Beware Bilingualism! The Catastrophic Canadian Case

Peter Brimelow writes: We don't write enough about the public-choice consequences of creeping bilingualism i.e. foreign-language retention in the U.S., particularly because we regularly get letters from native-born Americans denied jobs because they don't speak Spanish. We just found an e-version of my analysis of the phenomenon in Canada—published 24 years ago, amazingly. (And, perhaps even more amazingly, in Commentary Magazine.) Since I wrote, several of the developments I presaged have come to pass, notably the displacement of Canada's federal Progressive Conservative party by a Western-based rival, and the latter's winning an election by appealing to its base in English Canada alone, a sort of northern version of the Sailer Strategy. Official bilingualism continues, however—a disturbing example of bad policy's inertial momentum.


[See also my subsequent exchange of correspondence with Jamie MacKinnon of Ottawa, starting "Peter Brimelow’s mean-minded and inaccurate article... warrants a reply. It would take too much space to expose all of Mr. Brimelow’s distortions and inaccuracies..." [Bilingualism, Commentary Magazine, March 1988]. I began my reply “In my mean-minded article, I argued that imposing institutional bilingualism in a country like Canada… has significant consequences in terms of the distribution of power and perquisites; and that these consequences are not publicly discussed in Canada because important interest groups insist that the policy be treated as a sacred cow. In Jamie MacKinnon’s letter, readers can inspect this process in action.”]


(Originally published under the title A Cautionary Case of Bilingualism in Commentary Magazine, November 1987)


Unlike every other wave of mass immigration to the United States, the influx of Hispanics has been accompanied by widespread pressure for the development of some sort of institutional bilingualism. Spanish has been introduced into education and government, and voter fears of creeping bilingualism have already resulted in serious political upheavals, such as the overwhelming victory in 1986 of Proposition 63 making English the “official” language of the state of California.


Significantly, Republican Governor George Deukmejian opposed Proposition 63 on the ground that it would be “confusing and counterproductive,” and that he could not see any practical issue involved. But bilingualism may well be an issue that the electorate at large instinctively understands better than political professionals. This year Deukmejian, a quick learner, vetoed an extension of the state law on bilingual education.


Still, the problem has hardly gone away, in California or elsewhere.


What the future may hold is very hard to say, but there exists, literally on the U.S. doorstep, a chillingly instructive example of how bilingualism can work in a very practical way to distort and disrupt a country.


For the American visitor entering Canada today, French on the official notices in the airport often constitutes the first concrete evidence that he has landed in another country.


But this would not have been the case before the 1960s. At that time, Canadians viewed themselves as belonging to an English-speaking country which happened to contain a French-speaking minority. As late as the 1950s, French was invisible in most of Canada and rarely spoken even in the House of Commons, although French Canadians working in English had reached the highest government offices even before 1867, when the separate Canadian provinces, the equivalent of U.S. states, joined together to form the present confederation.


About a quarter of Canada’s 24 million people are French-speaking—“Francophones” in the jargon invented by Canada’s federal bureaucracy in Ottawa. (English speakers are “Anglophones,” immigrants with other mother-tongues are “Allophones,” and Indians and Eskimos “Endophones.”) Almost all the Francophones live in the province of Quebec, bordering New York State and New England, where they form the substantial majority; a few hundred thousand overlap into the contiguous provinces of Ontario to the west and New Brunswick to the east. In the 2.6 million square miles between the Ontario line and the Pacific, containing some seven million people, only 86,665 told the 1981 census-takers that they spoke French in their homes.


Francophone ethnocentrism has been a continuous subcurrent in Canada’s politics since the British ended France’s colonial rule in the mid-18th century. Periodically it has precipitated national crises, as over the question of conscription during both World Wars. But mostly it has been contained within Quebec, where the Francophones contented themselves with totally monopolizing local government institutions. In the 1960s, however, Francophone nationalism began to take an explicitly separatist form. Symbolically, Francophones no longer referred to themselves as Canadiens—thus casting a subtle aspersion on the legitimacy of les Anglais, their British-descended fellow citizens—but as Québecois, implying they had no fellow citizens at all.


Few countries welcome secessionists, but the specter of an independent Quebec was a particularly acute threat to Canada’s political order. Francophone votes in national elections were the keystone of the long-dominant federal Liberal party’s Center-Left electoral coalition. Frantic efforts were therefore made to counter Quebec separatism, resulting in a new institutional synthesis.


The revised official formula now held that the Canadian polity contained two coextensive and coequal “founding nations,” French- and English-speaking. The federal government was to provide them with “services” in their language of choice everywhere—from coast to coast. Bilingualism was also to be urged upon the provincial governments. Here Ottawa’s direct powers of persuasion were limited, but it has achieved some success by funding local Francophone organizations to agitate for “services” in French.


The concept of a binational, bicultural, and bilingual Canada was the central preoccupation of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada for all but a few months from 1968 to 1984. Trudeau was a Francophone Québecois, but he was also a man of the Left who feared Quebec nationalism because of its clerical and reactionary past. He sought to persuade Francophones to accept Canada, not Quebec, as their political expression, and he implemented federal bilingualism regardless of cost and with fanatical attention to detail. Incomparably the most powerful personality on the federal scene, Trudeau was also able to make bilingualism the sacred cow of Canadian politics and drive opposition to it underground.


All unilinguals are seriously disadvantaged in modern Canada. The unspoken corollary of federal bilingualism was that the civil service would have to be staffed to a decisive degree by bilinguals, as would agencies like the armed forces, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and Canada’s very extensive array of government-owned businesses, such as Air Canada.


Thus the inexorable consequence of Canadian public policy since the 1960′s has been the creation of a society of first- and second-class citizens. Only the first, bilingual, class is fully eligible for careers with the largest Canadian employer, the federal government and its affiliates, since all important posts require both languages.


And the reach of the federal bureaucracy is surprisingly long. It has been able to require bilingualism of shop assistants in the airports of English-speaking cities and of post-office employees in remote English-speaking villages. In some instances this has meant firing locals and importing a Québecois.


Moreover, in undertaking to operate in both languages from coast to coast, the Canadian federal government was imposing upon itself a form of bilingualism that was peculiarly radical. In Belgium, by contrast, a country one-third of 1 percent of Canada’s land area, and where 60 percent of the population speaks Flemish and 40 percent French, only Brussels is officially bilingual. Nine out of ten Belgians live in unilingual regions where government is conducted exclusively in either Flemish or French. Yet about half the Belgians can speak both languages.


In Canada, institutional bilingualism completely lacks any such foundation in demographic or cultural reality. Its effects are therefore sharply skewed.


According to the 1981 Canadian census, only 15.3 percent of Canada’s population claimed to be able to “conduct a conversation” in both “official languages.” This figure has remained more or less stable for many years, with little sign of yielding to Ottawa’s two-decade efforts to expand it. Indeed, any increased bilingualism among Anglophones seems likely to be countered by decreased bilingualism among the Francophones, for whom Quebec is becoming an ever-more exclusive linguistic reservation.


All the evidence suggests that free peoples just do not readily learn foreign languages on a mass scale, particularly when there is nothing in their culture or personal lives to reinforce it. And the average inhabitant of Toronto hears no more French than his counterpart in Toledo or Tampa.


Canada’s bilingual group is heavily Francophone, by a factor of two to one. It is also almost entirely located in “Central Canada”—the two neighboring provinces of Ontario and Quebec, Canada’s equivalent of the Boston-New York-Washington axis. This region reported 81.2 percent of the country’s bilinguals in 1981, and adjacent New Brunswick another 5 percent.


Still, it should be noted that bilingualism remains completely atypical of both “official language” communities. Nearly two out of three French speakers, and nearly fifteen out of sixteen English speakers, remain stolidly unilingual. In an important sense, these two communities are, and have always been, separate nations.


Thus, above all else, official bilingualism in Canada has been a supreme exercise in social engineering. Its immediate effects have been strikingly regressive. By putting a premium on the ability to speak both “official languages,” it has reinforced the position of disproportionately bilingual groups from whom power was otherwise slipping: the Francophones, who had been losing power because their relative share of Canada’s population was falling; the Anglophone business elite in Quebec’s commercial center of Montreal, formerly the metropolis of all Canada but now eclipsed by Toronto and other Anglophone cities; the pivotal region of “Central Canada,” as economic growth in the West threatened its predominance.


Since the Anglophones are in a substantial majority in Canada, bilingualism cannot be used to drive them completely out of public life, which was the tendency in white South Africa as the Afrikaner nationalists gained power. But it has seriously qualified their role.


Rather like the sign of the cross in Dracula movies, bilingualism has also proved useful in neutralizing potential political threats to Canada’s institutional order. When the federal Progressive Conservative party chose a new leader in 1983, it came under intense pressure to pick one fluent in both “official languages,” although virtually all of its support came from unilingual English Canada and it could technically have won enough seats there to form a government without any Francophone support at all. This scared out of the race a strong Western candidate, the premier of Alberta, and seriously destabilized the campaign of John Crosbie, from the Atlantic province of Newfoundland (who would probably still have succeeded if the English-speaking convention delegates had not been supplemented by French speakers conjured up by affirmative action in Quebec).


The winner was an unrepresentative, Wendell Willkie-type sport, Brian Mulroney, an emollient Montreal labor lawyer with roots in the semi-Francophone Irish community of rural Quebec. Mulroney had only joined the party because of an accident of sectarian politics in his youth. He had never fought a parliamentary election, and his Conservative credentials were essentially based on his self-appointed role as the party’s ambassador to the Francophones.


Like Willkie, Mulroney has tried to force his party to accept the reforms of its opponents. In the general election of 1984, he duly carried Quebec, but only as part of an anti-incumbent sweep in which the Progressive Conservatives also won enough seats in English Canada to give them a parliamentary majority. Subsequently, Mulroney appears to have succeeded in alienating the Progressive Conservatives’ traditional supporters without attracting new ones. The party is now facing annihilation, running a bad third in opinion polls behind the Liberals and the socialist New Democrats.


Perhaps even more important in the Canadian context than the effect of the bilingualism policy on elective politics is the subtle but powerful encouragement it gives to Canada’s federal civil service, proportionately substantially larger than its U.S. counterpart. After years of quotas and hiring requirements, this is the only community that remotely approaches the bilingual, bicultural ideal to which the country has been officially committed. Like the Prussian army, the Ottawa bureacracy can regard itself as the true repository of national values. Its self-confidence and aggression have correspondingly expanded.


A single vignette: in the 1970′s Ottawa responded to the energy crisis with an astonishingly ambitious “National Energy Program,” ostensibly aimed at foreign oil companies but in fact expropriating the windfall profits that would otherwise have accrued to Western Canada. Ottawa’s chosen instrument in energy policy was PetroCanada, a federally-owned corporation which is accordingly subject to bilingualism. In the totally Anglophone Western oil capital of Calgary, switchboard operators at PetroCanada’s head office were required to answer calls in the approved Ottawa style: “Good morning—PetroCanada—bonjour.”


With such powerful friends, it may seem only a detail that the bilingual policy is completely failing to achieve its supposed goals. The 1981 census made clear that Canada’s population has continued to polarize: the numbers of English speakers in Quebec and French speakers outside Quebec fell both in relative and absolute terms. Bilingualism has not persuaded Canadians that they can live and work in the language of their choice throughout the country. They have been quietly voting against the policy with their U-Haul trucks.


Moreover, official bilingualism has failed to stem Quebec’s glacial emergence as a nation-state. No aspect of Canada’s politics has been subject to a more continuous self-deception. Despite bilingualism, Francophone nationalists in Quebec coalesced behind the Parti Québecois, which won provincial elections in 1976 and 1981, and remains the official opposition. Although its referendum seeking a mandate to negotiate more autonomy was defeated in 1980, legislation aimed at repressing the public use of English and turning Quebec into a unilingual French-only society remains today substantially intact.


The reason for this paradox is simple: all sections of Francophone opinion in Quebec agree that the province should be a French state. They disagree only on the technical issue of whether it would be better off with or without the rest of Canada. In Montreal, the Parti Québecois served the historical function of deposing the Anglophone business elite. All the Québecois are now happily digesting the resultant gains.


In 1987, furthermore, Quebec autonomy advanced to a further stage. The Mulroney government and the provinces concluded a round of constitutional negotiations that had been promised in 1981 as part of the federalist strategy aimed at defeating the Parti Québecois referendum. Among other things, the “Meech Lake Agreement” recognized Quebec as a “distinct society” with prime responsibility to represent Francophones.


Not surprisingly, former Prime Minister Trudeau has bitterly attacked Mulroney’s weakness in abandoning this key element in his attempt to build a binational polity from coast to coast. Even less surprisingly, given their recent record of appeasement, no English-speaking politician has pointed out that Meech Lake meant English Canadians had the worst of both worlds, paying the price of Trudeau’s binational Canada but at the same time getting a French Quebec.


In a parliamentary system without primaries, an all-party conspiracy of silence can repress popular sentiment for some considerable time. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that resentment of bilingualism among English-speaking Canadians is profound. When in 1984 an unusual combination of circumstances made possible a referendum on the issue in the Western province of Manitoba, it was rejected by margins of up to 90 percent, losing even in the few French-speaking enclaves. Bilingualism is a factor in Brian Mulroney’s precipitous decline and has also had a hand in the virtually complete disappearance of the federal Liberal party from the West, an area it once dominated.


Indeed, the most recent development in Canadian politics is a stirring of particularist and even separatist splinter groups in the West, reflecting the region’s alienation from Pierre Trudeau’s Quebec-oriented version of confederation.


At the heart of the binational, bicultural concept of Canada is a fundamental contradiction: the two linguistic groups are unequal in size and distribution, let alone aspirations. Redressing the balance requires a continuous effort by the federal government, of a type that is difficult to sustain in a democratic society. Pierre Trudeau managed it for a while, for a variety of personal and political reasons, but Brian Mulroney was forced to yield on the issue of Quebec’s special status, and future federal Prime Ministers will yield further, particularly when demography prevails and an all-Anglophone federal government is elected.


In one sense, this means that for Canada there is a way out of the bilingualism box. Special status for Quebec will eventually take most Francophones out of federal politics. In the United States, by contrast, where the Hispanic population (which has grown by some 30 percent since 1980, five times faster than the national average) is very widely dispersed, there is no such obvious geographical solution to the developing movement for bilingualism.


Thus the bilingual problem in the U.S. may turn out to be even more serious in its own way than it has been in Canada. A chilling prospect indeed.