Some thoughts about The Current's show suggesting necessity for Canada's 3rd official language

Should Canada have a 3rd official language?

That was the discussion on CBC Radio's The Current this morning, Friday Dec 14th, with guest host Wei Chen.

Ever since Wolfe and Montcalm
died just hours apart on the Plains of Abraham, Canada has been defined
by its linguistic duality. It was made official in 1969, with the
adoption of the
Official Languages Act, a law that gave English and French equal, official status in Parliament and all federal institutions.

The latest Statistics Canada data show that Canadians report more
than 200 different languages as their mother tongue an
d that a fifth of
the population reports a mother tongue other than English or French.
We'll ask if Canada should move from bilingualism to multilingualism
and maybe even add a third official language.

Listen to The Current:Part 2

I was a guest panelist on the show, and now I am trying to write down everything on the blog that I didn't get a chance to say on air.  It was a very tight 10-15  minutes with guest panelists from Toronto, Newfoundland and Vancouver.

Dorothy Chin, is President of the Chinese Lingual Cultural Centre of Canada AND Retired education officer Ontario Ministry of Education. 

Cyrilda Poirier, Director of the Federation of Francaphones of  Newfoundland and Labrador

I wasn't a native French speaker, I wasn't a native Chinese speaker... I guess I was probably brought in to provide a third
option as
an English-speaking multi-generational Chinese descendant who spoke
better French than Chinese.
I should also acknowledge that I did attend a 6 week Chinese language and culture program in Taiwan when I was 20 years old, and the following year participated in the Summer language bursary program to study in French.

I tried to acknowledge history and the importance of Canada's First Nations heritage, by first acknowledging the Coast Salish traditional territory of the Musqueam and
Tseil-Waututh nations.

I was introduced as a community activist, and the creator of Gung Haggis Fat Choy, a website covering intercultural events and issues.

But I forgot to explain that Gung Haggis Fat Choy celebrates BC's pioneering
immigrant cultures of Scottish and Chinese, as well as Canada's future
with inter-cultural babies born of all cultures and ethnicities, as more and more people from around the world who come to Canada, meet each other and fall in love.

It was a lively discussion that host Wei Chen said “could have gone on and on” as I got the final words in about emphasizing culture without language, while “Dorothy is shaking her head….”

Hmmm…. at least both of the other guests acknowledged agreeing with me on some points… as I would disagree or agree with them on other points.

I believe it is really important to acknowledge that Canada's First Nations languages were here before English and French settlers.  This adds to our Canadian identity.  I did state that Peter Gzowsky once had three different First Nations people on his show and asked them for the word which they use to call themselves other than First Nations, aboriginal, or Indian.  The result was three different words in three different mother tongues.  But it emphasized how diverse our First Nations people are, and how difficult it is to try to package or generalize any ethnic group or language into one simple box.

I instead suggested that we need to acknowledge the individual communities where languages are spoken, rather than create a top-down overall official 3rd language.  By pointing out that only New Brunswick has two official provincial languages and that the three territories are bilingual, I wanted to emphasize that we should address language needs locally first – even if unofficially.  Since appearing on The Current, I have learned that Inuktitut/Inuinnaqtun, is the 3rd largest official language in Nunavut.  But more importantly, the Northwest Terrirtories official languages act recognizes 11 official languages of Chipewyan, Cree, English, French, Gwich’in, Inuinnaqtun, Inuktitut, Inuvialuktun, North Slavey, South Slavey and Tłįchǫ.

Wei Chen introduced the current issue of how official language rules block immigrants from donating blood, stem cells.  She introduced a sound clip by Tung Chan,  Chief Executive Officer of SUCCESS, a Chinese language immigrant services organization.

I agreed that it was a good example of how organizations must be more responsive to the communities they served.  I brought in my personal experience of leukemia patient James Erlandsen's quest for a bone marrow donor.  James is hapa – half Asian and half Caucasian.  Chances of finding a matching donor are increased if Asian blood donors are included.  But Canadian Blood Services is arguing that providing translators do not overcome all the safety aspects that can be technical in nature.  Tung Chan argues that tranlators and translations should be provided.

I also told a story of how the Vancouver Public Library where I work, provides many books and services in Chinese language.  This is a great example of how public services cater to meet the needs of Canada's increasingly larger allophone immigrants.  But sometimes, I have patrons coming to me, asking if I am Chinese or if I speak Chinese.  On the rare occasion, I have had people tell me that I should speak Chinese, when I am several generations removed from my ancestors arrival from China.  I think that this illustrates the wide gap between government services for new immigrants, and the need for new immigrants to learn Canada's official languages of English or French.

peux parler en francais plus mieux que parle en chinois,” I said, and
Wei Chen aptly translated as “he speaks better French than Chinese.”

Dorothy Chin agreed with me that the language issue for Canadian Blood Services should be looked into.  She also shared that her Chinese-Canadian daughter is a French teacher in the education system.

Wei Chen's last topic introduced a clip of a speaker who recognized that China is a growing economic force, and that it would be wise for Canada to take advantage of the business opportunities by emphasizing learning the Chinese language.

I admit I played devil's advocate by quickly dismissing that businesses are in it for the profits and that politicians are in it for the votes from the Chinese language block.  Astute businesses will always be aware of opportunities in other language markets, whether it be Spanish, Chinese or others.  And politicians have grown savvy in courting ethnic voting blocks by attending ethnic festivals and learning to address each group in their own ethnic language.

I recounted how the present Stephen Harper Conservative government apologized to for
the Chinese Head Tax and mistakenly said he apologized in the Cantonese Chinese language, when I meant to say Mandarin
which he actually did.  Cantonese was
the language of the Chinese railway builders and the head tax payers – so I found it strange that Prime Minister Harper would speak Mandarin to native Cantonese head tax payers, spouses and descendants.  Either he was mistaken in assuming that both languages are Chinese or was he actually speaking to potential Mandarin voters? 
Mandarin has only most recently become a dominant Chinese language in
Canada, as immigration from Taiwan and the People's Republic of China
increased, especially since 1980.  It is actually Cantonese that has
the most historical and cultural context for Chinese-Canadian culture,
which more readily explains why Canada was known as Gum San (Gold
Mountain) and Vancouver known as Hahm Siu Foh (Salt Water City), in
Cantonese language.

In stating that emphasis is on culture and not language, I wanted to
state that Canada is known to be multi-cultural – not multi-lingual.  We can all eat Chinese food, First Nations food, Scottish food…  We can all enjoy (with subtitles) a French movie, Japanese movie, Italian movie,
go tango dancing, highland dancing, or watch First Nations dancing… And dance or  instrumental music translate very well without words.

All of the above can be done in either English or French, by people
who speak Punjabi, Chinese, Tagalog, Italian, Gaelic, Swedish, or
It is our shared appreciation of music, dance, food, beer or hockey
that can bind us together in a shared unity, overcoming barriers of

I really appreciate the arguments made by both of the other guest panelists.
Cyrilda Poirier emphasized that despite it's official language status, the present organizational structures fails to fully support the French language in Newfound Land and other places. 

Dorothy Chin really emphasized that despite no assistance from the government, it has been important for Chinese communities across Canada to learn the Chinese language to help maintain the culture. Without language, she says that the culture becomes hollow.  I guess that is why so many Chinese language speakers call non-Chinese-speaking Chinese-Canadians like myself “hollow bamboo” – believing that we are “empty” of Chinese culture. 

It was because of the massive racial discrimination in the 19th and 20th Centuries that Chinese and other immigrants emphasized trying to assimilate and to leave behind their mother-tongue language and cultures.  Canadian laws such as the “Potlatch law” legislated against First Nations people having traditional gatherings, and structural racism prevented Chinese and other non-whites from having voting privileges.  Newspaper articles and editorials stated that Chinese were inferior races and would never fit in.  Supporters of the Chinese Exclusion Act stated that allowing Chinese immigration to Canada would undermine the fabric of Canadian society.

Yes, there is cultural attrition with each successive generation in a new land – but it also exists in mother-tongue countries too!  Language scholars travel to Quebec to study archaic forms of the French language, as it became “preserved in time” as the migrants came to Canada.  Just the same way that Chinese-Canadian pioneers preserved the Chinese culture of the last imperial dynasty, when they arrived in Canada in the late 1800's, or the pre-turnover culture of Hong Kong when they arrived in the 1980's.  But the French Canadians also differentiated themselves from French culture, with the creation of a distinct French-Canadian culture.  We see it alive today with the artistic works of playwright Michel Tremblay, songwriter Gilles Vignault, singer Celine Dion,and  film maker Denys Arcand.

Similarly, I believe that Canadian born Chinese, are also the leading edge of
a new Chinese-Canadian culture that speaks and thinks in English
language.  We read the books of Wayson Choy, Paul Yee, SKY Lee and now
Jen Sookfong Lee.  We watch the movies of Julia Kwan (Eve and the Fire
Horse), Mina Shum (Double Happiness) and Justin Lin (Fast and the
Furious: Tokyo Drift). And we listen to U2, Bryan Adams, Sarah
McLachlan and Arcade Fire instead of Chinese traditional music. 
Because we are “cut-off” from the mother-tongue language, we have had
to find new ways to express ourselves, and to also connect to our
ancestral heritage. 

How much Chinese can I speak?  Enough to order dim sum, and play mah jong…

Do I wish I was fluent in Cantonese or Mandarin? It would be nice to be fluent in many languages.  I believe that language skills help to broaden the mind and increase cultural understanding and experience.

Should Canada adopt a new official 3rd language?  I think the energy would be better used to increase understanding our present history and cultural mis-understandings, to allow us to better move forward without the same mistakes or continued resentments. 

I wish
that I had been able to summarize on air, that my focus on historical
issues such as the First Nations residential schools and the Chinese
head tax issues, is to emphasize that Canada should recognize it's
historical unfinished business before trying to consider languages that
are only recently being made significant by recent rises in
immigration.  Additionally, language issues should be dealt with more
immediately on local levels, perhaps giving recognition to more un-official languages
supported in each community, while simultaneously encouraging new
immigrants to learn English or French. 
all so easy to contemplate after the show is over… but important to
explore the possibilities and viewpoints for future issues.

5 thoughts on “Some thoughts about The Current's show suggesting necessity for Canada's 3rd official language

  1. Anonymous

    Hi Todd,
    I heard you this morning. I had been contacted on this program and was asked to be available for a phone call but they never called me. When I was first called I was asked if i did not think it would be great if Cantonese and Punjabi were national languages. I answered emphatically no! English and French are historical Canadian languages and so are the native languages. The other languages, including the languages of my parents, and those of my wife's parents are going to disappear into Canadian culture.
    I am opposed to tying ancestry to language instruction. If a person of any ancestry wants to learn an important world language, or even a minor one, great. We should make it easier for him/her. But we should not make some grandstanding recognition of more official languages, for which t here will be no follow up and which will only further discourage certain immigrants from putting the effort needed into learning English and French.
    If you want to work on your languages go to our site It is free. We expect to have more Asian languages there in the new year.

  2. Anonymous

    Hi Steve the linquist
    Thanks for you comments on the blog.
    So sorry you weren't in on the panel.
    I think my role was also to stir the pot a bit.
    I personally do NOT think Canada should add a 3rd official language…
    but after the panel discussion – I did discover that Northwest Territories has ELEVEN official languages – English, French + First Nations languages.
    Singapore now has 4 official languages – but it is a city-state.
    I would hate to see Richmond BC, become a city-state and declare Chinese an official language – just because they are the only city in Canada where Chinese is now the leading mother-tongue language.
    Canada is NOT a country for new immigrants to come to and then try to change by adding other official languages – just because their numbers increase. Immigrants – regardless of race, creed or religion, should learn about Canadian history and culture in order to receive citizenship and voting PRIVILEGES. Otherwise – they have the option to remain a landed immigrant, as a GUEST in our country.
    But it would be nice to give some recognition to First Nations languages, as these were the FIRST languages spoken in this land called Canada. And they were the FIRST languages to welcome (or not welcome) the first English and French language settlers to this land now called Canada.
    I think of Hawaii…. and while Hawaiian is NOT an official language for the U.S. state of Hawaii (which was conquered by American businessmen who overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy to create the U.S. Territory of Hawaii). The language and the culture are integrated for education, culture, tourism and marketing.
    Do you think we could do the same with Canadian First Nations languages?

  3. Anonymous

    We hope to offer native languages at LingQ some time next year. At present we have lots of work to do on many improvements. We will add Mandarin and Cantonese before the spring and native languages may not be far behind. Hey, what about Gaelic for you!

  4. Anonymous

    I'm on the Ashley MacIsaac side of the fence, Gaelic would be a good third language, it is historically relevant. Both Nouveau Brunswick and Nova Scotia are provinces that translates to New Scotland in French and Latin I believe. Only English and French and possibly Norweigan have the historical claim. Of course my ancestors married into Native tribes when they were original homesteaders.
    No one believes me now of course. The problem with the Native languages is there are so many, and they were largely forgotten and are not well spoken today. I can't remember if it is Cree or Sioux one of the Great Plains languages that does have an alphabet, but that is the other problem. It was an oral culture, which didn't carve in stone so much unlike the Incas, Aztecs, or Mayans to the South.
    In the final bit of trivia, the German language lost out by only a few votes to being an official language of the good old USA when they were just starting out. I think World history could have been a lot different if a few more Germans had been around in the beginning.

  5. Anonymous

    Hello Todd, I listened to the archived broadcoast of the Current this afternoon. I thought your answers were very intelligent and quite a contrast from the other views heard during the program. Not only that, they are quite consistent with the views of many historians of Asian Canadian history and identity here in the Lower Mainland. If these ideas sound strange to many listeners, it's not that there was anything wrong with the answers; it's the question that should be the issue. –Which is often the case, isn't it. 🙂
    The main point that I took away after listening was that rather than focusing on a pan-Canadian official group of languages, we should be focusing on a flexible, regional approach which emphasizes local linguistic diversity. That might sound threatening to some, at first. But think about it for a while, and it begins to make more and more sense. And fun!


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