One of the paradoxes of most federations is that the education or training of the citizen, typically the jurisdiction of sub-federal levels of government, is often sharply at odds with national needs or priorities, as defined by the federal government. In Canada, provinces set school curricula, first and foremost to meet provincial priorities and in accordance with provincial “narratives.” (Quebec is the extreme example of this rule, but it is no less true in Ontario, Nova Scotia and Manitoba.) National or international priorities may be part of these provincial curricula, but with varying degrees of urgency and accuracy and, to be sure, with great degrees of inconsistency across the provinces.

This dynamic is exacerbated when it comes to Canadian foreign policy: The “raw (human) material” or “talent” produced in provincial educational and training systems upstream is often (although certainly not always) highly imperfect for purposes of advancing the national interests or projects downstream, as identified by the federal government. A case in point: In 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared that Canada aimed to become a “leader in the Americas.” This declaration immediately invited the question: Where are the Spanish or Portuguese speakers in Canada? Surely a country that seriously seeks to become a strategic leader in the Americas must have a critical mass of such trained linguists in positions of authority or influence — in government, business and other key organizations across the sectors. Of course, the simple answer is that the provinces lead in education, and that, were there such a critical mass in relevant positions in Canada (and there patently is not), the provinces would have had to have trained these individuals as competent Spanish- and Portuguese-speakers. An obvious but seldom discussed lesson: Provincial educational policy — specifically, in this case, language education — is an indispensable element of success or failure in Canadian foreign policy. (Former Australian prime minister and now Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd has been on this beat since the early 1990s when he championed a national Asian languages strategy for Australia to boost Asian literacy among its future decision-making classes. In Rudd’s thinking, there needed to be policy conciliation between the fact that the education function lay with the states, and the fact that the federal or Commonwealth government’s foreign policy priorities lay increasingly in Asia.

A similar dynamic exists in respect of national unity — an imperative of nearly all federal governments, and particularly important for the Government of Canada: The federation is stronger to the extent that all of the provinces form Canadian citizens who are reasonably similar or agreeable among themselves in their value sets, understandings of the country and loyalty to the state’s continued existence. To this end, French-language instruction in English Canadian schools and, to a lesser extent, English-language instruction in Quebec schools, were arguably key policy interventions for purposes of bridging the two solitudes at the centre of the Canadian federation. Even if imperfect and highly inconsistent across the provinces (and indeed within provinces), the attempt at essential or functional English-French bilingualism (or, at a minimum, cultural sensitivity to the language of the other solitude) among at least two generations of Canadians, while certainly not solving the Quebec question, has helped to populate a reasonably (officially) bilingual national civil service, promoted a bilingual national political class and raised the prestige and standing of the French-speaking minority in Canada.

The federation is stronger to the extent that all of the provinces form Canadian citizens who are reasonably similar or agreeable among themselves in their value sets, understandings of the country and loyalty to the state’s continued existence. To this end, French-language instruction in English Canadian schools and, to a lesser extent, English- language instruction in Quebec schools, were arguably key policy interventions for purposes of bridging the two solitudes at the centre of the Canadian federation.

A surely unintended, although salutary, consequence of this bilingual formation — a formation strictly for domestic ends — has been the rise of Canadian foreign-policy influence in French-speaking parts of the world, specifically, in West and North Africa, as well as in parts of the Middle East and the Caribbean. Evidently, incidental linguistic competence in foreign policy does not a strategy make. Where this may exist in respect of the French language in Canada, it is clearly absent in respect of all of the other major tongues of international affairs in this new century: to begin with, Mandarin, Spanish, Arabic and Russian. Competence in these languages can be created on a national basis only if all of the provinces, which are primarily responsible for education, agree to provide serious training in these languages as a part of their elementary and secondary curricula. (We should add the university sector to the mix of educational stages at which the provinces may “catch” students with intensive linguistic instruction, upstream, in these tongues, all the while allowing for the universities’ considerable autonomy from government and the great breadth of academic specializations in universities, not to mention the general lateness in pedagogical life at which university-based linguists would be formed.) It would follow that, within a generation, if all provinces were to teach these languages seriously and with reasonable consistency across the country, a critical mass of, say, high-level Spanish speakers or Mandarin speakers could conceivably emerge to occupy positions in government, business and other sectors of Canadian life in ways that provide the state and Canadian society at large with the general capacity to meaningfully “play” (and influence) in corresponding strategic theatres like the Americas and China.

Of course, a complex federation’s foreign policy and national unity imperatives should not operate at crosspurposes. This dynamic is, again, peculiarly true for Canada. Thus, where we might aim to drive linguistic competence among a new generation of Canadians in the key international tongues, the import of broad national competence in French and English should by no means be diminished. Nor should pedagogical efforts — at the elementary, secondary and university levels — to preserve or improve bilingual performance by Canadians be crowded out by training in these other foreign tongues. For the truth is that, while we in

Canada have concretized an educational regime promoting functional bilingualism, many states in the developed world are producing, in increasing proportions, critical masses of citizens who are functional or proficient in three or four tongues. And so the prescription for Canada ought to be multilingualism in three or four tongues, with French-English bilingualism a must.

We might add to this the postulation that, in many senses, the functions of language for foreign policy and language for national unity are quite different: for whereas Canadian multilingualism for projection of power internationally is necessarily meant to increase the capacity of Canadians to communicate effectively with foreign parties (that is, to influence), French-English bilingualism in Canada is meant not simply to allow each linguistic group to communicate with the other (or, in governmental terms, to deliver services), but also to signal the recognition of the other language as legitimate (or indeed, as mentioned, prestigious) by each of the country’s leading linguistic groups

Ottawa has, at least at the bureaucratic level, long been searching for a seat at the table at provincial-level discussions of education policy. And First Nations leaders, in the context of the summer 2010 meeting of the Council of the Federation, have called for a First Ministers’ Meeting, chaired by the prime minister, on education.

If linguistic and cultural recognition of the co-equal status of the French and the French-speaking has enhanced Canada’s French-language minority, then it follows that at least part of the solution to the improvement of the Aboriginal condition in Canada — and specifically, of the meaningful integration of Aboriginal people into a robust Canadian constitutional-political narrative — must lie in the stimulation by the English-speaking majority (and indeed by the French-speaking minority, or by Quebec) of Aboriginal language and culture. Just as Canada’s Aboriginal nations have inherited the historical defeats and deprivations of First Nations, so too may their collective revival be enhanced and lead to the flourishing of Aboriginal languages. Renewed study across Canada in provincial schools of, say, Cree, Ojibway, Inuktitut and Michif — to take but four major Aboriginal tongues — would not only give Canadians a better appreciation, if not understanding, of Aboriginal realities (and, to be sure, mentalities), but would also revive and lend prestige to languages and cultures that were relegated to the peripheries of Canadian society.

Of course, the Aboriginal question in Canada, unlike the Quebec question, is not strictly a national unity one; rather, it pertains more to the human condition in Canada more generally, or, cast more functionally, to social cohesion in the Canadian federation. Nevertheless, the Aboriginal condition is perhaps the most stubborn and complex of Canada’s social policy challenges, and I suggest that, contrary to the convention that typically frames it in socio-economic-legal terms, the diagnostique may more fundamentally be a largely cultural one — to wit, that the Aboriginal plight, to the extent that it can be reduced to some basic propositions, is symptomatic of a general cultural disorientation caused by cultural defeat — and that the road to recovery (the policy prescription) equally runs (at least partially) through the cultural vector. Lesson: The great challenge to social cohesion for polyethnic societies in this new century is not how to achieve perfect harmony among the tribes, but rather how a historically victorious majority can rehabilitate defeated minorities as cultural (and, eventually, political) co-equals — co-equals who are equally invested in the continued existence of the state.

A Canadian national languages strategy for the new century should have two central components. First, the consolidation and improvement of national bilingualism as a baseline level of linguistic competence for all Canadians. Second, the launching and institutionalization of intense provincial curricular training in three or four of Mandarin, Spanish, Arabic and Russian, and, to be sure, two or three major Aboriginal tongues (or, recognizing the quantity and diversity at play, Aboriginal tongues of regional significance), with the goal of creating a critical mass of people across the country who are, at a minimum, highly trilingual (in English, French and one of these languages). Quite clearly, as Kevin Rudd understood well in the context of Australia’s Asian languages strategy (which was driven by the Council of Australian Governments, Australia’s standing intergovernmental machinery), this would have to be an intergovernmental exercise, with the federal government articulating the aggregate vision, coordinating curriculum development and implementation across the provinces (monitoring or reporting on consistency of quality and intensity of linguistic instruction) and employing the spending power to help fund these new linguistic programs (cost-shared with the provinces) or, where necessary, to incentivize provinces to deliver with excellence. The provinces, for their part, would properly lead, in-house expertise oblige, in developing the new linguistic curricula across the schools levels, and in resourcing these new programs — in particular, with pedagogical talent. To be sure, the federal government could, as a complement to the provincially administered side of the national languages strategy, inject new policy energy and resources into the study and, in some cases, the revival of Aboriginal languages on-reserve, in First Nations community schools — properly and exclusively of the federal realm.

In respect of intergovernmental coordination, I wrote in Policy Options in September 2008 on the crying need for a standing national intergovernmental political-bureaucratic structure, driven from the centres of all the levels of Canadian government, to direct such national projects. The “top hat” of such a standing structure should be a regular First Ministers’ Meeting chaired by the prime minister that is informed by coordinated, federal-provincial intergovernmental bureaucratic policy and advice-giving, which in turn energizes the respective bureaucracies of the federal and provincial governments to deliver — this in anticipation of reviews by future First Ministers’ Meetings (the game being indefinite, as it were).

While perhaps improbable (although certainly not impossible) under the present government, it remains true that a proper First Ministers’ Meeting would be quite appropriate for purposes of launching a national languages strategy for Canada. It would have to be preceded by considerable bureaucratic planning (under the supervision and protection of the prime minister and premiers) and succeeded by ongoing instances of serious reporting to future First Ministers’ Meetings. Naturally, muscular federal leadership on this strategy would lend itself to at least two key lines of critique that ought to be answered persuasively: (1) that the federal government is involving itself in education policy, which should properly fall to the provinces; and (2) that the federal government is attaching conditions (expectations of policy outcomes) to its spending power. The response to the first critique is premised on the original federal paradox identified at the very start of this piece — that the success of national goals is contingent on appropriate education of Canadians by the provinces; or, put differently, that national performance (say, in this case, in foreign affairs, national unity or social cohesion) is impoverished to the extent that provincial education regimes are incommensurable with national challenges. This surely is the key policy logic supporting substantial federal involvement in educational policy in Canada and coordination with provinces on specific curricular matters.

Of course, legislatively speaking, education (narrowly conceived) is indeed the constitutional responsibility of the provinces. However, there is manifestly no constitutional bar whatever to federal policy interest in education, and, by way of the response to the second critique, no constitutional bar to federal spending on education, even with conditions, in support of the provinces’ legislative lead or even independently of the provinces. (Note that, just as the federal government may spend in areas of provincial legislative jurisdiction like education, so too may provincial governments spend in areas of obvious federal legislative jurisdiction, like foreign affairs. Ever increasing federal political retreat or ceding of the spending power “narrative,” as it were, to certain provinces has permitted false claims to be perpetuated to the effect that, while education is somehow a no-go for the federal government, the provinces may, paradoxically, use their spending power without qualification in areas like international development, international disaster relief, international diplomacy and trade.)

Ottawa has, at least at the bureaucratic level, long been searching for a seat at the table at provincial-level discussions of education policy. And First Nations leaders, in the context of the summer 2010 meeting of the Council of the Federation, have called for a First Ministers’ Meeting, chaired by the prime minister, on education. A national languages strategy that aims to reconcile upstream training with downstream national needs for this new century in foreign policy, national unity and the Aboriginal question, among other policy areas, may just be the elegant means that the federal government has long sought to address scholastic curricula across the country; and indeed, languages may be sufficiently elliptical a concept to give the provincial premiers the necessary political cover to launch a national conversation about national education; or, playing on words, to launch a national conversation about languages.

Photo: Shutterstock

Irvin Studin
Irvin Studin is president of the Institute for 21st Century Questions, and editor-in-chief and publisher of Global Brief magazine.

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