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The empty threat of forced Alberta French

Appeared in the Calgary Herald
Release Date: February 13, 2011
In January 1973, the American magazine, National Lampoon, published a cover with a revolver aimed at the head of a dog. The canine worryingly looked over to its left, where the gun touched its skull. The illustration was accompanied by this caption: “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog.” National Lampoon was, of course, not serious. It was how the editors grabbed attention, the lifeblood of satirical serials.

The magazine cover and the response to it is how the ongoing insistence from Edmonton trucker Gilles Caron that Alberta provide services in French should be treated: with a wry chuckle and then a dismissal because the “demand” is beyond reason. (That Caron takes all this seriously is no reason the rest of us or courts must).

For those unfamiliar with the court case, Caron received a $54 English-only ticket in 2003 for an illegal left turn. In 2008, provincial court Judge Leo Wenden threw out the fine after Caron demanded but was not given a French trial in Alberta’s English-only provincial courts. The Alberta government appealed that decision; meanwhile, the issue of whether taxpayers should fund the attempt by Caron and his lawyer to move the case up the legal food chain also became relevant as they demanded public funding.

In early February, the Supreme Court of Canada said the province must hand $120,000 to Caron and his litigator, this to fight the case through the court system. Canada’s top court argued that the question of whether a province must provide French translation is too important not to proceed due to a lack of funds.

Caron’s case is now at the Alberta Court of Appeal and might end at the Supreme Court of Canada.  Once there, it would be a surprise if any Supreme Court justice orders Alberta to duplicate every document, service and sign in the other official (federal) language. A Supreme Court decision in 1988 gave provinces the right to determine their own language legislation, which is exactly what Alberta has done over the years.

There’s a greater context for this controversy. It’s why, if the case makes it to Canada’s highest court, the justices should decline to order Alberta (or British Columbia or Prince Edward Island) to duplicate all services and documents in French. Like it or not, outside of Quebec, French in the rest of Canada is in decline.

In Alberta, the reason the provincial government doesn’t actively promote French is for common sense reasons (and unlike Quebec’s government, nor does Alberta suppress one of Canada’s two official languages). Alberta’s demographic reality is that in 2006, the census revealed French as the identified mother tongue of just 61,225 Albertans, or 1.9 per cent of the population. It came fourth behind Albertans who identified one of several Chinese dialects as their mother language, or German.

That tiny portion of Albertans who identify French as their mother tongue—and that doesn’t mean they cannot communicate in English—is no surprise. Canada-wide, there’s been a decline in the proportion of Canadians who tell census takers that French is their mother tongue from 29 per cent in 1951 to just 22.1 per cent in 2006.

The future of Canada involves the need to incorporate immigrants into the dominant language of their chosen province. That's particularly true of Western Canada and Ontario. In 2006, over 583,000 Albertans named a non-official language as their mother tongue, almost 18 per cent of Alberta's population. In British Columbia, where French as a mother tongue was tagged by just 1.3 per cent of British Columbians, non-official languages accounted  for 27 per cent of that province's population. In Ontario, four per cent of the population acknowledged French as their mother tongue while 26 per cent identified a language that was neither French nor English.

The changing demographic make-up of Canada means it makes sense for Alberta to stick to providing services, signs and tickets in English, and then translate only as needed (and with a focus on integrating those newer immigrants who, unlike Caron, likely do need some temporary translation help). Similarly, in Quebec, it makes little sense to provide much in the way of English services when much of the population speaks French, and most English-speakers—as with French-speakers in Alberta—are bilingual.

Such demographic realities are likely obvious to Gilles Caron and his legal counsel. In terms of a court response, it would be nice if the Alberta Court of Appeal took the tack of 1970s-era readers to National Lampoon’s demand: This cannot be serious, it cuts against reality, let’s express amusement, dismiss it—and move on.