The growing friction between bilingualism and other forms of inclusion in Canada

By on 16/04/2021 | Updated on 07/06/2021
A path forward: translation technology could support greater inclusion in Canada. Credit: Pixabay

A letter from Ottawa: The state’s commitment to the French and English languages is rubbing against hopes for greater inclusion, writes Michael Wernick, former clerk of the Privy Council. But there is hope that technology could smooth the path forward

In mid-April Canada’s attention is fully seized by the race to suppress an alarming third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, fueled by variants, through vaccination and another tapping of “emergency brake” lockdown measures. It will be a close run thing.

Alongside this, next week prime minister Justin Trudeau’s minority government will table the first proper budget since the pandemic began and a round of brinksmanship will ensue around the resulting confidence votes in the House.

Given where we are, it is understandable that less attention has been paid to a build-up of friction around visions of what “inclusion” means in Canada in the 2020s that will force the government to make difficult choices. The commitment to bilingualism – the equality of English and French languages in the federal state – is rubbing up against aspirations for greater inclusion of Indigenous people and other racial minorities.

The year of challenges

2020 was a year in which Canada, like so many other societies, was confronted with issues around systemic racism in our troubled history and contemporary society.  The Black Lives Matter movement joined with a prior conversation about reconciliation with the Indigenous peoples who make up about 4% of Canada’s population.

This uncomfortable conversation was accelerated in 2015 when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report was published. In the years that followed, the national conversation was fueled further by a troubling series of incidents around policing and health care, and a debate around the boundaries of Indigenous “consent” to resource development projects. The debate was heating up as the pandemic reached our shores.

This year Canada has also wrestled with issues of racism experienced by the “visible minorities” that comprise about a quarter of Canada’s population (half of the residents in Canada’s largest city, Toronto). Governments and public institutions have launched a wide range of anti-racism initiatives and self-examination, responding to a new wave of community activism and, in some cases, legal challenges.

Multiple visions for inclusion

Canada has tried to uphold several visions of inclusion at the same time. It is formally committed in its constitutional documents to gender equality, linguistic duality, recognizing and affirming Aboriginal rights, and the enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians. It has a web of legislation and institutions that give expression to human rights protections, to official languages policies and practices, and to “employment equity”. It isn’t always easy in practice to reconcile the push and pull of the different parts of this system.

Now, some attention is focused on filling two positions at the top of the federal state – the Governor General, and one of the nine justices on the Supreme Court.  It used to be settled convention that a passable proficiency in both English and French was an essential qualification (as it is to be a serious contender for Prime Minister). Indeed, about 40% of positions in the federal service require dual-language skills – mostly for those that provide frontline services and almost all “executive” positions with supervisory roles.

There is good reason for this. For decades the separatist movement in Quebec has argued that the only route for the French language to thrive in North America is to create a separate nation state.  One of the better counterarguments has been to create a federal government in which French-speaking Canadians see themselves in the services they receive, in careers they pursue, and in visible leadership. Anyone who thinks bilingualism is a “nice to have” at the top of federal institutions should go on the massively popular Sunday night chat show Tout Le Monde En Parle, try out that argument – preferably in French – and watch how it lands.

The intersection of language policy and other dimensions of inclusion has long played out within Canada’s federal public service. Bilingual service and bilingual senior management were controversial when introduced in 1969 but were settled as policy decades ago. The legislation and administrative policies have been updated and tweaked from time to time and there are plenty of nuances in the implementation.

The new language of inclusion

Now, however, a more serious objection is being raised about the requirement of a second language. Some are arguing that insisting on bilingualism has created a form of systemic racism, or at least a serious barrier to advancement.

The Governor General and Supreme Court appointments could become a litmus test for the government. There is a lobby to find someone for the positions who is Indigenous or a “person of colour”, regardless of second-language skills. The government has not shown its hand on the Governor General yet, but it has been clear that it will not bend on bilingualism for the Supreme Court.

It is far from clear how language policy fits into the wider inclusion movement, for example, there are black communities in Canada that speak French. But what is clear is that the issue is no longer about language of service – as the overwhelming bulk of transactional services have moved to the web and smartphones, chat rooms and call centres. It is about the language of work.

One emerging topic is what will happen as people work more from home and shift to online collaborative platforms (as they did in 2020). I have heard grumblings that English is crowding out use of French, especially in video meetings.

Innovative solution

Governments will be loath to open up these issues. They don’t want to be faced with oversimplified choices or to give oxygen to those who would divide us. My view is that before long we will need to rewrite the outdated legislation on employment equity and honourably retire the term “visible minority”. This would enable us to work with more precise language that allows us to zero in on the specific challenges facing communities.

We need to refresh some longstanding practices around language of work – but we will have to tread carefully. There will be a lot of resistance and no obvious path to consensus. Social media will inflame passions and divisions. We have managed these difficult debates in the past. But the road ahead may be bumpy.

There may be a hopeful path in the breakthroughs in the technology around instantaneous translation and interpretation, better tools for online language instruction, and improved workplace tools for people with disabilities, as part of a broader agenda of change. The 2020s may be the intersection of innovation and inclusion.

About Michael Wernick

Michael Wernick’s distinguished 38-year career as one of the key leaders of Canada’s world-class federal public service culminated in serving from 2016 to 2019 as the 23rd clerk of the Privy Council and secretary to Cabinet. With 28 years as an executive in the federal public service, including 17 years in the community of deputy ministers, and three as clerk, Wernick is one of Canada’s most experienced and influential public sector leaders. He appeared frequently at parliamentary committees, participated in dozens of intergovernmental and international meetings, and spoke at many conferences. Wernick worked closely with three prime ministers and seven ministers and attended close to 300 meetings of Cabinet and its committees. He was the key public servant at the Privy Council Office during three changes of prime minister. In October 2021, UBC Press released Wernick’s book Governing Canada: A Guide to the Tradecraft of Politics and Wernick undertook an extensive series of media interviews, podcasts and webinars to discuss this well-received practical handbook for Canada’s political leaders and those who aspire to understand them. As a senior strategic advisor to MNP Inc and the Jarislowsky Chair at University of Ottawa, Wernick now provides advisory services and mentorship to emerging leaders and to new generations of students.


  1. Robert G says:

    A person is loath to do something (not “loathe” to do something) — these are two different words.

    • Kate Hodge says:

      Hi Robert,
      Thanks for flagging this with us, we will nip it now.

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