By Chelsea Craig & Richard Forbes.
Featured image via John Mahoney, Montreal Gazette. 


“Mes amis Quebecois, le français c’est important pour moi,” Kevin O’Leary read clumsily from a memo to the Montreal audience; the presumed front-runner in a race of fourteen candidates vying for the federal Conservative party leadership, O’Leary was responding to those who had criticized his poor French skills. He would continue, adding ungainly, “Je suis avec mon professeur de français tous les jours. Je suis né en Montréal,” and more, all the while Steven Blaney, fellow candidate (and apparently fellow Quebecer), struggled to resist a chortle, his grin bearing a coded, unsaid message: “Tabernak, c’est tu une blague?”

O’Leary was also criticized by fellow contender Andrew Scheer for waiting until after the all French leadership debate in Quebec City to enter the race. Scheer continued his teasing of the front-runner when O’Leary later declined to attend another debate – this time, a bilingual one in Edmonton, criticizing the “format” of the debate.

“I think this is more about [Kevin O’Leary] not wanting to debate rather than the format of the debate,” Scheer is quoting as saying by CBC News.

Indeed, Blaney, Alexander and Bernier were arguably the only candidates out of the thirteen that could be clearly understood during the French language debate; two of them, native Francophones. Now certainly, we should never discourage people from trying to speak their second language, but the all French Language Conservative Leadership Debate brought new meaning to the word ‘train wreck.’

Do people honestly believe that they can run for prime minister of a bilingual country only speaking one of the official languages? How accurately can one represent Canada on a world stage only speaking one of the official languages? Writing in Maclean’s, Peter Shawn Taylor argues that since only 10% of the population can hold a conversation in French outside of Quebec, we shouldn’t disqualify a huge portion of the population from becoming prime minister. But this reasoning fails to appreciate that to be a prime minister is to represent Canada: if you can’t speak both of the official languages, you’re failing to represent Canadians.

Is learning two languages easy? No, especially not when you are middle aged, but is it worth it? Yes. Just in terms of diplomacy alone, bilingualism has often been a strong asset for prime ministers in the past as they’ve sought to bridge the linguistic and political gap between Europe and the United States – an advantage that former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien belabored and impressed upon readers in his second autobiography, A Passion for Politics (2007.)

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien with  French President Jacques Chirac in a unique state visit to Nunavut. Also pictured is Order of Canada companion and artist Kenojuak Ashevak (left) and Nunavut premier Paul Okalik (right.) 

An increasing linguistic divide · Un écart linguistique grandissant

While the state of bilingualism within the Conservative Party has always been a struggle, it begs to question how important bilingualism is to some of the population. And not to be an O’Leary apologist, but the truth is Kevin O’Leary is far from the only Canadian who can’t speak French…

O’Leary, monolingual in a bilingual country, is a part of a growing divide.

While statistics often show bilingualism growing in Canada, this is obscured by increases in bilingualism among Francophone speakers in Quebec. Only 17.6% of Canadians reported being bilingual in 2011.

The truth, as Statistics Canada has found, is that bilingualism among Anglophones in the rest of Canada reached a modest plateau in 2001 (7.1%), but since then the rates of bilingualism have continued to slip, in accordance with reduced participation in French-as-second-language (FSL) programs in public elementary and high schools since 1992. The decline is discouraging:

[…] Young Anglophones outside Quebec are gradually becoming less bilingual. In the 1996 Census, 15% of 15- to 19-year-olds whose first official language spoken was English could conduct a conversation in both of Canada’s official languages. That percentage fell to 14% in 2001, 12% in 2006 and 11% in 2011. Moreover, many Anglophones outside Quebec do not retain their bilingualism as they grow older.

It often seems as though there is a quiet acceptance of this status quo, especially in English Canada, but it’s worth asking the question whether it’s acceptable to have such low (and declining) levels of bilingualism given the resources we already invest in FSL in Canada? A decade after the Chrétien government laid out its goal of raising the rates of a “working knowledge of their second language” among 15-19 year olds from 24% to 50%, Canada has not only not reached that goal, bilingualism rates (among 15-19 year olds) have since slipped.

Outside Quebec, bilingualism among Anglophones is as low as 11%.

We teach reading and writing to students but a 10% literacy rate would hardly be acceptable; we teach arithmetic, but we expect students taught in maths to leave school with basic math skills; and yet in the case of our second languages, after all the time, energy and resources we already put into second language education, whether a student actually leaves the public education system bilingual or not appears to be an afterthought. Et d’un autre côté: more Anglophone speakers are leaving Quebec than those arriving – while the most dramatic migration levels peaked in 1976-81, many young Anglophone Quebecers still view Francophones with suspicion and regard their first language as a source of discrimination.

There’s a great need in Canada for evidence-based policymaking in the area of second language education – especially in the case of core programs in the public sector in which the vast majority of Canadian children are enrolled.

Easy come, easy go, little high, little low · Va et veins, avec les hauts et les bas

Among this article’s co-authors, one of us was born and raised Anglophone and monolingual in Ontario: his limited French education, a product of recent decisions; chief among them were changes to the French curriculum by the Harris government in Ontario.

To him, FSL education policy is personal: when he was just starting to flourish in French in kindergarten, the Harris government implemented “French As a Second Language: Core French” (1998) which near halved his French education. As a member of the first generation to be directly affected by these policy changes, he feels a degree of responsibility in voicing its evident weaknesses.

When he returned to school after the summer in Grade One, it was explained to him then that he wouldn’t receive French classes again until Grade Four. Of course, by then he was once again wholly monolingual.

After reaching the ‘magic’ year of Grade Four, the FSL education he received was the stuff of nightmares: his year was divided among boys and girls, the girls being taught by the school’s French teacher (a woman) and the boys being taught by the school’s gym teacher; a man, who legend has it wanted to teach gym but there was only an availability in French.

Most classes involved the teacher (who very well may have been conning the school a la Frank Abagnale jr) defining a few words – “bâton de glace” he erroneously identified as meaning freezies while passing out free freezies – before inviting students to play road hockey or frisbee. Of the more “onerous” of his exercises was the time he had the class translate Queen lyrics, specifically Queen lyrics related to sports: “We Are The Champions” (Nous sommes les champions), “We Will Rock You” (Nous allons vous bercer), “Another One Bites the Dust” (Encore un qui mord la poussière) – at which point the class took a turn for the surreal.

Then Ontario Premier Mike Harris blesses a kindergarten class with his presence in 1999 before taking away their French education. (Tony Bock, Toronto Star.)

In contrast, Quebec (where the other co-author of this article hails from) went in the opposite direction as Ontario. In 2006, after a couple of years of pilot projects, the Charest Liberals introduced ESL (English as second language) schooling for Grade 1 and 2 – a bold decision which Charest’s government saw as a necessity for the province in a globalized economy where bilingualism is an asset. Although the decision was obviously controversial in a post-Bill 101 Quebec, given (unfounded) fears that teaching English to students earlier might degrade the quality of their French, the curriculum changes were supported by both teachers and parents in the pilot projects especially for revealing the previously untapped enthusiasm and capacity that younger students had shown in learning a second language.

The Quebec and Ontario experiences couldn’t be more different: one province started second language education later and the other, earlier.

FSL is one of the few areas of the Rae and Harris curriculum changes where the influence of the momentous Radwanski report, which advocated outcomes-based education and destreaming in high schools, is not readily recognizable. Rather, the “Goldilocks” option in Ontario: non-immersive French instruction throughout the whole of a student’s elementary schooling is no longer an option in the public school system since Harris’ changes to the core curriculum in 1998. As a consequence, FSL education in Ontario has long been recognized as unequal, especially along socioeconomic lines: the various ‘streams’ for receiving FSL education since the Harris government’s curriculum changes results in the majority of students receiving Core or “Extended” French education from Grade Four onward, while a minority receive more intensive French immersion schooling beginning in Grade One.

Realizing Canada’s Bilingualism · Comment concrétiser le bilinguisme Canadien

As true as it was when it was first said: Canada was not created by accident. Since confederation, many compromises have been forged during our process of nation-building. A policy of official bilingualism has been in place since Trudeau’s Official Languages Act (1969) – a landmark piece of federal language law and the product of the Pearson government’s royal commission on bilingualism and biculturalism which sought to address and recognize the country’s linguistic duality. As a result, no matter where you are in the country, you’re able to receive government documents and services in either French or English.

This anniversary year, as we reflect on our country’s achievements, it’s become obvious there’s more nation-building ahead of us: bilingualism exists in an official capacity but there’s still work to be done to realize it comprehensively.

The Official Languages in Education Program (OLEP) was launched by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage in 1970 to help implement the Official Languages Act: tasked, among various items, with the important mandate of supporting second language education across Canada. In a 2003 policy review of the OLEP, the Cultural Heritage ministry recommended focusing on improving ‘core’ second language programs; the review cites a “number of stakeholders” in finding these core programs limited and insufficient to the extent that they jeopardized the government’s goals without intervention:

Recommendation 1: In order to meet its objectives with respect to the level of bilingualism of young Canadians, the federal government should take advantage of the negotiation of the next Protocol to find a way of giving new impetus to core second-language programs. This could include, among other things, intensifying support for intensive second language pilot programs by implementing such programs in new regions of the country, if the current results of these programs seem encouraging.

In an unprecedented move – the report notes this is the “first time that an envelope has been specifically reserved for second-language instruction” – the federal government under Chrétien agreed to provide a targeted funding envelope of $137 million over five years to improve Core FSL and ESL across Canada through negotiated bilateral cost-sharing programs. At the same time, the Charest government in Quebec was in the process of expanding ESL to Grade One, as a part of its government’s action plan – a decision which was assisted by the OLEP: “this new development […] generated a need for personnel qualified in ESL instruction.”

Jean Chrétien (left) and then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (right), the latter having overseen the passage of Official Languages Act in 1969.

It’s our belief that the failure to achieve the Chrétien government’s 2003-2013 bilingualism targets for 15-19 year olds can be attributed to changing governments and an absence of political will at both level of governments. The goal was always a Chrétien goal – the essence of a man who had personally grappled and overcome our language barrier, learning English as an adult (he was monolingual when first elected as MP) – the policy is also contextually linked to an era of sponsorship, a post-referendum Canada caught in a fiercely competitive race of nation-building. But there’s no reason to suggest that the OLEP recommendation from 2003 couldn’t be adapted for today’s generation of Liberals if the federal government were to set new targets for bilingualism among Canadian youth and commit to new targeted funding and cost-sharing programs with the provinces and territories.

Any plan would first have to recognize the need for pilot projects and experimentation across diverse contexts: academic literature on the subject is deeply divided over the usefulness of starting second language education earlier (in short, younger students are often found to learn second languages differently, rather than better), but findings in the Quebec Cycle One case found the educational value in starting earlier, rather than exclusively cognitive in nature, is the surprisingly positive attitude that youngsters have towards learning a second language and the encouraging dynamic this creates with parents. Pedagogical standards for second language education, adapted and developed from the findings of these pilot projects, could then be encouraged nation-wide through conditional targeted funding negotiated bilaterally with provinces.

Although this wouldn’t necessarily amount to a cost-shared program like the Established Programs Financing (EPF), offering compensation for opting-out may be a constitutional or at least political necessity especially for Quebec. For starters, the original landmark judgment on federal spending powers, Winterhaven Stables Ltd. v. Canada (A.G.) cited “opting out arrangements […] available to those provinces who choose not to participate in certain shared- cost programs” as an additional factor in finding “federal contributions are now made in such a way that they do not control or regulate” areas of provincial jurisdiction like education.

🍁  🍁  🍁

World events, as of late, have been recently putting our country increasingly in the spotlight this anniversary year, forcing us to reflect on who we are as a country and what is essential to our national identity.

Bilingualism, as a realization of the Canadian nation-building project, ought to be a federal priority as it has been in the past.  Although education may be a provincial area of concern, it’s an issue where provinces across the board are failing children. A new investment by the Trudeau Liberals in keeping with their passion for evidence-based policymaking and targeted funding – approaches inspired by longitudinal and careful pedagogical research – is precisely what’s necessary to launch Canada’s bilingualism project forward for a new generation.

Thanks to Elias Weiss for his assistance with this think piece.


Chelsea Craig is an advocate for youth engagement in politics. She recently graduated from Concordia University with a Bachelor’s degre in Political Science and is particularly passionate about Canadian and Quebec relations.

Twitter: @chelseacraig_

2 thoughts on “O’Leary is far from the only Canadian who can’t speak French – and that’s a problem

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