Is Canada’s bilingual identity expanding?
In The Walrus’ 15th-anniversary special print edition, writer Mark Abley asks: “The official languages act will soon turn fifty. Have we outgrown it?” in his article Beyond Bilingualism. The article, which was The O’Hagan Annual Essay on Public Affairs, looks at Canada’s history with both bilingualism and multilingualism.
With the same questions in mind, in February StatsCan’s Mega Trend release was: “The evolution of language populations in Canada, by mother tongue, from 1901 to 2016.” This study followed trends of mother tongues in Canada, largely influenced by immigration and the changing role of language in Canadians’ identities.
Both publications focus on the role of language in Canadian identity, history and growth. At the centre of this discussion of language lies what we call our mother tongue.
The mother tongue is the beginning of language. It is where communication starts, the sounds that become feelings and instructions; it speaks to human understanding behind-the-scenes. And in Canada, it plays a distinctly unique role in national identity.
It wasn’t until 1941 that the concept of a mother tongue was even defined in the census. Shifting trends in immigration have correlated directly with changes in languages spoken in Canada. In 1901 Celtic languages like Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic and German dominated the non-official languages. Today, Colaisde na Gàidhlig, The Gaelic College— tucked away on the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia—is the only Gaelic school of its kind in all of North America.
In Beyond Bilingualism Abley says the rise of minority languages due to immigration as well as the reclamation of indigenous languages across the country—in the 2016 census over 70 indigenous languages were reported being spoken across Canada—has influenced this shifting idea of national multilingualism.
Over time, the percentage of Canada’s population that speaks English has remained fairly constant. Non-official language groups have filled the space left by French’s steady decline.
Abley notes, however, that the French language is keeping its footing, thanks in part to immigration from French-speaking countries such as Congo and Rwanda. Provinces like Quebec and New Brunswick play a large role in Canada’s French-language identity, but even Montreal is seeing great linguistic growth. As Abley writes “Montreal has more trilingual residents than anywhere else in Canada.”
Linguistic diversity is increasing across the country. The second most spoken language in Halifax, Nova Scotia is Arabic, and an hours’ drive from The Gaelic College in Cape Breton is Eskasoni Immersion School—Essissoqnwey Siawa'sik-l'nuey Kina'matinewo'kuo'm in Mi'kmaq—which teaches students from kindergarten to Grade 5 entirely in the indigenous language Mi'kmaq.
After changes to immigration laws in the 1960’s Canada saw a rapid rise in immigration from Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, the West Indies and Africa.
Languages such as Chinese have seen incredible increases. Only 100,000 people declared Chinese as their mother tongue in 1971. That number rose to 1.3 million in 2016. This change is reflected in the rise of Chinese local and national media in Canada since then, specifically in BC.
After English, Filipino languages are now the most widely used languages in Winnipeg, Edmonton and Calgary. In his article Abley mentions the website of a car dealership in Winnipeg ’s north end.
“We are proud to speak English, Punjabi, Tagalog, Hindi, Arabic Portuguese, Polish, Ukrainian and French. “The order is revealing,” says Abley. Winnipeg has over 50,000 people who speak a mother tongue from the Philippines—the largest percentage of Filipino speakers in any city in Canada.
Being able to offer services to new immigrants as well as first and second generation Filipino-Canadians in their mother tongue makes the dealership stand out in a city where 6.9 percent of residents speak Tagalog.
In the 2016 census one-fifth of Canadians reported having a mother tongue other than English, and at the end of 2017, one-fifth of Canada’s population were immigrants.
Graphic by Caora McKenna
Abley writes that “In the era of Trudeau, the future appears multilingual,” and in MIREMS' experience, this is certainly true.
MIREMS' President, Andrés Machalski has been making feelings, opinions and ideas hidden behind the mother tongues of multilingual Canadians accessible to decision makers for over 30 years.
"Multilingualism has become enshrined. It’s not going to go away," says Machalski. "The languages will change as they respond to demographic change, but not the idea that we live in a multilingual society."
By increasing access to Canadians expressing their opinions in their mother tongues, businesses and decision-makers can be better informed about these growing and vital communities. MIREMS offers this link and works to make language barriers transparent.