Two days after the federal election, my mom told me she voted Conservative because she heard the Liberals had a plan to legalize hard drugs. The claim was false, but it sounded scary and that’s what she remembered when she cast her vote.
My mom is a naturalized Canadian who lives in Scarborough, Ont., where the neighbours to her left are Greek and to the right are South Asian. Their neighbourly conversations over the hedge or on the driveway are in English, but when she goes inside to turn on the TV, it’s the Chinese-language channel she goes to first.
She likes listening to the radio when she’s working around the house. She said she first heard the Conservatives’ falsehood on a Chinese-language radio station in early October. Then the claim followed her to a local grocery store. Large digital screens positioned near the checkout reinforced the message in Chinese: “Justin Trudeau has a plan to legalize hard drugs!”
The Conservatives weren’t alone in targeting people like my mom with misinformation: the Liberal party also paid for their own ads on the same screens, claiming Tories want to keep “assault weapons” on the streets. Many semi-automatic firearms are already restricted or prohibited under the Criminal Code.
The prime minister had denied the hard drugs legalization claim when it came up during the French-language TVA debate. Cabinet ministers Mary Ng and Bill Blair were tasked to combat the disinformation campaign in Chinese and Punjabi media. But despite their high-level efforts, the far-right falsehood spored. These deception campaigns weren’t new.
Vice reporter Steven Zhou showed that a Chinese-language disinformation campaign, fuelled by an anti-drug message, had been spreading in WeChat long before the election was called. The Conservatives advanced this disinformation campaign by claiming Liberals want to legalize hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine. A Tamil radio station in Toronto warned its listeners to be wary about misinformation on social media that stoked anti-Muslim rhetoric with false claims the Liberals had a plan to introduce Sharia law if re-elected. Repeated enough, and without messaging to the contrary, the disinformation becomes normalized.
“They lied,” I told my mom after the election. “Nothing in the Liberals’ election platform said they have a plan to legalize hard drugs.” She was defensive: “How am I supposed to know?”
The demographics of Canada have changed in the 50 years since the Official Languages Act came into force.
After years of delivering speeches extolling the virtues of diversity, equality and transparency, all the major political parties published their election platforms in two languages; their content exclusive to English and French readers. Immigrants, whether newly settled or naturalized for decades, want to participate in society. But there are some real linguistic barriers in Canada that prevent that from happening.
“Large-font versions of each were produced to support improved accessibility,” a Liberal spokesperson told me in an email. Conservatives and Greens confirmed their platforms to be in English and French only. The NDP said they released a version of their platform commitments in “accessible PDF format for screen readers.”
Still, only English and French. They’re Canada’s official languages, a special status that brings certain protections under federal law. The economic benefits for protecting a lingua franca, a common language for 37 million people, are strong and obvious. But the demographics of Canada have changed in the 50 years since the Official Languages Act came into force.
If political parties are going to the trouble of translating their disinformation campaigns and attack ads, why can’t they translate their party platforms? Yes, it would require some money to pay translators, but I was under the impression that we’re, for the most part, living in a pro-job creation age.
Today, more than 7.7 million Canadians speak immigrant mother tongues other than English and French, according to Statistics Canada. It’s a number that has jumped in recent years. Between 2011 and 2016, the number of people who reported an immigrant mother tongue increased by 13 per cent. And it’s continuing to grow. Current population trends suggest nearly a third of Canadians will be immigrants by 2036, excluding their children.
There’s an egalitarian charm to hearing politicians say, “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian,” a phrase coined by late Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai before it was adopted by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau during the 2015 election campaign. But it’s a slogan that sweeps systemic linguistic inequalities, that very much exist in this country today, under the rug.
According to the government, Canadian rights do come with “certain responsibilities” including learning French or English or both. Learning a language takes time. And the support and embrace of the wider community can help newcomers successfully adjust to their new cultural and linguistic surroundings. The keyword here is “support.”
The country still has a lot of xenophobia to confront with Canada’s continued demographic shift. The existence of a genre of internet videos of people commanding others to “Speak English in Canada” is proof of that. There’s an argument that amplifying this kind of bad behaviour helps shame it into oblivion, but its transition to obsolescence starts with change at the top. It begins with better outreach in communities where disinformation campaigns have taken root.
Canada is a bilingual country in law, but not in practice. A progressive, innovative, and proactive outreach strategy to evolve and replace political engagement tactics that rely on cultural tropes. Translating election platforms into Inuktitut, Chinese, Punjabi, Arabic, or Oji-Cree won’t stop parties or their leaders from saying false, inaccurate things. But the gesture could help voters like my mom feel more like a Canadian whose vote matters every day, not just once every four years.
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