I believe I’ve just had the most frustrating conversation I’ve ever had, around the issue of immigration and languages. And I don’t even know how it happened. It just literally blind-sided me.
What Is Linguistic Assimilation?
In Canada, English and French are considered our official languages. Anyone who works for the government is required to speak both, and many (if not all) government documents are written in both languages as well. Generally speaking, corporations offer services in writing and over the phone in both languages. This is all a result, of course, of Canada’s colonial government. Other results of our colonial government, relating specifically to the issue of what linguistic assimilation is, include the treatment of Aboriginal children in residential schools. While being culturally indoctrinated and refused the right to participate in their traditional spirituality in these institutions, children were also systematically deprived of the right to speak their first languages, and often severely punished when caught doing so. This is linguistic assimilation in its most violent format — enforcing a coerced sameness between different groups of people who started out speaking different languages. Before this colonization of language, people of each group were free to learn the language of the other. But once this process began, some Aboriginal languages became either permanently erased or very nearly extinct, while English and French were forced upon the same populations. And many of those children lost the ability to communicate in their (original) first language, resulting in entire generations who exclusively communicate (unknowingly) in English (as a second language — I know this was me until I attended college, and I’m even non-Native).
Immigration Into Canada
There exist many shades of non-citizenship in this country, between full citizenship and straight off the boat/plane. Yet let us not forget that immigration as it presently is constructed in this society, is a colonial institution designed to assimilate everyone into a narrow definition of whiteness. The Indian Act is a similarly conceived institution of the colonial government, with the express purpose of assimilating First Nations (residential schools being yet another measure of the same intentions). But I digress.
Essentially, to board a plane or boat and enter the country without a work visa or student visa (such as on a trip-for-personal-enjoyment), and simply decide to stay here, is a form of illegal immigration. One has to complete applications, push paper around, pay (often enormous) fees, and disclose a great deal of personal information to the government, in order to be considered for legal immigration and associated temporary resident status (however, many basic rights citizens take for granted every day, such as the right to vote, are not granted to temporary residents). A few years later, one becomes eligible to apply for permanent resident status (the same lack of rights applies to permanent residents, including the risk of deportation). And a few years after that, one becomes eligible to complete the optional citizenship process to become a Canadian citizen (and legally a subject of the colonial government). This is to say nothing at all of the many people who arrive in Canada, by legal means, with work visas, student visas, or refugee status. The point being that there are many ways of being in Canada from another country, both legally and illegally, without surrendering citizenship of one’s home country, and building a life for oneself on this land.
I personally tend to be of the belief that none of those persons, individually or collectively, should be subject to wage-slavery, exploitation, blackmail, cultural assimilation, or even linguistic assimilation, in order to be here. And yet, the colonial government in its infinite wisdom, designed a program explicitly targeting women from the Philippines, to fulfill jobs no Canadian citizen will take: the live-in caregiver program. Filipino women exchange their labour under conditions of wage-slavery and blatant exploitation as live-in caregivers for elderly and/or disabled Canadians — within inappropriately rigid requirements and punitively tight deadlines that are violations of labour laws for Canadian citizens — for citizenship in this country and the hope of a brighter future for their families in their home country (and the next generation in ours). Failure to fulfill those inappropriately rigid requirements can result in losing a much-needed job contract that she requires to meet the deadlines, and a failure to acquire a second contract in time can result in her deportation.
The live-in caregiver program is just one example of why immigration into Canada (when ending in full citizenship) is not nearly as cut and dry as some would prefer to believe. I have little faith in the colonial government, that this is the only example I could find if I looked hard enough. Thus, it is my firm belief that to resist linguistic assimilation by refusing to learn either or both of the two official languages, and thus engaging exclusively with communities that share a common culture, language, and/or experience, should be considered as basic a right as it is to learn one or both official languages; and that to willfully assimilate only to the degree one chooses to do so, should not be looked down upon by Settler Canadians. If there is ever a powerful way for a non-citizen Settler living in Canada, to subvert the colonial government and its institutions of cultural and linguistic assimilation (an option that is arguably critical to democracy), I cannot think of one with more social power than refusing to learn one or both of the official languages, and/or refusing to apply for (optional) citizenship. The preservation of First Nations languages is equally critical to the preservation of First Nations cultures under the same (or parallel) oppressive government institutions.
Privileged Assumptions And Other Absurdities
Now that I’ve laid out a fairly significant number of historical and contemporary issues (though certainly not all of them, and not an intensive treatment) that factor into virtually any conversation where language meets immigrants to Canada, I’m going to address the privileged assumptions and other absurdities that spontaneously evolve out of these conversations. At the cost of my head filling with fucks.
The very first privileged assumption is that, because one (often white) person claims that they would learn the language and culture of their destination country if they emigrated from Canada, then it follows that people who immigrate here should learn the (official) language(s) and culture of ours. There are two immediate problems with this, however; the first of which is that even though people like myself were born here, we didn’t have to learn the language(s) and culture(s) of the people who truly define this country: First Nations. Rather, we learned the official languages of a colonial government and the culture that is defined, regulated, and reinforced by it (all while trying to contain, deconstruct, and wipe out all First Nations cultures). And the second problem with this privileged assumption is that there would be no way to communicate with a majority of people in that destination country, without first learning the language that is spoken by the majority. But this is simply not often true. One of the well-known and widespread effects of colonialism (especially by the British and the United States), out-sourced labour, and the push for global capitalism, is an enormous and increasing population, in a number of countries worldwide, who are bilingual — capable of speaking English in addition to the language of the dominant culture. One can take a trip nearly anywhere in the world, and even if he/she can only speak English, still get by without a translator or working knowledge of local languages and dialects.
A second privileged assumption often emerges as well. That is, the assumption that because a Canadian-born Settler such as myself (but who, unlike myself, simply hasn’t thought about the immigration process and all that colonialism has cost Settlers and Indigenous peoples) is adequately comfortable living as a Settler on this land, then we can magically attribute this as the end-goal of the immigrant generation before us. That they came here with the explicit intent of arriving here and assimilating into a culture they knew next to nothing about. But there’s a problem with this assumption too. It is rooted in the belief that severing one’s connections to his/her own heritage is the same as blindly embracing a whole new identity. The former is an act of erasure, while the latter is an act of assimilation. One can be assimilated without first erasing his/her heritage (as in the residential schools), and another can erase his/her heritage without assimilating (as is often the case in immigration). That my family happened to participate in both processes does not mean that everyone who immigrates to this country after my family did ought to make the same decisions for themselves and their children (or that anyone else should have to, for that matter). Those decisions ultimately cost me my entire (very broken) family, and the grief is often too much to bear.
Finally, the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard happened in the conversation that inspired this writing. It is perhaps because of the sheer magnitude of just how ridiculous the claim I am about to share is, that I finally felt the push to write about this subject. That is, that when someone asks an English-speaker if they know a different language, that what they expect of the English-speaker is that they know every language on the face of the planet. It just didn’t seem even remotely reasonable to the other person in this conversation — the person who said this to my face — that perhaps they are merely enquiring into the possibility of a shared language while a bilingual family member or translator who would usually speak for them in such a situation is simply not in their company at the time of this interaction. It didn’t seem reasonable to them that the solution to their infrequent and marginal inconvenience is to either move away from a multicultural community or find ways to adapt; rather, it somehow seemed more reasonable to them that all immigrants to this country be forced to linguistically assimilate as a requirement of citizenship. I suppose they feel that because the colonial government effectively achieved this feat against all of the First Nations on whose land we live (and we, as a country, have seen how well that worked out), then we should do it to new immigrants too.
I don’t even. What this is.