates as they lobbied them to give their support during the campaign (12). They produced their own bill with changes that include universal access to French language education, mandated Supreme Court bilingualism, a central agency to enforce the Act, a specialised tribunal to remedy violations under the Act, and a decadal review of the Act (13). Within the same report, the Commissioner of Official Languages recommended the government pursue the modernisation of the Official Languages Act (14).

The official policy of bilingualism was established in this country out of practicality through the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, which predicated the Official Languages Act and the language rights sections of the Charter. These additions were not only born out of practicality but the reality that Canada is neither unilingual nor overwhelmingly dominated by one language. The principle of bilingualism has long existed prior to the formation of Canada, as the 1840 Act of Union alone proved Francophone exclusion to be folly. The foundation of the Canadian provinces and federalism was also based on this practicality, to provide French-Canadians with an administration that would represent them and protect their language. This country was founded upon two distinct languages that continue to be the reality of the Canadian project, therefore our linguistic policy should reflect that. With 84% of Canadians supporting the policy of bilingualism(15), it stands as a cornerstone of Canadian unity and identity.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once said that Canadian bilingualism imposes language responsibility, not on the individual, but on the state (16). Instead of McCullogh’s unproductive victimisation and divisive finger pointing, we ought to talk about substantive changes and improvement. We still have challenges, such as the chronic shortage of French teachers(17) which limits our French language education capabilities, but public policy efforts like modernizing the Official Languages Act present a direction of improvement rather than disassembly. A government should reflect the nation and serve the people. In Canada’s case, that should be in both English and French.

The central symbol for Canada-and this based on numerous instances of its occurrence in both English and French Canadian literature-is undoubtedly Survival, la Survivance.” - Margaret Atwood. (18)

1 J.J. McCullogh, “Trudeau says he wants to tackle systemic racism. He should start with this policy,” Washington Post, September 30, 2020,

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/09/30/trudeau-says-he-wants-tackle-systemic-racism-he-should-start-with-reforming bilingualism/.

2 J.J. McCullogh, “McCullough: Bilingualism is the demand of Canada's linguistic aristocracy,” National Post, August 4, 2015, https://nationalpost.com/opinion/j-j-mccullough-bilingualism-is-the-demand-of-canadas-linguistic-aristocracy.

3 McCullogh, “Trudeau.”

4“Fast figures on Canada’s official languages (2016),” Statistics, Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, last modified September 18, 2020, https://www.clo-ocol.gc.ca/en/statistics/canada.

5 Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, “Fast figures on Canada’s official languages (2016).”

6 Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, “Fast figures on Canada’s official languages (2016).”7 Paul Landereau, “Official Languages Act (1969),” The Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica Canada, last modified May 17, 2019,

https://thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/official-languages-act-1969.

8 Landereau, “Official Languages Act (1969).”

9 Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, “Annual Report 2019-2020” (September 2020), 20.10 Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, “Annual Report 2019-2020,” 34.

11 Jean Johnson, “Modernization of Official Languages Act impacts all Canadians,” Policy Options, April 8, 2019, https://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/april-2019/modernization-official-languages-act-impacts-canadians/.

12 Julien Sahuquillo, “Les Francophones et les Acadiens veulent des candidats « francoresponsables » aux élections fédérales,” Radio-Canada, August 13, 2019, https://ici.radio-canada.ca/nouvelle/1257527/fcfa-election-johnson-candidats-parti-francophonie.

13 Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada, “Time for Action: The FCFA Proposes a new Wording of the Official Languages Act,” (March 2019).

14 Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, “Annual Report 2019-2020,” 38.

15 Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, “Official Languages and Bilingualism Survey Research Presentation.”

16 American Society of Newspaper Editors, Problems of Journalism: Proceedings of the Convention, American Society of Newspaper Editors (University of Michigan, 1967).

17 Lynn Desjardins, “‘Critical shortage’ of French teachers flagged by language official,” CBC, February 14, 2019, https://www.rcinet.ca/en/2019/02/14/canada-bilingual-education-teacher-shortage/.

18 Margaret Atwood, Survival: a Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1972).