We speak a lot of languages in Canada — elections should reflect our diversity

·5 min read
<span class="caption">New immigrants to Canada, including Syrian-born Tareq Hadhad (centre) who founded the company Peace by Chocolate in Antigonish, N.S., swear allegiance at an Oath of Citizenship ceremony in Halifax in January 2020. </span> <span class="attribution"><span class="source">THE CANADIAN PRESS/Riley Smith </span></span>
New immigrants to Canada, including Syrian-born Tareq Hadhad (centre) who founded the company Peace by Chocolate in Antigonish, N.S., swear allegiance at an Oath of Citizenship ceremony in Halifax in January 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Riley Smith

According to the 2011 census, almost 213,500 people reported an Indigenous mother tongue, including 144,000 who speak an Algonquian language and 35,500 who speak an Inuit language. All Indigenous languages are the languages of this land.

In the same 2011 census, more than 20 per cent of Canadians (6.8 million people) reported a mother tongue other than English or French. At home, more than a million Canadians reported speaking a variant of Chinese, and six other languages (Punjabi, Spanish, Italian, German, Tagalog and Arabic) were each spoken by some 400,000 to 500,000 Canadians.

The census revealed more than 200 languages spoken by Canadians as a home language or a mother tongue, with 20 languages each numbering over 100,000 speakers.

A man holds a sign that reads We Are All Immigrants (Except First Nations)
A man holds a sign that reads We Are All Immigrants (Except First Nations)

These “immigrant” languages are also the languages of Canadians, along with the two official languages — English and French (which are also immigrant languages). With some 350,000 new immigrants arriving to Canada each year and numbers rising, the variety and number of non-official minority language speakers are constantly increasing.

Canada has taken the first steps towards the linguistic accommodation of its minority citizens. During the 2019 federal election, Elections Canada developed and offered to voters two publications — the Guide to the Federal Election and the Voter ID info sheet — in more than 30 minority languages and 16 Indigenous languages.

The Canada Elections Act also specifies that electors may contact electoral returning officers if they require a language or sign-language interpreter. The aim is to facilitate greater participation of all citizens in the fundamental democratic process.

Discretionary accommodation measures

Canada’s 2019 Indigenous Languages Act states that a federal institution (like Elections Canada) may provide access to services in an Indigenous language. It may also translate a document into an Indigenous language, or provide for interpretation services to facilitate the use of an Indigenous language in the course of the federal institution’s activities.

However, these otherwise progressive provisions do not mandate linguistic accommodation, meaning these measures are discretionary and not guaranteed.

Justin Trudeau listens to Perry Bellegarde as he gestures during a meeting.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde during a meeting with Assembly of First Nations leaders in Ottawa in 2019. Protecting Indigenous languages was a key topic of discussion. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Electoral rights are universally recognized as among the most fundamental of civil and political rights. They are the hallmark of democracy. Barriers to their exercise and enjoyment — including linguistic barriers — are a human rights and equality issue.

The law and its practice in the United States are instructive. The language minority provisions of the U.S. Voting Rights Act state:

“Whenever any state or political subdivision provides registration or voting notices, forms, instructions, assistance, or other materials or information relating to the electoral process, including ballots, it shall provide them in the language of the applicable minority group as well as in the English language.”

These provisions apply to situations where more than 10,000 people, or five per cent of the total voting-age citizens in a single political jurisdiction, are members of a single language minority group, have depressed literacy rates or don’t speak English sufficiently well in order to exercise their electoral participation rights.

During the November 2020 elections, voters in California were able to request ballots in widely spoken languages like Arabic, Armenian, Hmong, Korean, Persian, Spanish and Tagalog.

In Harris County in Texas (home to America’s fourth largest city, Houston) the ballot was printed in four languages: English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese.

A voter and a poll workers, both wearing masks, have a conversation at a polling station.
A voter receives his ballot access code from a poll worker on election day in November 2020 in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

In Cook County (home to Chicago, America’s third-largest city), where over one-third of residents speak a language other than English at home, elections-related information and fully translated ballots were provided to the voters during the November 2020 elections in 12 languages: English, Spanish, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Tagalog, Arabic, Gujarati, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian and Urdu.

The UN urges accommodation

International human rights standards under the United Nations system and within the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of which Canada is part, urge the accommodation of linguistic minorities.

Most notable provisions can be found in the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the 2001 OSCE Guidelines to Assist National Minority Participation in the Electoral Process and the 2017 handbook Language Rights of Linguistic Minorities by the UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues.

Similar provisions on political participation of Indigenous peoples can be derived from the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), brought into Canadian law this year through Bill C-15.

To be more inclusive and rights-based, Canada needs to fully embrace linguistic diversity for its elections. Greater use of Indigenous and minority languages will enhance the quality of Canada’s elections in line with international norms and standards.

Mary Simon smiles as she speaks into a microphone.
Gov. Gen. Mary Simon gives her address after she took the oath to become the 30th Governor General of Canada in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

This will certainly resonate well with current pledges of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and with Canada’s Inuktitut-speaking new governor general, Mary Simon.

As a multicultural, plurilingual and well-heeled country, Canada can do better to accommodate and facilitate the fuller participation of citizens in our elections. In so doing, we can offer a leading example to the world.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Veaceslav Balan, L’Université d’Ottawa/University of Ottawa.

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Slava (Veaceslav) Balan is a PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law, and member of the University of Ottawa Human Rights Research and Education Centre.

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