To the Editor:
Peter Brimelow’s mean-minded and inaccurate article, “A Cautionary Case of Bilingualism” [November 1987], warrants a reply. It would take too much space to expose all of Mr. Brimelow’s distortions and inaccuracies, but allow me to point to a few of the serious ones.
“All unilinguals are seriously disadvantaged in modern Canada,” says Mr. Brimelow. This disadvantaged state would come as a surprise to the 85 percent of Canadians who, according to Mr. Brimelow’s own figures, are unilingual in either French or English. (Mr. Brimelow would seem to imply that the average Canadian’s highest ambition is to be a senior civil servant. Fortunately for Canada, this is not so.) Unilinguals are not seriously disadvantaged: 98-99 percent of jobs in Canada are open to unilinguals, and, even then, unilinguals can learn a second language, something that seems to have eluded Mr. Brimelow. This is not to say that speaking more than one language is not advantageous. I would hope that even Mr. Brimelow understands that education has its advantages.
He goes on to assert that “Only the first, bilingual, class is fully eligible for careers with the largest employer, the federal government.” This is simply not true, nor is his assertion that “all important posts require both languages.” Less than a third of federal government jobs have any bilingual requirements. As to Mr. Brimelow’s fears that Francophones (French speakers) are taking over the civil service, Francophones make up 27.9 percent of all federal government employees; they represent 20 percent of executive positions and 19.7 percent of senior managers. This is roughly equal to Francophone representation in the population.
I am skeptical that Mr. Brimelow could find many examples of “required bilingualism” for “post-office employees in remote English-speaking villages.” I have worked in the post office and to this day it remains very much unilingual.
According to Mr. Brimelow, “All the evidence suggests that free peoples just do not readily learn foreign languages on a mass scale.” This would surprise the one-and-a-half billion people on the globe who have readily, and freely, learned a second (or third or fourth) language. It would also surprise the tens of thousands of French- and English-immersion pupils in Canada. French immersion, and more recently English immersion, may be Canada’s greatest contribution to language education worldwide. Immersion has proved to be a tremendously successful educational experiment, and has been studied and admired by educators from a variety of countries.
Far from having bilingualism foisted on Canadians, as Mr. Brimelow implies, there is a strong grassroots demand for second-language learning and teaching. According to Gallup, more than two out of three Canadian parents want their children to be bilingual, and they want this as much for the cultural insights and liberal education gained as for the job opportunities bilingualism may afford. And the job opportunities are not only at home, chez nous. As American companies experience lost sales because of a lack of polyglot salespeople, Canadian companies are discovering the benefits of having a younger, more bilingual workforce available.
Having a younger generation with much better foreign/second language skills than their parents is but one offshoot of bilingualism in Canada, one which might be described more positively than as “strikingly regressive.”
“The average inhabitant of Toronto hears no more French than his counterpart in Toledo or Tampa,” says Mr. Brimelow. In addition to several French-language radio and TV stations, in addition to French theaters and schools, Toronto’s quarter-million Francophones ensure that one does hear French in Toronto, now more than ever. How many French radio and TV stations and how many French people are there in Toledo anyway?
Perhaps the most noxious of all of Mr. Brimelow’s statements is his implication that bilingualism is somehow tantamount to the insidious apartheid legislation in effect in South Africa. His statement that “bilingualism cannot be used to drive [Anglophones] completely out of public life, which was the tendency in white South Africa” is so disgusting that one hopes that someday Mr. Brimelow discovers what truly repressive language laws can do.
It is too bad Mr. Brimelow did not state clearly what sort of a civil service he would like for Canada. Would he like civil servants who meet the public in places like Ottawa and Montreal to be unable to speak to a good portion of the public? Would he like senior public servants to be incapable of speaking to their staff? Personally, I like my senior civil servants to be bright and worldly; bilingual people tend to be bright and worldly.
Is he suggesting, beyond his own fears and self-created language bogeyman, that being unilingual is preferable to being bilingual? What would he propose in lieu of official bilingualism? I wonder if Mr. Brimelow has anything to propose: if he wants merely to dispose, perhaps he would save us the hysteria and distortions next time around.
Canada struggles on, inventing and reinventing itself anew. Part of our success in living peaceably and tolerantly is in opening new windows on other people, so that we may come to know and appreciate the diversity of people on this planet. Mr. Brimelow would seem happiest in a small unilingual, unicultural fiefdom. I hope he finds it.
Peter Brimelow writes:
In my mean-minded article, I argued that imposing institutional bilingualism in a country like Canada, where only limited numbers of the population can actually speak both languages, has significant consequences in terms of the distribution of power and perquisites; and that these consequences are not publicly discussed in Canada because important interest groups insist that the policy be treated as a sacred cow. In Jamie MacKinnon’s letter, readers can inspect this process in action.
Somewhat over half of Canada’s Gross National Product is in the hands of governments (provincial and federal) and government-controlled corporations, about 20 percentage points higher than the comparable level in the U.S. Canada’s federal civil service is the largest single employer in the country. To argue that it somehow does not matter whether bilingualism is required for the top posts in this pervasive presence—and for fully a third of its total workforce, stealthily increased from the 10 percent that was originally proposed—can only be described, if I may coin a phrase, as pas sérieux.
Bilingualism advocates like Mr. MacKinnon frequently rhapsodize about the supposed advantages of learning other languages, but this is completely irrelevant to the issue of institutional bilingualism—the policy of running the government in two languages. Institutional bilingualism entails practical consequences which I discussed, and which Mr. MacKinnon, typically, evades.
I should add, however, that the phenomenon of French-immersion schooling, although certainly popular with some ambitious upper-middle-class parents in Canada, is nugatory in its overall impact, involving perhaps 5 percent of eligible children. Census figures confirm that the vast majority of English Canadians, some 14 out of 15, remain stolidly unilingual. Those government-sponsored French-language broadcasts are going out into thin air.
This is particularly the case because, as I pointed out and Mr. MacKinnon ignored, the same census figures show that Canada’s two language groups are steadily separating themselves geographically. Thus, in the whole of Ontario, which includes the federal capital of Ottawa and the French settlement belts in the east and north, only 332,940 French speakers out of a population of 8,524,265 were recorded by the census-takers in 1981—an absolute decline from the 352,465 of ten years earlier. Mr. MacKinnon’s fantasy of a quarter-million French speakers in the commercial metropolis of Toronto is typical, again, of the demographic delusions that Canada’s bilingualism boosters like to propagate. As a long-time resident of Toronto, I can testify that you will hear the same amount of French spoken in the streets there as in Toledo: none.
At least most people will. Mr. MacKinnon is clearly capable of hearing what he wishes. Thus he imputes to me views on French participation in the civil service which I nowhere expressed, and accuses me of comparing Canada’s language policy to apartheid, rather than to the enactment in South Africa of Afrikaans-English institutional bilingualism, a particularly interesting parallel because it was consciously aimed at weakening the political power of South African English speakers. However, Mr. MacKinnon is no doubt sincere in his desire to subject me to repressive legislation.
What would I propose in Canada? As I implied in my article and argue at length in my book, The Patriot Game (Hoover Institution Press), I think Quebec and English Canada should divorce. Good fences make good neighbors. This would be best for the Québecois, the Canadians, and, not least, for the Americans. The new class of bilingual mediators in Ottawa, however, would then have to find honest, noncoercive work.