Looking in Canada’s mirror

In 1995 Quebec’s separatists narrowly lost the region’s second independence referendum

In 1995 Quebec’s separatists narrowly lost the region’s second independence referendum. Twenty-two years later, Canada is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Federation with a Quebecois Prime Minister at the helm. The country is filled with streamers and souvenirs bearing the maple leaf, commemorative events are being held, books on Canadian history have been published and there is an ongoing media debate about a vision for the country. Today many Canadians are proud of a prosperous, democratic country that works. So, what happened?

The question is largely answered by looking at the change in mindset which the Canadian elites underwent decades ago, a change that has eventually trickled down to the wider society. Canada’s elites understood that, if they wished to overcome the instability caused by their failure to recognise their country’s pluri-national nature, a transformation was required. The Canadian federal government had to stop being an instrument at the service of the English-speaking supremacists to become instead the instrument that would protect Canada’s language diversity. And they got down to work. The process has not been easy, but the change is substantial. Canada is no longer an English-speaking nation with a French-speaking minority within, but a country composed of diverse peoples and communities with inalienable rights, among which is the preservation of their language and culture. The country defines itself as bilingual (English-French) and multicultural; it explicitly recognises the existence of the Quebecois nation and it accepts a regional official status of many languages spoken by the original nations.

Two strategies were used to alleviate language-related strains in Canada. First of all, provinces —the true subjects of the Federation— were granted ample powers on language policy. This has allowed Quebec, for instance, to have a single official language (French) since 1977, whilst the individual rights of traditional English speakers in the region are also asserted. In Quebec, the primacy of French can be felt everywhere: the administration (including the justice system) is French-speaking; French is also the predominant language in business and the economy, as well as in retail and the labels on consumer goods. It is unthinkable for a customer not to be dealt with in French, either face to face, on the phone or online. Likewise, the French language is widely used in media. Other provinces chose bilingual or monolingual language regimes. But unlike in Spain, where the Constitution is used to impose the universal supremacy of Spanish, regional governments in Canada have broad powers. In fact, on matters to do with language policy, Canada’s regions and provinces are nearly sovereign.

The other strategy deployed to resolve the language conflict was to turn the Federal administration into a truly bilingual institution: from the federal justice system, where trials can be held in French, to the armed forces, with French-speaking units commanded by bilingual officers. This federal bilingualism can be readily perceived abroad, when Air Canada crew welcome passengers with the greeting “Good morning - Bonjour”. Immigration forms are impeccably bilingual and signs at passport control remind the general public —everywhere in Canada!— that they have a right to speak to federal workers either in English or French. A Commissioner for Official Languages ensures that good practice is followed on language matters. The effects of such policies can be easily felt. Over the last few decades, hundreds of thousands of English-speaking parents have sent their children to French-medium schools, encouraged by the advantages of speaking French when working for or with the Federal administration. The capital city, Ottawa, is located in an English-speaking area, but is proud of its bilingual policy, which even extends to streets signs and notices in many shops. In fact, the University of Ottawa is the main bilingual university in Canada and this year will mark the tenth anniversary of its French-immersion programme.

Needless to say, Spain is not Canada, and some aspects of Canada’s model are far from perfect, particularly when it comes to the treatment of its original nations. Nevertheless, since some unionists in Spain are now pondering what alternatives they might come up with to lure Catalan separatists, the example of Canada illustrates just how long a road supporters of a united Spain would have to travel in order to put forward an offer that might be somewhat credible. In the meantime, on the ground, their minions are devoted to eliminating the Catalan language from traffic signs, airport signage and teaching in Catalan schools, instead of abandoning the notion that “Spain is but Castile; the rest is merely conquered land”.