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Jack Jedwab
Association for Canadian Studies

Introduction: Language and Culture

Language is said to serve two distinct purposes; it is the vehicle through which culture is expressed and a utilitarian or neutral tool allowing those of different backgrounds to communicate with each other so as to permit the effective running of the business of the nation. If language were an essential mechanism through which culture is transmitted, it would follow logically that those who are unaware of a given language would be ill-equipped to understand the related cultural expression. Others counter that a given culture can be expressed in many languages, hence greater awareness can be achieved without learning the corresponding language.

It is a debate that is reflected in the evolution of government policy on language and culture. When, in 1971, the federal government introduced the policy of multiculturalism within a bilingual framework, criticism emerged from those francophones who claimed that culture and language were inseparable. Defining biculturalism as a means of improving familiarity with the two ‘leading’ communities, former Quebec Liberal leader Claude Ryan considered its pursuit an essential element in maintaining national unity. For their part, leaders of some ethnocultural minorities insisted that without supporting languages other than English and French, there would inevitably be an erosion of the corresponding cultures.

From the outset there was a persistent confusion about what was meant by the term biculturalism. In the 1960s, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism declared that:

Just as bilingualism should not lead to a blend of two languages so Canada’s cultural duality cannot be taken to mean a mixture of the two cultures; each has its own existence…culture is to the group what personality is to the individual: it is rare for a person to have two personalities or two styles of living at the same time (Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, Book, the Official Languages, Ottawa, Queen’s Printer, 1967).

It is a view that contrasted somewhat with that of the Prime Minister of the period. Lester Pearson had stated that biculturalism did not imply that the nation’s social fabric would be characterized by the co-existence of two separate cultural societies. He maintained that “English and French cannot be separate and distinct from each other or other cultural strains in Canada…there should be no pressure on one to absorb the other, but they should develop along with each other, each I hope influencing the other.” (Throne Speech of the Right Honorable Lester B. Pearson, Prime Minister of Canada, 1964) An eminent sociologist of the period, John Porter, feared that the government’s approach would “bring us together through bilingualism but keep us apart through culture.” (See Canadian Issues, June 2003)

Today, there is growing discussion of multiple and intersecting identities and the impact of contact between cultures. Cross-cultural understanding has been a central element of Canada’s multicultural policy and Quebec employs the term intercultural to describe its approach to diversity. More than three decades after their introduction, surveys reveal that the population is very supportive of the federal government’s policies of bilingualism and multiculturalism. Still, as they pertain to the area of arts and culture, the debates of the sixties remain relevant to contemporary discussion about language and cultural expression.

The idea of connecting two cultures - English and French - is now unsuited to the country’s demographic realities. Moreover, surveys reveal that whereas outside of Quebec most individuals describe ethnic origin as the principal expression of their cultural identity, in Quebec most define themselves by their linguistic background. The increasing multiethnic character of the population has not only meant that the possible expressions of culture have risen multifold, but that the options available to the consumer have also grown rather substantially. Therefore, when referring to cross-cultural exchange outside of Quebec, it is essential to think beyond the traditional English-French dichotomy. As noted in a recent Statistics Canada publication, along with declining attendance and a growing supply of diverse entertainment products, Canada’s changing demographics present yet a further challenge to cultural and arts organizations seeking to broaden their clientele (La Novara, 2001).

Cross-Cultural Capacity

As noted previously, cross-cultural understanding has emerged as an important goal of Canada’s multicultural policy. It might thus be assumed that exposure to and awareness of the arts and culture of the ‘other’ would be an important dimension of group interaction. Indeed, Canadians widely believe that arts and culture is a vital ingredient in furthering cross-cultural comprehension. According to a 2001 Environics survey, more than 94% agree that the arts teach us about different cultures and ways of living and a similar percentage maintain that the arts expose us to new ideas. Analyses conducted by the firm Decima reveal that the arts are considered important for a variety of reasons: to enhance learning, to provide information and perspective on history and culture, to increase exposure to cultural diversity, to better appreciate other cultures and to provide such social benefits as connecting with friends and making new ones.

There is also a strong basis for the promotion of activities that enhance cross-cultural understanding. Some 44% of Canadians believe that the government should do more to promote the sharing of cultures. In regards to arts and cultural consumption, the majority of the population disagree that they are more interested in seeing works of art and live performances from their own cultural background. Of the one out of three anglophone Canadians that are more interested in seeing works of art and live performances from their own cultural background (a sentiment shared by 44% of francophones and 51% of allophones), nearly ninety percent are interested in seeing artwork and attending live performances from different cultures (a sentiment shared in near equal measure by francophones and allophones). As far as the attraction of non-francophones to French culture is concerned, it is difficult to estimate, because since 2000, in the three major inquiries the federal government has conducted into arts consumption, the clear focus has been on non-European cultures and notably the degree of the population’s exposure to the country’s aboriginal reality. Of the 44% that in 2001 attended a live performance or exhibit featuring non-European cultures, most attended aboriginal events.

Given the relatively successful reconciliation of multiculturalism and linguistic duality, the omission of francophone culture from the list of what is consumed by the general population in recent government studies is worrisome (see overview of surveys, Jedwab, 2003).

In that language is an important if not critical element in the transmission of culture, it should follow logically that cultural knowledge and capacity would be connected to wider language learning and acquisition. Yet it remains a link that researchers have thus far rarely investigated. Still, collecting results from various surveys that touch either directly or indirectly on the issue permits a better appreciation of the relationship between language and culture when it comes to the arts.

Statistics Canada analyst Pina La Novara has confirmed that the impact of language on cultural participation has not been widely examined. It is apparent, however, that cultural consumption habits are influenced by both language knowledge and ethnic background. Where English is concerned, language knowledge is not considered an impediment too difficult to overcome in attending cultural performances in cultures other than one’s own. Some 59% of anglophones and 42% of francophones attended non-European performances that were no doubt frequently offered in one of the two official languages. Hence members of official language communities demonstrate strong interest in seeing performances reflecting cultural backgrounds other than their own.

Many recent immigrants whose mother tongue is neither English nor French use non-official languages particularly in the social and cultural contexts. Knowledge of a non-official language is important towards accessing arts and culture productions that are neither in the English nor French language. Consequently, it is not surprising that amongst those attending artistic and cultural events, allophones are the most likely to have taken in the non-European performances. When surveyed in 2001, nearly 80% of allophone respondents reported attending non-European artistic events.

How does one reconcile the high level of openness to culturally diverse events with the level of interest in seeing performances from different cultures? In effect there is no contradiction between preferring arts that appeal to one's own culture and being interested in exposure to other cultures.

Lost in the Translation: Making Culture Available in Many Languages

We referred earlier to the notion of hybridity as expressed in the Canadian context by the growing number of persons able to participate comfortably in both English and French cultural and artistic productions. But the actual numbers of such individuals are likely far fewer than the impression given by some analysts. In part, much of the popularly consumed cultural products are made available in other languages through translation. While the knowledge of French permits consumption of cultural products in that language, it is not frequent that bilingual anglophones avail themselves of such opportunities. For instance, in Montreal, where there is an important number of bilingual anglophones and the greatest availability of cultural products in French, surveys reveal that such consumption is not especially high. In effect, the overwhelming majority of Canada’s cultural hybrids are francophones that consume English cultural products. It would be interesting, however, to explore the motivation for consuming French arts and culture amongst those anglophones that choose to do so.

Youth and Culture: The Will But Not Always The Way

When asked about the motivation to acquire French, less than one out of ten students of French immersion declared they did so to learn more about another culture. It is also widely reported that without the support of educational institutions, most youth would not choose to attend an arts and cultural performance. In fact, in the Decima study referred to previously, high school students specified that most of the arts-related experiences they had over the previous twelve months were through their school. Most admitted that they would not have participated had they not been ‘forced to go’.

Finally, there is a willingness participate in exchange programs, as revealed in a poll conducted in April 2002, wherein some two-thirds of anglophone youth outside of Quebec were open to involvement in a school-based language exchange. It is worth examining the possibility of linking such exchanges to exposure to French language arts and culture.

The Role of Government

It is part of the Department of Canadian Heritage’s mandate to serve as a source of support for the arts and Canadian culture. In this regard, the Department has five broad priorities:

  • To ensure that all forms of creative expression and story-telling reflect Canada and the breadth of the Canadian experience;
  • to help promote excellence in creativity, performance and community leadership;
  • to promote and help sustain Canada’s cultural diversity and promote Canadian identity by ensuring that (Canada has) the community, institutional and industrial capacity and infrastructure that are required;
  • to help overcome differences and distances to better understand one another and increase our appreciation of the values we share as Canadians;
  • and finally to promote Canadian interests and values to the world’s diverse cultures and heritage.

The priorities dovetail nicely with the promotion of Canada’s francophone culture and the federal government has been a reasonably strong supporter of such cultural expression both outside of Quebec and within the province. However, assistance in connecting such cultural expression to the broader community presents numerous challenges, some linked to government strategy, others to the objectives and priorities of the artistic community. The government and the artistic community have yet to carefully consider the relationship between fostering cross-cultural understanding and cultural expression in the French language.

In April 2003, the Department of Canadian Heritage held a Minister’s forum on Diversity in Arts and Culture. It was aimed at responding to rapidly changing Canadian demographics that were challenging the traditional formulation of cultural policy and programming. It was intended to bring culturally diverse communities and cultural decision-makers together, and to find ways to better reflect Canada's diversity in cultural policies and programs. Amongst the objectives was an increase in knowledge among cultural decision-makers of the needs and capacity of culturally diverse communities and to build on experiences and expertise of communities and cultural institutions.

However, the Forum dealt only sparingly with Canada’s French culture in part due to the concentration and perceived strength of its expression in Quebec where as noted previously the federal government is indeed a significant contributor.

When it comes to cultural expression outside of Quebec, there is a need to explore the relationship between ethnocultural diversity and la francophonie. Ethnocultural francophones engage in artistic and cultural expression that reflects the country’s multiple cultural identities and their intersection with the French language. As the government is increasingly committed to promoting greater awareness of diverse cultural expression, it should not lose sight of the importance of improved dissemination of French culture outside of Quebec.

Conclusion: From Duality to Diversity Clauses

The Department of Canadian Heritage programs in the arts and culture are often delivered through third parties and frequently diversity clauses in contribution agreements are used to hold third parties accountable for achieving greater diversity. It is estimated that diversity related questions are applied to 40% of programs and policies across the Department.

Diversity clauses are designed to assist those artists that are identified by membership in groups that are culturally and racially diverse, belong to Aboriginal Peoples, are Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender, Official Language minorities and Persons with Disabilities. Clearly, while the federal government is a major partner in promoting French cultural expression outside of Quebec, it has yet to consider, in conjunction with the communities, how best to disseminate French cultural expression to a fast evolving Canadian population. Where does the cultural expression of francophones fit in the broad notion of diversity? Under what circumstances does a government seeking to augment bilingual capacity need to provide additional support for French cultural expression outside of Quebec? Alternatively, is it better to incite more anglophones outside of the province to visit Quebec in order to benefit from exposure to Francophone culture? These are questions that need to be addressed in order to ensure a meaningful and inclusive approach to broadening knowledge and awareness of cultural expression in the French language.


Arts and Heritage Participation Survey, Environics Canada, Department of Canadian Heritage 2001

Canadian Issues. June, 2003 see Jack Jedwab “To ‘Bi’ and Not to ‘Bi’: Canada’s Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, 1960-1980”

Decima Research for the Department of Canadian Heritage Arts in Canada: Access and Availability, 2002

Gouvernement du Quebec, Conseil de la langue francaise, langue d’usage publique, 1999

Jedwab, Jack. Demography, Diversity and the Arts in Canada, Minister’s Forum on Diversity and the Arts, Department of Canadian Heritage March 2003

La Novara, Pina ‘Culture participation: Does language make a difference?’ Focus on Culture, Statistics Canada, 2001

Minister’s Forum on Diversity and the Arts, Department of Canadian Heritage, March 2003

Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, Book, the Official Languages, Ottawa, Queen’s Printer, 1967

Throne Speech of the Right Honorable Lester B. Pearson, Prime Minister of Canada, 1964

The views expressed in this document are those of the author.