Chapter 2: Language, Power, and Privilege
2.8 Legally enshrined harms
In previous sections we saw how people police each other’s language as a means of asserting power. But what about language policies imposed by actual governments in power? Governments and institutions use language to create unity in some cases and division in others. One way that governments wield their power is through language policies, which can be used to erase or reinforce social identities. They can be used to encourage or force people to speak or not speak particular languages, to prove competency in a language, or affect the physical landscape of our communities by regulating the language that appears on signs. Language policies can be implemented for positive or negative motivations, or sometimes they are well-intentioned, but short-sighted.
Canada, of course, has two official languages, French and English, but as we will see in Chapter 15, there are over 80 languages Indigenous to Canada from 9 different language families! Why should French and English, both imported languages, be the official languages?
The Official Languages Act was instituted in 1969 by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in order to maintain national unity between English and French Canada, in response to increasing francophone nationalism in the province of Quebec. At the time, the anglophone minority dominated the industrial, commercial, and financial sectors in Quebec. The Official Languages Act also led to Canada’s policy of multiculturalism.
The Official Languages Act had some positive effects across Canada; it improved education and employment opportunities for francophones outside of Quebec. New Brunswick became officially bilingual. The Supreme Court of Canada overturned a law that had been in place since 1890 that made Manitoba officially monolingual, despite the fact that, when Manitoba joined Confederation in 1870, it had approximately equal numbers of francophones (often Métis) and anglophones. However, the Official Languages Act has a major shortcoming. What about Canada’s Indigenous peoples? It does not offer protection or even recognition of the importance of these languages.
In Canadian history, language policies have been used as a part of the oppression of Indigenous peoples. Sections 1.4 and 2.4 in this book introduce the harms done to Indigenous people and communities by the residential school policy in Canada, which forced Indigenous children’s attendance at the government and church-run facilities. The Government of Canada policed Indigenous people’s language even prior to the creation of residential schools in the 1880s, with policies pushing toward assimilation and the loss of Indigenous languages and cultures. The government’s goal was the assimilation of Indigenous children, to train them for menial jobs and weaken their claims to their land. Official policy dictated that English and French be the only languages of instruction at residential schools. Schools forbade children from using their home languages, and enforced the ban with cruel punishments. These policies were examples of linguistic imperialism or linguistic colonialism, wherein the suppression of language is part of a more general oppression of Indigenous cultures by settler-colonial powers (see Griffith, 2017). They further constituted attempted linguicide (the killing of a language), because children were prevented from practicing their first languages and associated their use with punishment and feelings of shame. These children also felt isolated from their home cultures as the ability to communicate in their home languages were lost (see e.g., Fontaine, 2017). The harms to people and communities due to the loss of languages at the hands of residential schools are lasting and ongoing. The parent-to-child transmission of language has been broken in a majority of Canada’s Indigenous communities. Some residential school survivors still find it difficult to speak their native tongue because it is associated with trauma from their time at school. New legal policy may however be a positive part of the process of reclamation of Indigenous languages. For example, in a 2017 article, Fontaine calls for legal policy entitling children to education in their ancestral language, beyond the right to education in English and French (see the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, 1982, Section 23). The calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada included calls for the protection of Indigenous languages (see The Truth and Reconciliation Commission 2015), leading to the establishment of the Indigenous Languages Act in 2019. This act provides legal protection to Indigenous languages including funding for reclamation and revitalization.
The consequences of Canada’s official focus on English-French bilingualism are still evident today. When Mary Simon was appointed Governor General in 2021, she was criticized for her lack of French proficiency, even though she is bilingual in English and Inuktitut. Simon promised to learn French and also related her language experience to educational policy in Canada, stating that “Based on my experience growing up in Quebec, I was denied the chance to learn French during my time in the federal government day schools” (as reported by CTV news, 2021).
The province of Quebec has its own language laws, with the goal of protecting French from assimilation into the anglophone majority in Canada. Quebec’s language laws limit who is allowed to attend an anglophone school and require the French on signs to come first and to be twice as large as other languages. Unfortunately, though, these laws do not apply only to English, but to all languages, which negatively affects the Indigenous peoples of Quebec. The majority of Cree and Mohawk speakers in Quebec, for example, have English as their second language, and so these laws increase their difficulty in accessing education and other provincial services.
The Quebec Cree passed their own language act in 2019, the first law passed since they achieved self-governance in 2017. In contrast to Quebec’s laws, however, they are not enforcing compliance for now. Instead, local governments, businesses, and others will need a Cree language plan for increasing the use of Cree in their organizations.
Behiels, Michael D. and R. Hudon. 2013. Bill 101 (Charte de la langue française). The Canadian Encyclopedia. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/bill-101
Bell, Susan and Christopher Herodier. Sep 24, 2019. Quebec Cree pass language act as its 1st-ever legislation. CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/cree-language-act-bill-1-abel-bosum-self-government-1.5295010
Fontaine, Lorena Sekwan. 2017. Redress for linguicide: Residential schools and assimilation in Canada / Réparations pour linguisicide: Les pensionnats et l’assimilation au Canada. British Journal of Canadian Studies 30(2), 183-204. https://doi.org/10.3828/bjcs.2017.11
Griffith, Jane. 2017. Of linguicide and resistance: children and English instruction in nineteenth-century Indian boarding schools in Canada. Paedagogica Historica, 53:6, 763-782. https://doi.org/10.1080/00309230.2017.1293700
Haque, Eve and Donna Patrick. 2015. Indigenous languages and the racial hierarchisation of language policy in Canada. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 36(1), 27-41. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01434632.2014.892499
‘Honoured, humbled and ready’: Mary Simon’s first speech as incoming Governor General. 2021, July 6. CTV News. Retrieved May 30, 2022 from https://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/honoured-humbled-and-ready-mary-simon-s-first-speech-as-incoming-governor-general-1.5498581
Laing, G. and Celine Cooper. 2019. Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. THe Canadian Encyclopedia. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/royal-commission-on-bilingualism-and-biculturalism
Powless, Ben. Jun 5, 2021. Critics say Quebec legislation to defend French could harm Indigenous languages. Nation News. http://nationnews.ca/politics/critics-say-quebec-legislation-to-defend-french-could-harm-indigenous-languages/
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. 2015. Canada’s Residential Schools: the Legacy : The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Volume 5, Ch. 3, “I lost my talk”: The erosion of language and culture. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. 2015. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action. Winnipeg:
Verrette, Michel. 2006. Manitoba Schools Question. The Canadian Encyclopedia. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/manitoba-schools-question
Wood, Nancy. 2021. Next governor general’s inability to speak French leaves francophone communities conflicted. CBC News. Retrieved May 30, 2022, from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/mary-simon-governor-general-french-1.6101190