Saiful Bhuiyan, who immigrated to Canada from Bangladesh via the United States two decades ago, is immensely proud of his two children. One is a software engineer and the other, a stem cell research scientist.
But, even over Zoom, I can see that underneath the pride lies sorrow. Bhuiyan, 59, who has built a successful accountancy business, fears that his children are losing their ability to speak Bangla, the family’s mother tongue.
“Now that they’re grown up … they’re talking among themselves in English, except when they’re talking with us,” he says from his home office in Windsor, Ont., a framed certificate hung on the stark white walls of the room. “And in the next generation, they might not be using it.”
At one point, he was so tormented by the loss that he became ill. He’s all too aware of the larger symbolism of language. After the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, the newly formed government of Pakistan tried to make Urdu the sole national language, nearly outlawing Bhuiyan’s mother tongue. The move sparked the Bengali language movement and ultimately the Bangladesh War of Independence. The trauma of almost losing the Bangla language lives on in him.
“When I’m dying, I might not see anybody around me who can speak the language I love, the mother tongue I had when I was born,” he says.
His fears are real. Canada prides itself on being an international beacon of multiculturalism; nearly one in four people in Canada today is an immigrant. The country relies on newcomers to boost both population and productivity and aims to increase immigration levels to 500,000 newcomers a year by 2025. Yet its Multiculturalism Act, which enshrines the right of immigrants and Indigenous peoples to protect, preserve and enhance their mother tongues with government support, is falling short.
Mother tongues are in steep decline, generation over generation. Many arrive here not realizing they are likely to be the last generation in their family to speak their language. Worse, the important role of language in preserving culture is being ignored, say experts and advocates. “It’s not possible to have multiculturalism without multilingualism,” says Slava Balan, a human rights researcher and a PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa who immigrated to Quebec from Moldova. “If cultures are only reduced to the dances, songs, cuisine and all this stuff, that’s just a pretence. That’s not real multiculturalism.”
Some immigrants are finding innovative solutions on their own, while calling on governments across Canada to fulfil their responsibility to help preserve mother tongues.
Chief among those advocates is Bhuiyan. As a director with the Mother Language Lovers of the World Society and the former president of the Bangladesh-Canada Association in Windsor, he’s become one of Canada’s most passionate defenders of mother tongues. His work has helped lead to the recognition of mother tongues, from his city all the way to the federal level.
Language has been a political flashpoint in Canada for years. In the 1960s, amid increased tensions between francophones and anglophones, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism explored calls to protect the French language. But concerns from diaspora groups persuaded the commission to expand its scope to recognize how other ethnic groups contribute to Canada, too. In 1971, then prime minister Pierre Trudeau introduced Canada’s multiculturalism policy, positioning it within Canada’s bilingual model.
The move set up Canada as a hub of diversity, but it also set the stage for complications. Notably, Quebec has rejected multiculturalism in fear of losing francophone culture, language and tradition. Without adopting an official policy, Quebec has instead promoted the ideal of “interculturalism,” which aims to adapt newcomers to its French-speaking society.
Nevertheless, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act, passed in 1988, enshrined the federal government’s commitment to promoting and maintaining an equal, diverse society in Canada. It was the first of its kind in the world and changed Canada’s sense of self. But its implementation on languages has been disappointing.
For example, by 1991, Parliament had established the Department of Multiculturalism and Citizenship to create programs for cross-cultural understanding, heritage cultures and languages, and community support and participation. The Canadian Heritage Languages Institute Act came into effect the same year, in a bid to establish an institute in Edmonton to develop resources and standards for ethnic minority language classes in Canada. But its creation was deferred in the 1992 budget and repealed before coming into force.
While statistics are scarce, academic studies suggest that funding for heritage language retention and education has only decreased in the decades since. Federal support started strong with nearly $200 million during the first decade after the 1971 policy passed. A study in 2005 by Anjali Lowe, then a master’s student at the University of Victoria, found that it ended after that as the government chose to exclude language from its interpretation of multiculturalism. Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario offered heritage language funding through the public education system early on but have slowly phased it out, too, the study says. It adds up to failing to honour the role languages play in sustaining multiculturalism.
Bhuiyan’s experience proves the point. Despite being in communication with elected officials at all levels of government, his community still struggles to find funds for cultural events, placing a heavy burden on members to pay for these initiatives on their own.
Across Canada, census data show two interconnected, overwhelming trends. First, immigrants whose language is neither French nor English are arriving in strong numbers. Of the 1.3 million immigrants who arrived in Canada between 2016 and 2021, more than 900,000 had a non-official mother tongue. Today, there are nearly 400 non-official mother tongues in Canada.
Second, their children and grandchildren are leaving those languages behind in favour of the two official ones. The numbers are dramatic. About 6.3 million immigrants in Canada have a mother tongue that isn’t French or English. Among second-generation Canadians, it’s 1.2 million. By the third generation, only 250,000 people have a mother tongue other than English and French.
It’s a phenomenon I’ve felt in my own life. I immigrated to Canada from Egypt with my family as a nine-year-old in 2013. I was fluent in Arabic, my mother tongue, as well as English, and I had a better knowledge of French than the average Canadian anglophone child. But for some reason, I felt like my near-trilingualism was a curse, not a gift.
In the decade since, as I’ve struggled to make sense of who I am, I’ve found myself belittling my unique identity — responding to my parents in English rather than in Arabic and immersing myself in western pop culture to make up for missed years.
It didn’t help that all around me, I received the message that to fit in and succeed, I had to assimilate myself into this new society. Some of the messages were direct. At nine, I had to take English as a second language, a class I hardly needed. I faced comments from classmates about my slight accent. But other pressure was subtle, like encouragement from many adults in my life to become fluent in French rather than retain my mother tongue.
I’m not alone in this. Amir Kalan, an assistant professor of language and literary education at McGill University in Montreal, says his research shows this phenomenon is common among immigrant children. That’s why advocates like Bhuiyan are desperate for change. Preserving mother tongues in Can- ada — all 400 or so of them — is essential to protecting our multiculturalism, he says. “If slowly all the language is lost, culture is lost, diversity is lost, meaning that it’s going to be one country with one language and one culture, which is not colourful,” Bhuiyan says.
Canada’s diverse Indigenous communities know this feeling all too well. Across the country, Indigenous Peoples are fighting to reclaim their languages, which were violently suppressed after settlers arrived in Canada. Under the Multiculturalism Act and the 2019 Indigenous Languages Act, Indigenous communities are beginning to receive greater long-term funding to support language revitalization. But long before government support increased, Indigenous Peoples had to find their own innovative ways to revitalize their languages, says Lorna Wanosts’a7 Williams, professor emerita of Indigenous education, curriculum and instruction at the University of Victoria. She is the Canada Research Chair in Education and Linguistics.
Williams, a residential school survivor from the Lil’wat First Nation in Mount Currie, B.C., has dedicated her life to revitalizing Indigenous languages and providing models for other language learners as well. “One of the first things that we have to work on constantly, all of us together, is that multilingualism is a gift to the world,” Williams says. “Each of the languages portrays a very different relationship in the world that we live in and it gives us a little different understanding of this world.”
She started helping shape the curriculum for the community-led schools in her Nation with the help of a Dutch linguist between the 1960s and 1980s. “We had to develop a writing system for our language, because, like most Indigenous languages, our language is oral…but we live in a very literate environment,” she says. In doing so, Williams and her community ensured the survival of their mother tongue, Ucwalmícwts. And since then, her work has grown to help preserve other languages, too.
While government support is not nearly enough yet for Indigenous and other non-official languages, Williams hopes Canada can realize that every language can bring new knowledge to our country. “Multilingualism isn’t a divide,” she says. “Because that’s what has always been promoted, that if people speak many different languages, it hinders communication and a sense of togetherness. But it doesn’t.”
There are some bright spots. In April, a bill by Sen. Mobina Jaffer that called for Feb. 21 to be recognized as the annual International Mother Language Day in Canada passed with wide bipartisan support. Jaffer, who speaks Kutchi, introduced the bill in 2017, but it failed to gain momentum in the Senate through multiple attempts over four years. The bill is largely symbolic and makes no mention of the government’s mandate to support heritage languages. But it’s a step forward in recognizing Canada’s diverse communities and the languages they bring with them.
Jaffer’s attachment to her mother tongue is deeply personal. She arrived from Uganda after Idi Amin, the former dictator and president, expelled thousands of South Asians from that country in 1972. For her, and for many in other diaspora communities, language is identity.
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But a multilingual Canada is more than just her personal project, she argues. It could also provide diplomatic advantages for Canada. “For me, we are a trading nation,” Jaffer says. “The biggest wealth in trading is the diaspora and all the languages we speak.”
Jaffer believes that supporting non-official mother tongues goes hand in hand with protecting French. “The idea is that if we want to have French become part of our DNA, we have to create the love of language, and the government has not yet done that,” she says. “But the perception for some in the government has been that if we encourage other languages, then French will suffer, and I think that’s a mistake.”
Good news can also be found in the latest ministerial progress report on implementing the Multiculturalism Act. For example: a few mentions about providing translation services for the most commonly spoken non-official languages, some funding for Indigenous and ethnic media, and government agencies hiring more people with diverse language abilities.
Kamal Khera, Canada’s minister of diversity, inclusion and persons with disabilities, said in an email to Broadview that the government is also expanding interpretation and translation services to more Indigenous communities. Her statement did not, however, respond to questions about the government’s role in protecting immigrant languages. Instead, she pointed to a new strategy on combatting hate as a key focus in the implementation of the Multiculturalism Act.
For every step forward, there’s a step sideways. Earlier this year, the federal government passed Bill C-13, which updates Canada’s Official Languages Act to ensure the use of French in federally regulated businesses. It makes clear the government’s desire to increase francophone immigration and protect the rights of official-language minorities.
It’s a welcome step for protecting French in Canada, but for immigrants like me, the contrast between the investment in official languages and the languages of ethnic minorities is a sign that our languages — and consequently our cultures, histories and identities — are less important.
Balan, the human rights lawyer, sees the trend as nothing short of a violation of immigrants’ human rights in Canada. He worries about his children losing their Russian mother tongue, especially in Quebec, where they live. Recent legislation aiming to protect the French language, such as Bill 96, restricts the use of other languages in certain settings. Newcomers to Quebec, for example, are required to access government services exclusively in French six months after their arrival to the province.
“We moved to Quebec with the idea that we are moving now to the land of human rights and freedoms,” he says. “But when I’m looking at this bill and generally on policies promoted in Quebec, they are not compliant with international human rights standards.” These include United Nations documents that protect linguistic rights. He says the strong emphasis on French and English contradicts the very principle of multiculturalism, the core of which is multilingualism.
This raises questions about the reality of the country’s multiculturalism philosophy. How can Canada better embrace all the diverse languages spoken within its borders?
Solutions to this problem are complex. And fraught. Jaffer believes some of the onus is on families to make sure mother tongues are passed on. She’s not sure that more government resources are the way to go yet.
But Kalan, the McGill professor, points out that some of the knotty issues surrounding the multiculturalism project are tied into our country’s origin story. Canada is built on a nation-state model, meaning a “one people, one language” approach, Kalan explains. Official bilingualism is already a step away from that norm. However, that focus on official bilingualism diminishes Canada’s ability to fully embrace all the other languages here. “One particular kind of issue that needs to be tackled in Canada is really moving beyond the colonial conflict between French and English,” Kalan says. “And when we do that, I think we get ready to provide space for other languages.” Both he and Balan, the human rights lawyer, say that non-official minority languages need to be integrated into society in a far more profound and widespread way.
In some provinces, a linguistic revolution is already happening as demographics change. In Ontario, Mandarin and French are nearly tied as the most common languages spoken at home after English. As you move west, the number of languages spoken more commonly than French increases. By the time you get to British Columbia, French is 10th.
Kalan cites strategies such as allowing students to be instructed in their mother tongue in addition to the official languages, or teaching students to read and write in multiple languages. The United Nations has long supported this approach, having called on its members to protect linguistic diversity since 2007. In Canada, it would require changes to education policies as well as having multilingual teachers.
The larger problem is one of focus. Making Canada truly multilingual would require a radical shift in culture. The framework of language would need to be multilingual. Doing it right means talking to diaspora communities about what they need, something critics say hasn’t been done enough.
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Williams, of the University of Victoria, says that when her Indigenous community worked to revitalize its language, members had to grapple with the question of how to regain the value of a language that had been stripped away from them. But once they started the process, they found ways around the lack of funding. They involved community members in education by having Elders sit in classrooms and go on the land with children, encouraging pupils to learn about language all the while. It’s a difficult task, but Williams’s story shows how Indigenous Peoples’ success in preserving their languages despite little support can serve as a model for immigrant communities looking to do the same.
The digital revolution may make things easier. Williams points to the First Peoples’ Cultural Council in British Columbia as a valuable resource in Indigenous language learning in the digital world. Now, some diaspora communities can simply click a mouse to connect with their families at home and access programming and archives in their mother tongues. Jaffer, who is Ismaili Muslim, says her grandson learned Arabic through online courses so he could feel closer to his religion.
For me, watching Egyptian television shows with my mom has been both a source of connection between us and a way for me to keep my mother tongue in my life. But without deep cultural changes — be it as simple as the “zeal to learn languages” that Jaffer talks about or a careful examination of Canada’s bilingual-only framework — I can’t see how Canada can harness all the benefits it’s missing out on by letting mother tongues go silent.
In June, Canada’s most diverse major city, Toronto, elected Olivia Chow, its first racialized mayor. Born in Hong Kong and immigrating to Canada at 13, Chow has had a long career as a progressive politician, spending years on Toronto city council before moving to federal politics.
In 2014, Chow’s bid to become Toronto’s mayor was unsuccessful. Although she started out as a polling favourite, she finished third. She faced blatant racism, including many online comments about her accent and a national newspaper column that suggested voters would reject her because of her English-speaking ability. Her mother tongue is Cantonese.
This time around, Chow highlighted her background as an immigrant and a progressive with fresh ideas in a city desperately looking for change. She never looked back. Nearly half of Toronto’s residents report a non-official language as their mother tongue; Chow’s election made sense.
In an emotional speech following her win, Chow took a moment to honour the journey. Toronto is now “a city where an immigrant kid from St. James Town [a low-income part of the city] can be standing in front of you as your new mayor,” she said to cheers. The next day, asked a question by a reporter in Cantonese, Chow smiled and answered in her mother tongue.
A month later, the first Filipina Canadian became a federal cabinet minister. As she took on her new role, MP Rechie Valdez paid homage to her mother tongue by tearfully issuing a greeting in Tagalog.
Watching these clips, I couldn’t help but think back on my own experience. In my early years in Canada, I’d refused to speak my mother tongue outside of my home in hopes that I could replace it with an English that sounded the same as the one my classmates spoke. Would I have done the same had I seen elected officials using their mother tongues?
Mark Ramzy was an intern with Broadview this summer. Currently a reporter for the Toronto Star, he lives in Ottawa.
This story first appeared in Broadview’s December 2023 issue with the title “Lost Words.”
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