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'Official' languages?

Updated: Nov 30, 2021

photo credit: The Toronto Star

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,

In last year’s Call to Action Report Card, the calls related to Language and Culture received a B grade - the highest grade awarded. This is mostly because the Federal Government implemented the Indigenous Languages Act, committed to establishing an Indigenous Languages Commission, and provided necessary funding to support the work. This is great progress towards the preservation and revitalization of Indigenous languages, some of which, as we noted earlier this week, are at risk of disappearing altogether.

But is it enough? Will progress on these Calls to Action push back against the forces of colonization that continually undermine the value, role and incentive to learn these languages?

Consider the appointment of Mary Simon as Canada’s most recent Governor General.

Mary Simon is an accomplished Inuk leader who “gained national and international recognition for her work on Arctic and Indigenous issues”.[1] She has also worked tirelessly by “advocating for Inuit rights, youth, education and culture”.[2] In addition she was “actively involved in the negotiations leading to the 1982 patriation of the Canadian Constitution.”[3]

Upon the announcement of her appointment as Governor General of Canada, the first Indigenous person to assume this role, there was nearly immediate push back. Not because she’s Indigenous, but because she does not speak French. The Official Languages Commissioner received over 400 complaints over the course of two weeks, which lead to the launch of an investigation into her appointment. [4] Critiques, including those expressed by the Commissioner, focused on the supposed tension between respect for diversity and respect for Canada’s official languages.[5]

Pitting minority languages against each other is absurd - it does nothing to protect either of them. Expecting Indigenous language keepers to defer to the colonial definition of ‘official’ languages, perpetuates the system that tried to eliminate Indigenous cultures, languages and people altogether. It becomes yet another barrier for those who are bilingual, but not in the colonial context, and therefore undercuts any momentum to preserve Indigenous languages.

Responding to the criticism, the Prime Minister noted that French was not taught in day schools, including the one Ms. Simon attended in Quebec in the 1950s. [6] The Prime Minister emphasized that Ms. Simon “understands the importance of being able to properly represent all Canadians, and that’s why she’s committing to take French lessons and to learn French.” [7]

Frankly, the entire argument is just silly. It’s based on the notion that the Governor General (technically, the head of state- but there’s heavily emphasis on “technically”) ought to be able to communicate with those she represents in their first language, but only if that language is French or English (never mind the hundreds of thousands of Canadians whose first language is neither). But more ridiculous than that, is the assumption that this communication between government and citizen is direct. These communications, by necessity of volume and expertise, are almost always run through staffers, and when necessary, translators. The fact that Mary Simon does not speak French absolutely does not prevent a French speaker from writing to her in French and receiving a French reply.

The entire debacle underlines with brutal clarity the way that many Canadians, and many Canadian leaders, view “Canada” as a country built on the cornerstones of the French and English colonizers. As Laurier Poissant of Mont-Saint-Hilaire commented on an online story:

"I do not believe the prime minister would have dared appoint an Indigenous francophone...the respect of Canada's two founding peoples is the foundation stone and glue of this country." [8]

Refusing to recognize Indigenous peoples as the First People of this land, and insisting that their languages and culture are ‘unofficial,’ or somehow ‘less than,’ is a continuing act of erasure and cultural genocide. Indigenous peoples, from whom the state has already taken so much, are still expected to meet the standards of that colonial state in order to have a seat at the highest tables. Mary Simon’s life, work and leadership is already so much more than what many of us will ever achieve, but some dare to say it’s not enough because she doesn’t speak English and French, just English and Inuktitut.

Mary Simon deserves better. Indigenous people deserve better. Canadians deserve better and should be better.

And don’t even get us started on the mandatory French/English proficiency to qualify for a seat on the Supreme Court of Canada! [9]

Until next time,

Team ReconciliACTION


[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, News Release, “Statement from the Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada regarding complaints received on the appointment of the new Governor General” (19 July 2021), online: <>.

[5] Patrick Dery, “Le parcours de la nouvelle gouverneure generale est impressionnant…” (7 July 2021 at 6:13), online: Twitter <>.

[7] Connolly, ibid.

[8] Nancy Wood, “Next governor general’s inability to speak French leaves francophone communities conflicted”, CBC News (14 July 2021), online: <>.

[9] Office of the Prime Minister, News Release, “Prime Minister announces new Supreme Court of Canada judicial appointments process” (2 August 2016), online: <>.

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