On June 1, 2022, the National Assembly of Québec passed Bill 96 to enhance the use of French in public services and businesses. The Bill involved six-month restrictions on providing immigrants with language services other than French, and mandated small companies to declare the proportion of their workforce that cannot communicate in French.
On June 20, 2023, Bill C-13 received royal assent and officially enshrined citizens’ right to work and be served in French in Québec and in other regions with a strong Francophone presence. This included the requirement that all Supreme Court judges be bilingual.
We asked two students about their take on the federal and provincial efforts to promote and preserve the French language.
Francophonie is more diverse than ever and deserves protection
I am in favour of federal Bill C-13 and Québec’s Bill 96 while maintaining reservations about how the bill will affect Indigenous rights.
Section 16.1 of the Charter states that Parliament has the right to promote the French language without limitations. Parliament is responsible for expanding linguistic requirements and creating a French-friendly environment to ensure equality between French and English in Canada.
Further, in recent years, while the overall bilingualism rate in Canada has remained stable, it has steadily declined outside of Québec. This supports why the federal government recognized in Bill C-18 that French is in a “minority situation” due to the “predominant use of English.” Given Parliament’s duty to advance the equality between Canada’s official languages, legislation like Bill C-13 must exist.
Furthermore, multiple opinion pieces criticizing the bill cite the French requirement as the reason behind the lack of racialized individuals in higher positions in the Canadian government. A letter sent to former Justice Minister David Lametti in 2020 by 36 bar associations, advocacy groups, and legal clinics also cited the bilingualism requirement as a barrier for Black, Indigenous, and people of colour candidates in federal positions.
I believe these arguments all make the incorrect assumption that Francophones are primarily of European descent. Today’s Francophonie is a diverse community with people of different genders, races, national origins, and faiths. In 2022, most Francophone immigrants in Canada came from Cameroon, Morocco, and Algeria, with only 13 per cent holding European citizenship. Canada’s first racialized Supreme Court justice, Mahmud Jamal from Kenya, is also fluent in French. Promoting French-friendly workplaces can provide valuable advantages for racialized and immigrant individuals, given the increased numbers of immigrant children in French immersion programs and recent government efforts to increase the proportion of Francophones among new Canadians. Interestingly, few argue that educational requirements or English proficiency create barriers for racialized or immigrant Canadians in federal public service or judicial positions.
There are few justifications for treating French and English differently as working languages without endorsing the historical exclusion of Francophones. If we embrace that employment affirmative action is equitable rather than exclusionary, we should welcome the inclusion of French in the workplace instead of opposing it.
I do not aim to justify all aspects of the federal and Québec enactments. Both Bill C-13 and Bill 96 fail to acknowledge the use of Indigenous languages in official and educational settings. Furthermore, the narrow definition of historic Anglophones in Bill 96 has rightfully frustrated First Nations organizations. However, promoting Indigenous languages does not mean boycotting the preservation and promotion of French. In my view, without protection for French as an official language, we will reinforce a perception of Canada as an English-only country — further marginalizing Indigenous languages. This contributes to our obligation to preserve the linguistic heritage of French-speaking communities in Canada.
I believe that one can support the preservation of French while critiquing the lack of protection for Indigenous peoples and the differential treatment of foreigners and Canadians moving to Québec. However, English Canadians must acknowledge the elephant in the room: Francophone Canadians exist, Francophones deserve representation in the workforce, and the Francophonie is more diverse than ever.
Anthonie Fan is a fourth-year student at Trinity College studying ethics, society, and law, public policy, and Portuguese.
Regulation from above is not like culture spreading from below
It is chiselled into the minds of all good Canadian children that the modern colonial state of Canada was conceived by two founding nations — although recent curricula are starting to acknowledge the role of Indigenous peoples in Canada’s founding — and therefore that our country has two official languages. However, in reality, most Canadians go about their public lives by only speaking English.
As such, there is little opportunity for the average Canadian citizen to acquire the French language yet government regulation makes it artificially necessary for Canadians to speak if they wish to make it to the top of their society. This regulation is put in place despite the reality that in 2021, only around 11 per cent of their population speak French and not English, and only 18 per cent speak both official languages — with most Francophones being Québécois.
As romantic as this dogmatic idea of two equally valued official languages is, its application to real-world policy on the federal and provincial levels can be harmful and limiting to Canadians. The most egregious policies on the artificial promotion of the French language in the country come out of the province of Québec — the only province in which most of the population conducts their life in French.
The latest example of the province’s notorious language bills is the recently passed Bill 96, which builds on top of the infamous Bill 101, or, as it’s officially known, “la Charte de la langue française.” The “Charter of the French Language,” as it were, created official arms of the government that were given the mandate to ensure the proliferation of the French language in the quotidian affairs of business, work, and education, as well as official matters of legislation and in the judicial sphere. By significantly expanding the amount of written employer communication required to be in French and increasing the fines for non-compliance, this legislation disrupts free market practices and disadvantages those with non-Francophone backgrounds from accessing their government in a way that English-speaking parts of the country do not.
I see this as an artificial promulgation of French culture, which is, in my opinion, the most detestable offence of Bill 96 and other bills designed to synthetically promote French language use. Culture belongs to the people and should move up towards recognition — not be commanded from the top-down. Languages and cultures are never stagnant and continuously evolve over time and through contact with other languages and cultures. Any government which tries to artificially divert the flow of culture is overstepping the ethical boundaries of liberalism.
It is a uniquely Canadian insecurity to feel the need to protect a language that is not endangered in our country, nor unique to the continent. Regardless of the Bloc Québécois actions, French would not be a dying language in the country, and the policing of language use is imperious and disadvantageous to millions of Canadians.
Most pertinent to us, as students seeking higher education to further our learning and careers, is that this out-of-place and archaic linguistic imperative stands in the way of work opportunities. The farther up the corporate or political ladder, the fewer opportunities there are for those who only speak one of the two official languages. It is the song of the century to ensure diversity and equity in our spaces, yet we ignore this great unequalizer. It is shameful that Canada is to be a marionette whose strings can be pulled by a small linguistic elite.
Sulaiman Hashim Khan is a third-year student at St. Michael’s College studying English and ethics, society, and law. He is the Religion Columnist at The Varsity.