Canada's Original Think Tank

Second reading of Bill S-247, An Act to establish International Mother Language Day

Second reading of Bill S-247, An Act to establish International Mother Language Day

Second reading of Bill S-247, An Act to establish International Mother Language Day

Hon. Mobina S.B. Jaffer:

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak on the second reading of Bill S-247, An Act to establish International Mother Language Day.

Bill S-247 is a legislative proposal to designate the twenty-first day of February as “International Mother Language Day.” For greater certainty, international mother language day is not a legal holiday or a non-juridical day.

This bill does not dispute that English and French are Canada’s official languages. On the contrary, English and French are the two official languages of Canada as guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

I would like to thank the member of Parliament, Mr. John Aldag, for his tireless work on Bill S-247. It is a real pleasure to work with him. Honourable senators, this bill is a result of his hard work.

I would like to begin by sharing a story of Heeba. Now in her late 20s, she immigrated to Canada from Bangladesh in 1992. She shared her perspective on multilingualism as her own cultural identity.

She said:

It is incredibly important for me to communicate in my Bengali mother tongue with my family. During my time at university, I always had German and French roommates, and would seize the opportunity to practice with them.

I have noticed people highly appreciate it when I make the effort to talk to them in their first language. My friends light up when I speak to them in Bengali, Nepali, Hindi and Spanish. I also speak perfect English and French.

Learning new languages runs in the family, as my father speaks Italian and Mandarin and my mother is also fluent in German. I’m incredibly proud to speak Bengali, my mother language. I took Bengali classes at university to learn how to read more academic pieces of writing like poetry. Bangladesh has given me so much in terms of culture, and I would absolutely want my own children to speak my mother tongue of Bengali, on top on many other languages. It is very difficult of me to attach myself only to one language. I am more than one language, and so are a lot of Canadians.

Honourable senators, English and French bilingualism makes our country unique. Bilingualism forms the foundation of Canadian identity and is one of the greatest legacies we can pass on to future generations. However, multilingualism differs from bilingualism as it implies languages other than English and French. Multilingualism is the ability to speak multiple languages.

For some, it is the capability of expression in both English and French, as well as many other languages. For others, multilingualism means speaking one of Canada’s official languages, as well as other languages, especially in their mother tongue. Despite the fact that their mother tongue is neither English nor French, many Canadians speak a multitude of languages that enrich our culture and our country. I speak on behalf of many Canadians, including some of you sitting here today, when I say I can express myself in many languages. I speak Gujarati, Kutchi, Swahili, Hindi, English and French and a little bit of Spanish.

Honourable senators, to date, there is no recognition of our multilingualism. Let us change this. Canada is home to over 200 languages, and together we can celebrate our language speaking strengths. To demonstrate how valuable languages are, I would like to share a statement from the United Nations:

Languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage. All moves to promote the dissemination of mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education but also to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world and to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.

Honourable senators, linguistic diversity benefits Canada in many ways. Multilingualism preserves cultural and linguistic heritage, it strengthens us as Canadians, since it is at the root of our identity, and it distinguishes us from other countries around the world.

First, multilingualism has significantly shaped our country, and continues to grow as children thrive to learn other languages aside from French and English, given by a parent as cultural heritage.

Over 200 languages are spoken in Canada. From Spanish to Punjabi to Tagalog, from west to east, Canada is home to a wide range of languages and cultures.

In my province, British Columbia, multilingualism is growing at lightning speed. In Vancouver alone, over half of all school-aged children are learning another language besides French and English. Similarly, among all of Canada’s large urban centres, Vancouver has the highest number of residents, specifically 25 per cent of its people, whose first language is neither French nor English.

According to an analysis released with the 2016 census, it has been shown that large cities in Canada have a different profile in terms of the languages spoken. Apart from English and French, Arab is the most common language spoken in Montreal, while Tagalog is the most common in Calgary, and Chinese languages like Mandarin and Cantonese surpass all others in Toronto and Vancouver. Across the country, over 1.2  million people have Mandarin or Cantonese as their mother tongue. That represents an 18 per cent increase in the past five years. Honourable senators, as I speak to you today, 7.7 million Canadians speak a mother tongue other than English or French in their homes.

Moreover, many studies have been published on the benefits of learning several languages and of multilingualism. These days, more and more parents are speaking to their children in their first language.

A resident of Vancouver, Jens Von Bergmann, has said that parents are being encouraged to pass down their mother tongue to their children. Mr. Von Bergmann speaks German to his young son, while his wife speaks to the child in her first language, which is Mandarin. The cultural reality in Mr. Von Bergmann’s family is just one example among so many Canadian families.

With so many families encouraging their children to learn many languages, multilingualism is not a foreign concept in our country. It is who we are.

Therefore, Bill S-247, An Act to establish International Mother Language Day, acknowledges the contribution languages make to a diverse and multicultural Canadian society. Multiculturalism and multilingualism create a wide range of opportunities, especially for young Canadians.

Honourable senators, I would like to share the story of Joshua. Joshua’s story resonated with me, as my children and grandchildren are also multilingual. Joshua is a young student from Vancouver of Filipino origin whose first language is Tagalog. I asked him what it means for him to be multilingual. His answer struck me. He responded:

To me, multilingualism has many meanings, but namely three key points: first, the prospect of a better future through increased career choices and higher wages. Second, the opportunity to sow deeper friendships and connections with people of other cultures through the study of their language, culture and history. And lastly, the chance to see the socio-political events from the point of view of people outside your borders through interacting with foreign people in their native tongue.

Joshua, who is only 21 years old, is passionate about learning international politics and speaks over eight languages. In school, he also learned two Aboriginal languages, Inuktun and Inuktitut. Joshua told me he would like his future children to learn Tagalog because he wants them to be able to grow up speaking their mother tongue so that they can understand their identity. Joshua would like his children to have an open and compassionate mind of their own towards different cultures and philosophies. Joshua believes this compassion towards others can be achieved with communication and trust, gained through languages.

Honourable senators, when I was the Canadian envoy to the Sudan, it never ceased to amaze me that when I went to refugee camps, I would see young Canadians working in the Sudanese refugee camps speaking fluently in Arabic. They gained the trust of the refugees, and they played a pivotal role as camp coordinators.

Honourable senators, there are great opportunities for our young people if they speak many languages. Today, many young Canadians truly believe in the power to understand each other through languages. I have encouraged my own children to learn as many languages as possible in school and to speak with me in our mother language at home. My children also want their children to understand and learn their mother tongue. It is their identity.

Honourable senators, International Mother Language Day is not only a day to highlight heritage languages in Canada; it is also a day to preserve cultural and linguistic heritage.

We also must never forget that Aboriginal languages must be acknowledged. They are also part of our Canadian identity. Canada is proud of its language diversity, including those of our First Nations. More than 60 different Aboriginal languages are spoken across Canada. Many more Aboriginal languages have disappeared. Every time a language disappears, a part of our identity disappears. Sadly, of the 60 registered Aboriginal languages, only four are considered to be safe from extinction.

British Columbia is home to more than half of Canada’s native languages. However, only one in 20 Indigenous people in the province are fluent in their language, and almost all of them are elders. Many of these languages date back thousands of years, but today we have allowed them to teeter on the verge of extinction. This is unacceptable.

Honourable senators, language preserves who we are as Canadians. It preserves our identity; it provides us with an identity. In fact, Heeba’s and Joshua’s stories touched me as they made me think of my own. As an African and an Indian woman, I came to Canada with my unique knowledge of languages. I came to Canada wanting and willing to learn both official languages, but I never forgot my own roots and cultural heritage. The linguistic attachment I have to my own culture gives me a great sense of pride and joy. It is who I am.

Multiculturalism and multilingualism go hand in hand, and both give the cultural richness Canada has.

Just last fall, Toronto officially had more than 50 per cent visible minorities. We cannot pursue being a true multicultural nation if we do not recognize the multilingualism in Canada. Finally, multilingualism not only has a role in individual cultural identity, but it also plays a key role in international trade. The ability for Canadians to be more and more multilingual grows as our country seeks more and more trade routes, which is the significant advantage of our international trade. The importance of language diversity gives Canada a distinct advantage in the world.

Many of our citizens are able to use their heritage languages to build bridges from our country to others around the world, increasing our trading capacity.

By mastering the art of linguistic diversity, we are able to understand a broader cultural philosophy and the way of living that creates friendship and trust among our peers worldwide.

In our very competitive and globalized world, we must ensure that our citizens have all the tools they need to succeed in the future. It is no longer sufficient for Canadians to gain access to new markets with only one or two languages.

Canada needs to promote the preservation of heritage languages. As a country that has enshrined multiculturalism into our Constitution, it is important that we recognize the benefits of our diversity and promote multilingualism as a means to access the entire world.

Every Canadian, and the cultural heritages they bring to our country, is key to our openness and understanding of one another. Undoubtedly, multilingualism promotes peace, cooperation and respect for one another, both nationally and internationally.

Designating International Mother Language Day would put us in line with our international partners as this day is already celebrated around the world, although it is not officially observed in Canada. It was formally established by a unanimous vote at the thirtieth General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in November 1999. Celebrations have occurred ever since on February 21.

Some Canadian provinces, such as Ontario and British Columbia, already recognize International Mother Language Day by hosting events in their provinces. To name a few, last year, the Canadian Language Museum in Toronto highlighted International Mother Language Day with a day of family-friendly activities such as crafts and a language-themed scavenger hunt. There was also a group reading in English and French of The Best of All Worlds, the first multilingual children’s storybook. Also part of the festivities to highlight multilingualism, a Mother Language Festival organized by Mother Language Lovers of the World Society took place at Bear Creek Park in Surrey, British Columbia, last summer. I was proud to see an outdoor festival where children and adults in my province of British Columbia gathered to share their heritage, to enrich multiculturalism and linguistic diversity.

Although initiatives like these offer a sense of pride and rich cultural engagement, each Canadian has their own attachment to, and definition of, multilingualism. I’m particularly amazed at seeing young people being active in learning languages, besides already speaking English, French and Spanish sometimes.

Before I conclude, I would like to tell you the story of an ice-breaking game with young children at a boys and girls event. As an ice-breaking game, all children had to name one superpower they wish they had. Mika, a 6-year-old boy in French immersion, said he wishes his superpower was to be able to speak any and every language in the word so that he can make a lot of friends to play hide and seek with. It warmed my heart to witness a young boy wanting to learn languages to laugh, play and build friendships.

Honourable senators, there is a growing need to embrace linguistic plurality. Canada’s identity is made up of a mosaic of languages and cultures, all combining to form a unique and vibrant multicultural community.

International Mother Language Day is also a day to celebrate the freedom to communicate in the language of our choice. I am and always will be a strong advocate of Canadian bilingualism. Let me once again remind all of you that Bill S-247 does not take away from our proud French and English bilingualism; it simply encourages all Canadians to celebrate and showcase their own mother tongue on February 21.

Through languages, we build relationships. We build trust. We build understanding. We build history. Through languages, we share stories. We share spirituality. We share compassion. We share humanity.

Without a doubt, multilingualism would not exist in Canada without multilinguals. Honourable senators, I want to share a story with you. When I first came to Canada, I did not speak French, and I was really amazed at how, in my province, there wasn’t the enthusiasm to learn French. If you were English-speaking, you just wanted to be English-speaking. Then, when I went to Quebec, some people just felt that they needed to learn French.

I was really amazed by these silos. Why do we have to speak one or the other? Why is it important that we just speak one language? One of my proudest moments in the Senate has been that it has enabled me to learn to speak French. It’s still a work in progress. My other proudest moment is that I’m a member of the Official Languages Committee. Senator Smith and I are both members of the Official Languages Committee. We both received a letter from a woman — I won’t say what province — who was concerned that French is becoming too strong in her province.

I want to say to you, senators, that it is not about learning one language or another language. It is about teaching our children many languages. We are a very small country, and if we don’t stand up and give opportunities to our children to learn many languages, we are handicapping our children. It is not anymore about learning French and English. It is a given that every child in Canada should learn French and English, and, if I were the Prime Minister, which I never will be, and I had that super fairy ring with which I could order people around, I would say it should be French, English and Spanish. If we are going to exist in the Americas, we all should be speaking French, English and Spanish. That should be a given.

Honourable senators, I ask you to support this bill not because I am so committed to this, but because we have to widen the way we think. We have to think about the more languages we speak, we don’t stay in silos. The more languages we speak, we give our children greater advantages. We come to understand each other better, and we will play a greater role in peace around the world. So I ask you to think about why it is important that we speak many languages. That is what Canada is all about. Thank you very much.