Long-term support for bilingualism in Canada

Stacy Churchill schurchill at oise.utoronto.ca
Thu Mar 10 20:21:46 UTC 2005

Thanks to Harold Schiffman for posting Parkin's article on the return of
strong public support for official bilingualism in Canada. The ensuing
discussion on Canadian attitudes raised some fascinating questions about
the factors behind shifts in opinion. As a person who has done research on
the topic for more than three decades, let me share with you some of my
views on the issues and the underlying causality.

When discussing opinion, we have to distinguish at least three separate
sources of opinion (a) randomly sampled Canadian citizens, (b) the
political classes (or elites) involved in making policies of major
political parties, and (c) media reports. Within the first two groups,
clear age distinctions apply. The media play by different rules, so we'll
start with them.

Except for a brief period between about 1964 and the early 1970s, support
for official bilingualism in Canada has never been considered newsworthy.
I have read literally hundreds of news clippings over the years and, with
stunning consistency, only negative news is reported. For example if a
poll reports that 47% of respondents support current levels of official
bilingualism, 20 % think the government should do more --- i.e. 67 % favor
official bilingualism --- and the remaining 23 % think the government
should do more, the headline invariably reads: "23 per cent oppose
official bilingualism". The only news, in other words, is conflict, not
positive progress. As a result Canadians I have interviewed in several
studies always tend to underestimate public support for bilingualism. In
fact,the persistently high levels of support are amazing, given the
negative inputs.

The strong support of the Canadian public for official bilingualism ---
defined as access to federal services in both English and French for all
citizens --- actually dates back to the 1960's. The studies carried out
for the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in the
mid-1960s already demonstrated that support. Broad based approval among
average citizens has been a constant throughout at least the last forty
years. This support predates the creation of French immersion schools, the
Official Languages Act of 1969 (which made bilingualism useful in getting
jobs with the federal government), and the mid-1970s arrival of the Parti
Quebecois as a serious element in Quebec and federal political

To find the reasons for support, we have to set aside the usual
self-interest issues and dig deeper. As surprising as it may seem, a lot
of the support by the English-speaking general public has its origins in
feelings of generosity combined with a sense of patriotism. For a brief
period in the late 1960s a national consensus arose that united all the
three groups - citizens, media, politicians - around a common theme of
giving citizens equal rights from coast to coast. This equality drive
extended beyond official languages and linguistic equity for
French-speaking Canadians to economic issues. For example, the promotion
of  equal rights for all citizens was the force behind the creation and
constant rejuggling of financial equalization systems to make PROVINCIAL
public services equally accessible in all provinces: the mechanism
involves redistributing taxes collected from citizens and businesses in
the richer provinces through direct payments to the treasuries of poorer
provinces. [It's a specialist domain that I summarize loosely here.] Ditto
for federally-supported programs targeting poorer areas, such as programs
of regional development and direct subsidies to workers in
seasonally-based industries of the Maritimes through national unemployment
insurance. Linguistic equity was part of a broader movement of opinion.

When Tony Smith and I studied Language attitudes for the Commissioner of
Official Languages in the 1980s we confirmed the support and revealed a
few things that no other studies have been able to. Because our sample N
was huge and allowed fine breakdowns,. we could do a fine-grained analysis
showing high levels of support among younger persons by province and
language group (French or English). Our predictions on the evolution of
opinion trends among younger Canadians are confirmed in the data reported
by Andrew Parkin almost twenty years later.

My interpretation of age differences as a causal factor in attitude
formation, relates to the power of symbolic "signalling" in conjunction
with socialization patterns. Children's attitudes on "how our country
works" are initially formed by simple images - flags, anthems and such
like that are seen nationally. Signalling national symbols sets the stage
for later development of attitudes as children mature.  Some research
further points to the crucial role played by peers in forming attitudes
among youth: the strongest predictor of attitudes on social issues in
developed industrial societies appears to be the attitudes of peers at the
time of the onset of puberty and shortly thereafter. The age breaks in our
1980s data pointed directly at the implications for youth attitudes,
namely for kids who were about 12-14 years or younger around 1967-9. The
national consensus and the voting of the Official Languages Act of 1969
together with the "cool" image of Prime Minister Trudeau created a world
in which youth understood an equation along the following lines:  Canada =
bilingualism. Younger generations of kids were born into a world where
they learned from their earliest exposure to the issues that Canada "is a
bilingual country" and "the Prime Minister is bilingual".

If one uses the same age factor combined with historical trends by region,
it is easy to see a clear correlation between the ages of the political
classes and the strongly negative image so often portrayed by politicians
in the Prairies and the Canadian West - an image that has created a
Canada-wide stereotype of the provinces west of Ontario as anti-bilingual.
Of course, TV news stories of parents in Alberta lining up with sleeping
bags and pillows on the night before registration at French immersion
schools began to contradict this already in the late 1970s. Still, this
simple model of age works as an explanation of most attitude trends up
until the point where Parkin's trend data show a decline by the end of the

The decline shown in the CRIC data was already evident to me in a
Canada-wide study I did for the Government of Canada interviewing opinion
leaders and officials in all ten provinces and the territories, years
before the Meech Lake constitutional debate and the Quebec signage
controversy. My report alludes in a few lines (and without naming names!)
to a problem reported by delegations in several provinces. Many spoke of a
growing fear that the federal government could not be counted on to push
ahead with official bilingualism in the face of opposition from entrenched
interest groups. The sub-text was that after the then Prime Minister Brian
Mulroney intervened strongly to defend minority French-speakers in
Manitoba, the negative reaction from politicians in the western wing of
his Progressive Conservative Party caused the federal government to back
off into a neutral corner. In spite of this, the updating of the Official
Languages Act in 1987 went ahead as planned and with little controversy,
but the push for change slowed. The failure to ratify the Meech Lake
constitutional accords and the eruption of the sign law controversy then
added to the loss of momentum, as Parkin points out.

In a more fundamental way, the near depression that occurred in Canada at
the end of the Mulroney years wiped his Progressive Conservative Party
almost off the electoral map and paved the way for its demise. In its
place a neo-conservative political wave crossed Canada. For the first time
in two generations, questions were raised about whether governments should
play an active role in social issues --- and official bilingualism clearly
was an interventionist field. In the West a new political formation, the
Reform P:arty, looked for inspiration to the past and re-adopted
anti-bilingualism rhetoric that reflected the age group of some of the
older, more rural constituencies that it was hoping to use as a base for
launching a conquest of power across the country.  The slow rise in
favourable attitudes to bilingualism from the mid-1990s onward moves in
parallel with economic recovery in central Canada and the gradual
moderation of the neo-conservative push. The successor to the Reform Party
currently remains a regional party unable to break out of its base or the
negative-sounding rhetoric of some of its leadership.

Behind the scenes, meanwhile, widespread increases in elementary-school
teaching of French and the operation of French immersion schools continues
to convert the children of unilingual English-speaking families into
functionally bilingual young adults, more than doubling the bilingualism
rates of young English-speakers in less than a generation. The youth going
through immersion are, by and large, reflective of the groups that are
most likely to contribute opinion leaders over the next quarter century.
Though their attitudes on specifics are as unpredictable as the political
situations they will face, Canada is now on the cusp of a situation where
a major proportion of the opinion elites of so-called English Canada
(media, politics, business) will be products of the French immersion

Any guesses as to where this might lead as a newly bilingual generation
gains power and influence?

Your comments on these thoughts would be appreciated either via the list
or directly to me.

Stacy Churchill

[Mr.] Stacy Churchill, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus
Education Policy and Minority Education Policy
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Univ. of Toronto

 e-mail: schurchill at oise.utoronto.ca

Recent publications with addendum on services to <<la Francophonie>>

Recent book available on Government of Canada website:

(disponible aussi en fran├žais)
Recent report on Council of Europe website:
(disponible aussi en fran├žais)

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