Debates of the Senate (Hansard)

3rd Session, 40th Parliament,
Volume 147, Issue 97

Wednesday, March 23, 2011
The Honourable Noël A. Kinsella, Speaker

National Language Strategy

Inquiry—Debate Adjourned

Hon. Mobina S. B. Jaffer rose pursuant to notice of February 1, 2011:

That she will call the attention of the Senate to the importance of developing a national language strategy.

She said: Honourable senators, I rise before you today to speak to my inquiry and call the attention of the Senate to the importance of developing a national language strategy.

The national language strategy I am proposing would set out the federal government’s commitment to embracing linguistic plurality by adopting a vision that confirms that language education is a tool that will not only assist in the development of personal skill, but will also act as an engine for economic growth. In addition, this strategy would recognize that international and heritage language education has the capacity to open up avenues of communication and career enhancement, while at the same time encourage and promote broader cultural understanding among Canadians.


Before I continue, I want to clarify that I am in no way trying to suggest that heritage languages should be taught instead of French. Even though throughout this inquiry we will be focusing on the importance of teaching international and heritage languages, I want to point out that I have always been a strong advocate of teaching both official languages as part of basic education for children across Canada.

However, children must have the opportunity to learn languages other than French and English in addition to their existing basic education.

Although various provinces support teaching heritage and international languages, there has been no uniform effort to develop a consistent policy framework to promote languages other than English and French. It is truly unfortunate that the benefits of promoting a multilingual society, many of which will be discussed during this inquiry, are being abandoned.


Honourable senators, Canada is indeed a multilingual society. According to the 2006 census, more than five million Canadians have a mother tongue other than French or English. Now, more than ever, there is a need to foster not only linguistic plurality, but also intercultural understanding, as this would reconfirm Canada’s commitment to being a peaceful, accepting and multicultural nation. In addition, this would also be consistent with Canada’s identity, which is comprised of a mosaic of languages and cultures that perceives difference as a strength rather than a weakness.

Before touching upon some of the many benefits associated with developing a national language strategy, it is important that I acknowledge the fact that the importance of preserving international and heritage languages has already been recognized in this chamber once before.

Bill C-37, introduced in the House of Commons in September 1989 and adopted by Parliament in January 1991, was a piece of legislation that called for the establishment of a heritage language institute with a purpose of developing national standards for teacher training and curriculum content for ethnic minority language classes in Canada.

The February 1992 budget, however, deferred the establishment of this institute until further notice. Since this act did not come into force for 20 years, it has consequently and recently been repealed.

However, much has evolved since the introduction of Bill C-37. Over the past 20 years, the Canadian Languages Association has formed, taking on many of the same principles as the institute Bill C-37 called for. In addition, many other research-oriented bodies have been established, including the Second Language Research Institute of Canada, which is housed at the University of New Brunswick; the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, based at the University of Toronto; the Institute for Innovation in Second Language Education in Edmonton; and the Language Research Centre at the University of Calgary.

Ultimately, today’s context suggests that calling for a strategy that revisits some of the basic principles advanced in Bill C-37 but that are far less imposing and much less costly will indeed benefit all Canadians socially, culturally and economically.

First and foremost, honourable senators, I would like to draw your attention to the economic advantages that adopting a national language strategy would yield. I earnestly believe that these advantages would be abundant and give Canada the edge it is so desperately seeking.

On November 9, 2010, Prime Minister Harper announced the launch of economic consultations to seek Canadians’ views on the next phase of Canada’s Economic Action Plan. He stated:

Turning our fragile economic recovery into enduring and robust performance over the longer term will also mean taking further steps to hone our competitive edge. This means building on our efforts to attract foreign investment, opening up new markets and opportunities for Canadian businesses and laying the foundation for long-term sustainable jobs.

I would like to commend Prime Minister Harper for acknowledging the need for Canada to attract foreign investment and to open up new markets. I, too, recognize this need and agree that the business community must identify markets of growth in countries other than those in North America.

On the international stage upon which Canada must now perform and excel, languages education is essential to relationships with the global community and in the areas of international relations and cooperation, as well as international trade and development.

When I recently was in China with the Foreign Affairs Committee, I was pleasantly surprised at how fluent in Mandarin Ambassador Mulroney and his staff were. I could see that their ability to speak Mandarin so fluently gave Canada a great advantage in Beijing.

I believe the challenge we all have to face now is that we have to be able to provide Canadian businesses the competitive edge they need in order to secure and maintain their position in the international market.

The President of the Canadian Council for the Americas reports that the reason so many companies fail to secure and maintain their position in the international market is due to their failure to recruit people who have sufficient language skills. We need to ask ourselves whether or not we will be able to negotiate and secure future contracts for our forever hungry Canadian business community, which is always seeking new avenues for expansion, with a scarce supply of multilingual university graduates we are presently producing.


Honourable senators, we are a trading nation. We need to prepare our children to speak many languages. It is important that we remain mindful of the fact that these very businesses allow us to maintain not only our high standard of living but also our leadership position in the world. This is precisely why we must invest in language education, because such an investment would not only help us achieve our economic goals but also assist Canada in establishing a lead on the global stage on which it must now compete.

Aside from the countless economic benefits associated with adopting a national languages strategy, there are also a number of social and cultural benefits that would be generated. In fact, one of the most tangible outcomes of language education is social and cultural cohesion, which promotes anti-racism initiatives, peace building, civic participation and cross-cultural understanding.

Unfortunately, for the most part, children of recent immigrants whose maternal languages are neither English nor French have not received, except in relatively small numbers and for short periods, mother tongue language education support through the school system. Moreover, various academic research indicates that the heritage languages model of voluntary additional instruction for short periods of the school day falls far short of what would be required to maintain immigrant languages and cultures beyond the second and third generations.

Having immigrated to this country, I have seen firsthand that this is, indeed, the case. My grandparents, originally of Indian descent, migrated to Uganda over a century ago. Our mother tongue survived for two generations in Africa. Unfortunately, after spending a few decades in Canada, I am forced to watch a language that has been spoken by my ancestors for centuries disappear, as my children are not able to speak Katchi fluently. This is a cause for concern. We need to realize that teaching and fostering language skills reinforces Canada’s multicultural identity and strengthens Canada’s unique sense of belonging. English, French, Aboriginal languages, and international/heritage languages are key and equal members of Canada’s multilingual mosaic inseparable from our concept of multiculturalism. The teaching of languages reinforces our Canadian multicultural identity and strengthens our country’s sense of belonging.

Currently, various provinces support the teaching of heritage and international languages, but there has not been a uniform effort to articulate a coherent policy framework for the promotion of languages in addition to English and French. After working closely with the Canadian Language Association, we have developed a vision that perceives a national languages strategy as imperative against a background of profound national and international change. We recognize that a multilingual vision for Canada means respecting the valuable voices that populate this country, the very voices that work together to build this nation and to breathe life into the mosaic of which we are so proud.

Honourable senators, while I not only recognize but also actively support Canada’s Official Languages Act, I also acknowledge the importance of formally recognizing and supporting linguistic plurality. As Dyane McAdam, former Commissioner of Official Languages stated,

We’re seeing a nation that is embracing official bilingualism and multilingualism. . . We will continue to embrace diversity.

With that in mind, this proposed strategy must address the four language components that make us truly Canadian: English, French, Aboriginal languages and international/heritage languages. The strategy’s objective should, first, promote and improve the teaching and learning of languages by encouraging provinces to draw upon the experiences of other educational systems around the world where multilingual education is provided in a core schooling system.

Second, this strategy should increase the number of people studying languages through the development and implementation of a strong and coherent national public education and awareness campaign, creating a partnership between education, business and government.

Third, this strategy should work with the provinces to provide effective and equitable funding for language programming at the school board and community levels. This could include increasing the number and types of languages offered at primary and secondary schools, supporting after-school programs, encouraging school boards to designate key schools as language learning centres and explore bilingual programs, where feasible.

Finally, the proposed national languages strategy should raise an awareness of the importance of multilingualism to all Canadians for individual and collective well-being.

Honourable senators, it is time for Canada to commit to a tangible plan of action to deal with the realities of the global economy of the 21st century. This proposed national languages strategy would set out the federal government’s commitment to increasing Canada’s languages capability. It would also promote a vision that perceives languages as both a life skill and an engine of economic growth — one that can be used in business and for personal growth to open up avenues of communication and career enhancement and to promote, encourage and instill a broader cultural understanding.


Canada’s national language strategy would set out the federal government’s commitment to increasing Canada’s capacity for languages by adopting a vision that confirms that language can not only be a personal skill, but it can also act as an engine for economic growth, to be used in business and personal development, in order to open up avenues of communication and career enhancement while at the same time promoting, encouraging and eliciting better cultural understanding.


A commitment to a national languages strategy will pave the way for both the federal and provincial governments to consider ways to harness our intercultural communication experience and multilingual resources for Canada’s economic benefit as well as for the good of individuals, families and communities. This will involve collaboration with different levels of government, educational institutions, ethnic communities, families and business.

Honourable senators, we must recognize that the future of our great nation lies in the hands of our children. We must ensure that children have access to the tools they need today so they can flourish tomorrow. A national languages strategy will provide Canada with a blueprint for action and help ensure that our children have a competitive edge when performing and succeeding on a global stage.

Hon. Tommy Banks: Will the honourable senator accept a question?

Senator Jaffer: Yes.

Senator Banks: The honourable senator mentioned Bill C-37, as passed by the government of Mr. Mulroney, and said that it had been repealed. Is that in fact correct or is it in the process of being repealed? I ask the question because that act of Parliament is the one that gave rise to —

Senator Jaffer: May I have five more minutes?

The Hon. the Acting Speaker: Is it agreed, five additional minutes?

Hon. Gerald J. Comeau (Deputy Leader of the Governemnt): Yes, five minutes.

The Hon. the Acting Speaker: It is agreed.

Senator Banks: It was that bill that gave rise to what is now an act of Parliament called the Statutes Repeal Act, of which I will modestly say that I am the author.

The first thing that happened under that act, after it came into actual force, is that a few weeks ago, as Senator Comeau pointed out to us, a list was deposited and tabled here by Senator Comeau of acts of Parliament and parts of acts of Parliament which had been accumulated by the Minister of Justice and that are susceptible of being repealed next December 31, absent some other action. Are we talking about the same thing or has it otherwise been repealed before this?

Senator Jaffer: We are talking about the same thing. I remember the honourable senator introducing the bill and going through all the stages. With that in mind, and it having been there for 20 years, I assumed it had been repealed.

Senator Banks: It has not, but it is about to.

Senator Jaffer: It is about to; I see.

Senator Banks: In that respect, it was a good idea at the time. I have a particular interest in it because the Canadian heritage languages institute, which was established by that act, was to be in Edmonton.


I am wondering whether the act is susceptible of being useful, by amendment to bring it up to date, with respect to the initiative about which the honourable senator has spoken.

Senator Jaffer: If the act were not repealed, it would be useful. If resources were given to that institute, we would already be way ahead in the strategy we have. I think that if the act has not been repealed, that is a great step. I will look into it.

Senator Banks: So honourable senators are aware, the act will be repealed perforce unless a proposal is made to both houses of Parliament that it not be repealed.

Hon. Joseph A. Day: Honourable senators, I am wondering if that is entirely right. Until it is repealed, it is a law that has been passed by Parliament, as I understand it. If it is proclaimed in the interim, it would be law. I ask that Senator Jaffer confirm that if there is interest in the government and in Parliament, all that need be done is to have the act proclaimed.

Senator Jaffer: I thank the honourable senator for those suggestions. I will work over our break period on them.

(On motion of Senator Tardif, debate adjourned.)