2nd Session, 43rd Parliament
Volume 152, Issue 34

Tuesday, March 30, 2021
The Honourable George J. Furey, Speaker

International Mother Language Day Bill

Second Reading—Debate Adjourned

Hon. Mobina S. B. Jaffer moved second reading of Bill S-211, An Act to establish International Mother Language Day.

She said: Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to second reading of my Bill S-211, An Act to establish International Mother Language Day.

The day would be February 21.

This bill is in recognition of International Mother Language Day. For greater certainty, International Mother Language Day is not a legal holiday or a non-juridical day. This is yet another time I have tabled this bill, honourable senators. The last time it was referred to the social committee.

Honourable senators, I want to begin by saying that this bill is important to many of us.

Mother language identifies us. It gives us grounding. I want to share with you that my grandchildren, unfortunately, do not speak our mother language as well as we would like. However, often at the dinner table our seven-year-old, when she is emotionally trying to express something, will use our mother language. It really touches us all that the best way she can express how she feels about many things is in her mother language.

This bill will formally recognize International Mother Language Day, and it will wholeheartedly align with Canada’s strongest values of inclusion, openness, equity and respect for all people.

One young person whose story helps to remind us all of the great privilege and responsibility of being a Canadian senator who supports language diversity is that of Heeba. Heeba is now in her late twenties. She immigrated to Canada from Bangladesh in 1992. When asked about what Bill S-211 meant to her, Heeba shared her perspective on multilingualism as her own cultural identity.

She said:

It is incredibly important for me to communicate in my Bengali mother tongue with my family. During my time at university, I always had German and French roommates, and would seize the opportunity to practise with them.

I have noticed people highly appreciate it when I make the effort to talk to them in their first language. My friends light up when I speak to them in Bengali, Nepali, Hindi and Spanish. I also speak perfect English and French.

Learning new languages runs in the family, as my father speaks Italian and Mandarin and my mother is also fluent in German. I’m incredibly proud to speak Bengali, my mother language.

I took Bengali classes at university to learn how to read more academic pieces of writing like poetry. Bangladesh has given me so much in terms of culture, and I would absolutely want my own children to speak my mother tongue of Bengali, on top of many other languages.

It is very difficult for me to attach myself only to one language. I am more than one language, and so are a lot of Canadians.

This is what it means to be a Canadian.

International Mother Language Day, February 21, is one day dedicated to celebrating mother languages while also remarking on the value and importance of being able to freely, openly and proudly communicate in the mother language of one’s free choosing.

International Mother Language Day was first established in November 1999 by a unanimous vote at the 30th General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The declaration was seen to be part of a broader international strategy “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world.”

This United Nations resolution 56/262 was finalized in 2002 and internationally established International Mother Language Day on February 15.

The resolution is also a symbol of commemoration and promotion of linguistic and cultural diversity, as well as multiculturalism and all mother languages.

Ever since, global celebrations have occurred on February 21 of each year. At its heart, this bill is one way to honour and recognize the Canadians from coast to coast to coast who proudly speak their mother tongues, which amount to over 200 languages, from Spanish to Gujarati to Punjabi to Tagalog and many others.

In Vancouver alone, over half of all school-aged children are learning another language besides French and English. Similarly, 25% of Vancouverites report that their first language is neither French nor English.

Additionally, my home province of British Columbia is home to more than half of Canada’s Indigenous languages. Sadly, only one in 20 Indigenous peoples in the province are fluent in their language and almost all of them are elders.

As we all know, far too many Indigenous languages have disappeared. Every time a language disappears, a part of our nation’s identity disappears.


Despite the commendable efforts of the government to address this issue through Bill C-91, An Act respecting Indigenous languages, of the 60 registered Indigenous languages, only 4 are currently considered safe from extinction. Honourable senators, I know you will agree with me when I say that this is unacceptable.

To quote the Honourable Senator René Cormier, Chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages:

. . . this bill also requires us to think about the major issues surrounding the disappearance, preservation and reappropriation of Indigenous languages. Colonialism and the expansion of the Canadian state had devastating effects on Indigenous peoples. As the victims of residential schools, First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities witnessed the decimation of their mother tongues and cultures by successive Canadian governments.

In the 2011 census, over 60 Indigenous languages were reported, but only 14.5% of First Nations members still had Indigenous language as their mother tongue. In 2016, the number of Indigenous languages reported was more than 70. Over 33 of those languages were spoken by at least 500 individuals, while some were spoken by as few as 6 people.

Honourable senators, in no way does Bill S-211 aim to dispute that French and English are Canada’s official languages, as guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I know that recognition of the value of bilingualism forms the foundation of our great country of Canada and Canadian identity, past, present and future. Bill S-211 supports bilingualism and our rich and diverse multilingualism. This feels long overdue.

Many Canadians speak a multitude of languages that enrich Canada’s culture and the country on the whole. That is why international mother language day, February 21, is a day to celebrate speaking your mother tongue with pride. It aims to amplify the rights of all Canadians to celebrate and showcase their own mother tongue.

Regardless of our different backgrounds, all Canadian senators have a vested interest in being strong advocates of Canadian bilingualism as well as Canadian multilingualism. Bill S-211 supports bilingualism and establishes more formal recognition of multilingualism. In fact, along with French and English, all Canadians’ mother tongue languages are worthy of honour and celebration.

As a young girl, I was raised to be proud and still feel empowered when I speak my mother tongue. It gives me grounding, and my language identifies who I am. As a mother and a grandmother, I carry forward this fight for recognition of all mother tongue languages to ensure that all young people, including my own grandchildren, know their mother language as part of their identity.

Honourable senators, Bill S-211 contains no clear recognition of that. Due to the ongoing global pandemic posed by COVID-19, Canadians’ need for connection with and understanding of one another should be deemed more important than ever.

Perhaps most importantly, by officially recognizing international mother language day, we are expanding awareness and the way Canada and all members of our country think. Without question, languages are a strategy of national unity. They allow all people to build unique relationships with foundations of trust, understanding and a history behind them. It is our grounding. It is our identity.

Honourable senators, I reach out to each and every one of you and say: Support me on this bill for an international mother language day. It is part of our Canadian values.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.