03/17/2014 12:19 EDT | Updated 05/17/2014 05:59 EDT

"Let Them Learn French": Canada's Bilingual Elite Hold All the Power

The other night I had a bit of a Twitter tussle with Paul Wells, beloved Maclean's political commentator.

To make a not terribly interesting story short, Paul sent out a tweet written in English linking to a blog written in French, and it grabbed my attention simply because it was the most recent instance of a tic I've noticed a fair bit from establishment-type journalists based in the eastern provinces: happily tweeting (or retweeting) in French, in glib indifference to the fact that very few of their followers could possibly be expected to understand.

According to the 2011 census, only 17 per cent of Canadians claim fluency in both official languages. An English journalist who tweets in French is thus purposely engaging in a weird sort of audience-alienating behaviour, and I've never understood precisely what motivates it.

Not that I begrudge anyone who's proud they can do it, given that knowledge of French is the price of admission to the upper echelons of the Canadian elite.

To be prime minister of Canada you have to know French. To be governor general of Canada you have to know French. To be chief justice of the Supreme Court you have to know French (and debate rages about the other eight). To be head of the Bank of Canada, the Canadian armed forces, the CRTC, or the CBC you have to know French. 

In 2012 Parliament voted unanimously in favour of making it mandatory for the "auditor-general, the chief electoral officer and a number of commissioners, including those for privacy, information and ethics" to know French. Above a certain rank, most federal bureaucrats (regardless of what province they work in) invariably hit a promotional glass ceiling unless they know French.

This is an awful lot of power to concentrate in just 17 per cent of the population. If you heard of some third world dump where a linguistic minority of less than 20 per cent held a permanent, legally-protected monopoly on all of the country's top jobs, you'd probably think it wasn't much of a democracy.

You'd be right. Discriminatory, arbitrary barriers to full civic participation remain a blight no matter where they're practiced, and we undermine any pretence of being a truly egalitarian nation when we seek to normalize or rationalize them. Yet a lot of Canadians seem distressingly eager to do so.

Premier Brad Wall of Saskatchewan recently laughed off the idea that he had prime ministerial ambitions by quipping "I struggle with one official language," as if lack of fluency in a tongue only .5 per cent of his constituents speak at home was a perfectly rational reason for excluding Canada's most popular and competent provincial politician from higher office.

Justin Trudeau once quipped that non-bilinguals are simply "lazy," a Marie Antoinette-like bit of victim-blaming ("Let them learn French!") popular with segments of the Canadian elite who simply can't fathom why more peasants can't find the time to study an exotic dying language utterly irrelevant to their daily lives.

Since the party's 2011 Francofication, the NDP has never missed an opportunity to clamour that ever-larger segments of federal jobs should be exclusively reserved for bilinguals, while the Prime Minister has honed a habit of ostentatiously opening with French in absolutely every speech he delivers  --  even when speaking to the White House press corps or the Israeli Knesset.

Journalists and academics have long played a role in this "unilingual shaming" as well, posting long, untranslated French quotations in books or articles, excessively praising the merits of being "fluently bilingual" when evaluating the suitability of potential leaders, and of course, drifting in and out of French in supposedly public forums before overwhelmingly unilingual, English audiences  --  including social media.

Consciously or not, this sort of thing helps foster class anxiety and self-loathing in the 83 per cent of Canadians who were unfortunate enough not to grow up in urbane Montreal households or spend a couple semesters in Paris, and normalizes the idea, as Jean Chretien once said of himself, that bilinguals are simply "better Canadians" who deserve to be in charge of everything. It's even worse when such smugness is accompanied by condescending untruths about just how easy it is to learn a second language later in life, or how welcoming Canada's existing bilingual elite is towards those who try.

There is a case to be made in favor of institutionalized bilingualism. 60-ish per cent of Quebec residents claim to speak French exclusively, and Ottawa has an obligation to not make their relationship with the state unduly difficult. But Canada's cult of bilingualism has clearly mutated well beyond that humble, utilitarian goal into something far more destructive and disturbing, giving rise to a kind of permanently stratified society in which a bilingual ruling class inhabit a privileged bubble that insulates them from appreciating the rareness of the peculiar talent they possess, or empathizing with those who lack it.

People can speak  --  and tweet  --  in whatever language they want, but Canada's second-class, 83 per cent majority have equal right to recoil from an overzealous, ostracizing culture of bilingualism, which is not, nor has ever been, rational, given the demographic realities of this overwhelmingly English country.

The self-serving Francocentric affections of our betters are particularly worth noting amid all the furious denunciations of the separatist threat filling the nation's editorial pages lately, in anticipation of Premier Marois' supposedly looming re-election.

After all, should Quebec finally leave, Canada's bilingual elite would suddenly be robbed of the primary justification for their existence.

You can forgive them if they seem a bit testy.


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