Language has been a divisive issue since the founding of Canada. While dormant for some time, the flammable tinder of a nasty debate has been lit once again by the federal government.
In 1969, The Official Languages Act (1969) had ensconced English and French as the country’s two official languages. In 1977, the Government of Quebec implemented The Charter of the French Language (Bill 101) that demoted original intentions of equality by suddenly making French the only official language in that province. The rest of Canada was left to reformulate not only its linguistic relationship with Quebec but more importantly, its relationship with other languages as well. It is a process not yet finalized.
At the heart of the matter is historical interpretation. One narrative contends that Canada is a land of two founding cultures (“two solitudes”)—English and French. A second narrative argues for a plural identity of founding peoples—English, French, and Indigenous.
The federal government, in its September 2020 speech from the Throne, reignited the debate by declaring that “French is unique” and it would do everything in its power to promote French outside Quebec. The current Trudeau government clearly favoured the former—a bilingual vision of Canada—as opposed to a plural vision.
For those subscribing to the plural vision, particularly indigenous communities, it was impossible not to look upon the current policy from the federal government without raising questions such as, “Why French? Why not Nsyilxcen?” Or for that matter, why should any indigenous languages extant within the boundaries of Canada at the time of confederation not be afforded equal attention as that given to the French language?
These obvious questions, at least for this writer, came to light with a single word—Enowkin.
“It will take more than two years to explain that word,” I was told at the time.
From the Nsyilxcen language in the interior of British Columbia, where sagebrush and apple blossoms flower together, the word quietly had a lot to say about our language identity crisis that constantly simmers.
I admit to a fascination with Nsyilxcen’s glottal stops, hushed tones and written script. But I don’t speak this indigenous language. That’s the crux of the matter.
My own language of English has served me well as an international traveller, writer, teacher and Canadian. But that descriptor—Canadian—has ceaselessly confused many of us. Post-colonial English nations from Australia to New Zealand to Canada have constantly looked in the mirror—more than usual lately—and asked, “Who are we?” The automatic Canadian response has always been, “Not American.” It is a rather puerile answer. Greater depth has always been required and there is one question that really gets at the heart of identity—What is my language?
English damnit, most Canadians will say.
But should we?
We seem to have blinders on that restrict us from taking a close look at ourselves.
Now is the time.
It’s time to ask, as a nation forged from a colonial past, assuming that Quebec will maintain French as its only official language, should English remain the official language in the rest of Canada?
Don’t leave just yet. The answer may surprise you.
It begins by asking, what is the purpose of language?
Within at least the spirit of all languages, is an understanding of shared memories, experiences, and a common future. Arguably, there are only two types—international and local. As David Goodhart might say, there are languages of the anywheres and of the somewheres.
In our globalized world, migration and movement have spread many languages beyond their original borders. These are the languages of the dispossessed, diaspora, expats and colonizers. As linguistic vagrants of the world, they roam like headless denizens, detached from geography, time and place—English in New Zealand, Spanish in Latin America, French in Quebec. This is not to suggest international languages don’t carry enormous advantages. They certainly do.
English, a delightfully strange character, has traits and structures imbued with logic, scientific thought, flexibility and an exceptionally large vocabulary of nautically derived terms—sheets, lanyards, above board, bitter end, slush fund—that make it suited for global commerce. Easily learnable and malleable, there is enormous flexibility in English that you as a reader could still understand when, just now, I wrote the ridiculous non-word learnable. These pliable traits have allowed English, to a degree of utility if not poetic communication, to rise to international dominance. Carried aboard the ships of empire, it became a lingua franca extraordinaire and has served the likes of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand very well.
Hungarian, by contrast, does not allow word debauchery, nor is it easy to learn, nor was there a Hungarian navy to spread it across the oceans. As such, Hungarian has always been a poor international trade language but an excellent marker of identity if you can speak it.
International languages—English, Spanish, Hindi—come however, with grave weakness. And their affliction gets at the heart of the universal paradox between our human desire to be both locally rooted and cosmopolitan. It is an internal conflict that cannot help but strain personal allegiances. The divide between the somewhere and anywhere will be a battle never quite won.
Every country, every nation, every people, arguably, need both a local and an international language.
As the great ethnobotanist Wade Davis said, “Language is an old-growth forest of the mind.” To know only one is to limit the treasure that each holds within. Knowing one hobbles a person’s perception, cognition and mental health. Research is clear on the benefits. Multilingualism keeps the mind sharp. Yet, if one knows only international languages, the speaker remains stunted from living deeply in the local.
In a sense, international languages are both useful and useless simultaneously because they are everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Local languages from Hungarian to Estonian, Asu to Nsyilxcen, are by contrast, unique powerhouses. They infuse speakers with knowledge and emotion connected to the geographies they inhabit. They are not always easy to define. They are rarely immutable. Never universal. Almost always overlooked. Most importantly, they tend to unify.
Some might say, why bother? Local languages are irrelevant to everyone else.
That of course, is their greatest strength. What they lack in transferability, they make up for in depth of insight into the land where they breathe.
English itself has a complex and flavourful lexicon of words and meanings rooted in its original landscape. The language muse Robert MacFarlane described an English dialect noun smeuse as “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal.” Imagine what would happen to smeuse if it tried to assert itself in the deserts of the American Southwest or outback Australia—places that contain many English speakers and few hedges. The word would die a quiet death of uselessness, as it surely has. Would words more relevant to the new locale replace it? Of course. But it takes time.
I come back to the language—Nsyilxcen—rooted in the Okanagan Valley. To grasp this land of ponderosa pines, speetlum, scorpions, kokanee and Enowkin it would be helpful to speak its language. It is not easy to learn. Complex and unforgiving, I’ve been told. You must say exactly what you mean. The telephone game does not work in Nsyilxcen. But this is beside the point.
The point is that Canada stands at a crossroad. We are in search of greater meaning, greater identity, especially in our local and regional attachments. An English and French tradition has been extraordinarily helpful but not deeply satiating. In front of us, in wait, is a reasonable solution, a reasonable addition—identity in the land.
Every land, every geography, has a traditional language attached to it. Whatever the local language, from Sinhalese to Secwepemcstin, they are known to boost self-esteem, local awareness and identity.
What am I?
When faced with that proverbial question in the mirror, reflected back at many Canadians lately is a simple message. You are both local and international. Your international Canadian side speaks English, or French. But your local side is weak. The local must be healed to make you whole.
In this corner of a post-colonial New World—particularly English Canada—the time has come to stop floundering for an identity in cultures beyond our borders. The time has come to look at accepting that which lay before our feet. Over sixty indigenous languages across Canada have given great meaning to the people who live and speak by them. Those of us who now live on those same lands could learn from them as well.
Our international languages, whether English or French, have histories of great utility as common lingua franca which tie our two solitudes together. English specifically, is a language of our globally-oriented nation for the cosmopolitans, the internationalists, the globalists and the anywheres.
No change needed, except one.
English Canada’s second language should not be French. It should be local.
It should be indigenous.
We should learn it in our schools, speak it in our homes, hear it as we walk in the woods and on our shores, and use it in our stories. It should be the language of the land. But the land is large. That would be a point of divergence. Depending upon where one lives the language will be Nsyilxcen in the Okanagan Valley, Xaayda Kil on Haida Gwaii, Cayuga among the maple trees and Blackfoot at the base of the Rockies.
Consent from each First Nation is a prerequisite. Some will wish to share their language. Some will not. Some will find this proposal offensive. Some will open their arms with excitement. Perhaps it is too early to suggest such things? I think not.
Linguistic gymnastics in language learning are already in motion, especially in the most linguistically diverse province of British Columbia. Language immersion already exists in Kwakwala and some of the province’s other thirty-four languages. While vagrant international languages have drowned out the local in large cities, out beyond the towers of concrete and steel, local voices are getting louder and being heard again.
Someone may want to inform the federal government that they are already behind on this matter.
Our future as locals and internationalists will always be one of balance between the somewheres and anywheres. In that process, a still youthful Canada is already forging a sharper identity than the one with which it has struggled.
In the future—in middle-age Canada—I imagine a nation where my own children in this western half of the country, will speak English for Canada and the world and Nsyilxcen for home and a sense of place.
Until then, the way forward will require Enowkin—the art of diplomacy.