Toronto is famously diverse. Walk down its streets, and you’ll encounter a multitude of cultures, languages, and traditions. I believe this is where Toronto derives its strength — this melting pot of cultures creates a truly cosmopolitan urban environment. 

However, in a city whose inhabitants speak hundreds of languages, serious accessibility challenges can arise. Toronto has come under scrutiny in recent years over its failures to accommodate those who don’t speak English. I often see essential information published by the city that’s not readily available in multiple languages — which can render crucial public services, such as healthcare, ineffective. 

Given that these language barriers also limit job opportunities and community involvement for many, I believe that Toronto needs to take more steps to address these problems. Toronto’s City Council should strongly consider implementing more policies aimed at promoting inclusivity and multilingual information services in order to overcome bureaucratic hurdles and to make Toronto more accessible for everyone. 

Toronto’s past policies

Studies in 2018 suggest that around one in 20 Torontonians can’t speak English or French. This accounts for over 132,700 Toronto residents. To put this into perspective, roughly 20 per cent of all non-English and non-French speaking Canadians live in the city. These language barriers pose serious challenges to the quality of life for these residents, as they are linked to higher rates of poverty and unemployment

In 2017, the City of Toronto released a report for action in regard to the language barriers many Torontonians were facing. In the report, the City Manager urged the City Council to adopt the “City of Toronto Multilingual Information Provisions Policy” in order to update Toronto’s multilingual policy. This proposed updated policy outlined how the city will make a greater effort to ensure non-English speaking residents are accounted for. For example, the report discusses how the policy will clarify roles and responsibilities for upholding the policy among City divisions, which helps ensure compliance with the policy, and emphasizes translation in localized areas.

Focusing on translation in localized areas demonstrates an acknowledgement that translation needs differ greatly among different demographics and geographical areas. According to non-profit community organization Social Planning Toronto’s report, around 60 per cent of Torontonians who don’t speak English or French are women and girls. Both women and seniors are more vulnerable to language barriers since they are more likely to arrive in Canada dependent on the principal applicants or sponsors, which reduces the necessity for them to possess official language skills. 

In addition, the most spoken languages other than English among Torontonians are dialects of Chinese — notably Mandarin and Cantonese — followed by Portuguese, Italian, and a variety of other European, Asian, and Middle Eastern languages. These non-English-speaking populations mainly reside in the west end of North York, the old city of Toronto, and northwestern Scarborough. Understanding these statistics can help language policies be more specific and targeted, which improves their efficiency. 

Moving forward

Although the City of Toronto’s 2017 policy was promising in its understanding of the issue, I believe its scope was too limited. It focused exclusively on City services while neglecting the fact that oftentimes non-English speakers are most affected by more personal issues. For example, the comfort of elderly tenants living in social housing is often compromised by their language barrier. The policy makes no mention of how to address these more intimate circumstances. 

Furthermore, a key deficiency of the City’s implementation of this policy was that they didn’t make an attempt to cooperate with provincial legislation. I see this as a major problem considering the authority the provincial government has over municipalities, which can render local policies like this ineffective.

One area that demonstrates this is provincial standardized testing. As the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education Associate Professor Jeff Bale said, these tests aren’t “designed with multilingual people in mind.” As a result, tests like the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test have seen relatively high fail rates and have proven a major problem in accommodating immigrants. In my view, Toronto’s City Council should make a greater attempt to work with Ontario’s provincial government in order to address these fundamental issues. 

Overall, I believe the City of Toronto needs to introduce policies with a wider scope that addresses these external problems. Setting comprehensive guidelines for landlords, employers, and other private actors will go a long way to ensure Torontonians’ language accessibility needs are met. Cooperating with the provincial government will target more macro, institutional problems that lie at the root of this issue. In order for Toronto to maintain and improve upon its beautiful diverse population, Toronto’s City Council needs to step up its game and introduce more encompassing policies.

Rubin Beshi is a third-year student at Woodsworth College studying political science and English. He is the Local Affairs columnist for The Varsity’s Comment section.