Language, Law and National Seriousness

21CQ Topic President's Blog


Irvin Studin


6 years ago

A recent article of mine in the Toronto Star created quite a buzz. The article, entitled “The Case for French Immersion”, provoked at least two direct rebuttals – the first in the National Post by Marni Soupcoff, and the second by Andrew Campbell in the Toronto Star.

Both rebuttals were reasonable in their own right, highlighting important problems with French immersion programming in Canada, including the common absence of sufficient numbers of qualified French teachers and, in too many cases, the inadequacy of the spoken and written French of FI graduates even after more than a decade of French-language study.

I share these concerns. I see them in my own French immersion cohort from the 1980s and 1990s, as well as in the FI education that my own children are today enjoying.

And yet neither of these two points is a good argument against French immersion schooling and programming in Canada. Instead, both clearly point to the need to improve significantly the quality of FI in Canada – first, by ensuring an adequate and constant supply of teachers in the system who are perfect (I repeat, perfect) in French; and second, by ensuring that FI graduates have every opportunity (met with strict, demanding requirements) to become perfect in French.

If I argued in my Toronto Star piece, and still maintain, that the arguments against FI at the level of individual student learning in Canada are extremely weak (and indeed largely unchanged over the last three-plus decades), then the rebuttals entirely missed the larger point of my intervention – to wit, that in a country like Canada, there is no excuse for the pitifully low levels of French-English bilingualism other than a lack of national seriousness in this regard.

Toward an Adequate Talent Pool

Let me add to this charge of non-seriousness the proposition that, for all our success and good fortune as a country, Canada is not a deeply strategic country (for a host of reasons I have discussed countless times in the pages of GB and in other fora, publications and addresses). This means that French-English bilingualism in Canada is invariably framed, even by our best commentators, in the very traditional logic of the historically complex relations between English and French Canada and the resulting “exceptionalism” (or “hardship”) of bilingualism – hence my “constat” in the original Toronto Star piece about the perfect public gentleman or woman, framed in these exceptionalist terms, necessarily being bilingual. Forget about his or her intellect, experience, character or proposals – that he or she speaks both languages well typically commends itself as a notable qualification in its own right.

From a strategic perspective, this is an absurdity of almost the highest rank. For the strategist is less interested in paying compliments to the banal (So you speak two languages? So what…? Why not three or four? And what else do you know, besides?) than asking instead why, if bilingualism is so important, the vast majority of the Canadian population does not already master both languages.

Consider the obvious: Canada picks its prime ministers from the pool of Canadians who are bilingual. It similarly picks its senior federal public service (all deputy ministers and assistant deputy ministers), all its diplomats, heads of Crown corporations, the chief of defence staff, many premiers and heads of national agencies. We will soon be adding Supreme Court justices to this roster. The strategic perspective asks: should we not maximize the talent pool from which the country draws these leaders? By implication, is the present bilingual roster of about 18% of the population (based on the latest Statistics Canada data) not far too limited a talent pool from which to select the leaders of the country? Clearly it is.

Now, what if we were to remove FI altogether, or considerably reduce its prevalence across the country (despite the aforementioned weaknesses in the programme)? Perhaps we might then end up with a talent pool of, say, 10% from which to draw the country’s leaders. But again, this “elite” would, for all practical intents and purposes, be a “linguistic elite” (a philological elite, as it were), with no other conspicuous qualities of ken or vision necessarily commending it to leadership positions except for the astrategic accident of being fluent in two languages in which the country does not invest seriously.

This is why I have long argued for, and 21CQ continues to work for, universalization of French-English bilingualism (and therefore of FI programming) across the country, for the next generation of Canadians, as a matter of strategic priority – not linguistic fetish or political rectitude or narcissism. That is, if we are a serious country and people…

Bilingualism, check. But now a third…

Of course, from a strategic perspective, the linguistic challenge for Canada is more dire still. For if we have failed to develop a critical mass of French-English bilingual people to supply the talent pool for our public leaders, the leading countries in the world, in Asia and Europe alike, are already training future generations of leaders and professionals who operate in three or more tongues. And here I speak of professional bilingualism and trilingualism, rather than the ‘kitchen’ variant – that is, linguistic excellence driven by a system of preparation that means (intends) to produce such excellence, rather than the present Canadian approach of relying on the children of immigrants to make up for the absence of critical masses of linguistic talent across the spectrum of languages (outside of English and French).

To this end, 21CQ has, since its founding in 2014, been calling for a national languages strategy in Canada. The language strategy, driven by the federal government, but with obvious provincial elements, would aim to have the Canadian population, from the next generation, fluently bilingual in French and English, with mastery of an additional, third tongue – foreign or indigenous. Canadian trilingualism, in other words, would necessarily pass through bilingualism in the official tongues (not at the expense or in place of the official tongues, as some in Quebec may fear).

Why trilingualism as a goal? Which languages? And why indigenous tongues to boot? If bilingualism is a must in Canada in order to ensure a proper national supply of talent to populate the ranks of the country’s public leadership – and, lest it be neglected, for purposes of national survival and flourishing, to assure deep mutual understanding and intermingling between Quebec and the rest of the country (particularly in anticipation of crisis moments) – then trilingualism is essential in order for Canada to manage its far more complex foreign relations this century.

I have written about these more complex Canadian international relations this century ad nauseam (see, for instance, my piece in GB’s Winter 2018 issue – “Canada’s Four-Point Game – Part II”), so I shall not belabour this topic in this blog post. Needless to say, however, if Canada has a four-point strategic game this century – namely, America, China, Russia and Europe – then it will need small armies of Canadians in positions of analytical, professional and decision-making import who are perfectly fluent in the corresponding tongues. Beyond the ACRE countries (or ‘fields’, as it were), Canada will evidently also need linguistic talent to manage its relations with leading countries on all continents – especially as the country inevitably grows in demographic, economic, diplomatic and strategic scale and ambition. (On this front, let me simply stress that there is no substitute for linguistic excellence and deep cultural understanding, immersion and in-country living experience if Canada is to be able to drive serious national interests and achievement in theatres outside its immediate strategic comfort zone or imaginary. And this linguistic excellence must be driven by national strategy, not by accident or happenstance.)

What of an indigenous language as a third tongue for Canadian students, after English and French? Here the logic also builds on a key 21CQ project – to wit, tackling the complex Aboriginal Question in Canada through the linguistic-cultural vector as necessarily prior to a legal or economic vector (the governing logic today). The thinking here, about which I have also written a great deal in the pages of GB and elsewhere, is that resuscitation and normalization of indigenous tongues – from Ojibwe to Inuktitut and Cree, both among indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians – can, over time, bring indigenous Canadians, as a collective (or many collectives, as it were), to a position of psychological and eventually economic parity with the ‘white’ man. The parity would be a restoration from the posture of strategic loss to the white man after European settlement and Confederation – strategic loss brought about by, inter alia, civilizational dislocation, legal subterfuge, constitutional marginalization and the residential school regime.

Here the case of the Maori in New Zealand is instructive for Canada. Having fought the Europeans to a near-draw before the final, constitutionalized peace of the Treaty of Waitangi, the Maori language not only eventually became official but is used by non-Maori Kiwis with great zest and regularity for all forms of communication and ceremony – from the haka to the national anthem and various idiomatic expressions. That the Maori enjoy disproportionate achievement and representation in New Zealand politics, the military, the professions and, of course, sport suggests that the cultural and linguistic vector – that of being respected by the white man as culturally and linguistically equal – may be critical not only to Canada’s present reconciliation project, but even more importantly to providing the psychological foundations for indigenous economic and political success in Canada this century.

Bref, if, some 20 years down the road, Canada has produced a new generation of citizens who are fluently bilingual in English and French (who at that point will doubtless wonder why there was ever any debate about such a basic standard), with third and fourth languages – indigenous and foreign alike – spread more randomly across this population, then Canada will have adequately provided both for its domestic administration and its external strategy.

Of course, it would be even better if, among these future generations, the country would be producing jurists who, in their majority, would be master of both the common and civil law systems of the country, but that, as with the growing complexity and strategic import of Aboriginal law in Canada, is a matter for a future blog post.

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