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Governments spending up to $1.8 billion every year to meet federal bilingualism requirements

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Release Date: May 6, 2009

MONTREAL, QC-Canada's federal government and other bodies subject to the Official Languages Act spend up to $1.8 billion annually providing French-language services, according to a new study released today by independent research organization the Fraser Institute.

The peer-reviewed report, Official Language Policies at the Federal Level in Canada, measures how much the federal government spent on implementing bilingualism policies in 2006 and estimates how much it would have cost the private sector to offer French translation of federal services instead.

"The annual cost of providing federal services in French as well as English was between $1.6 billion and $1.8 billion in 2006. While the cost is not very high in relation to the economy, it is still substantial and we should ensure that it is money well spent," said François Vaillancourt, Université de Montréal economics professor and co-author of the study.

Under the current system, all Canadians pay for the provision of French-language services at an estimated cost of $55 per Canadian. But if the private sector were responsible for such translation services, only those requiring access to government in French would pay the associated costs.

"Using the private sector to provide translation and language services and moving to a user-pay model may be more sensible from an economic perspective," Vaillancourt said.

"However, this would be a major change in public policy that may not be acceptable, given the support shown for official bilingualism by the Canadian population."

The study notes the main benefit of offering federal services in both official languages is that it allows Francophones to interact with the federal government in French. Between 7 million and 7.5 million residents in Canada are likely to interact in French with the federal government, given their mother tongue and knowledge of official languages, according to the 2006 census

Other benefits accruing from the federal government's ability to interact in both French and English appear more nebulous.

"Canada may be a slightly more attractive destination for French-speaking tourists and foreign students. But the idea that Canada will have increased access to world markets because of the Official Languages Act is not borne out," Vaillancourt said.

"Canada has few French-language trading partners. Almost all exports of Canadian goods and services are made using English, mainly because more than three quarters of our exports go to the U.S. market and because English is the language of international trade."

In addition to measuring the costs of implementing bilingualism policies, the study details the history of the Constitution and legal framework with respect to Canada's official languages. The report also notes that French language rights have indeed expanded since the execution of the Official Languages Act 40 years ago.

Official Language Policies at the Federal Level in Canada is the first in a series of forthcoming studies on language policy from the Fraser Institute.