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Jason Kenney: Adding Insult to Irony

March 21, 2009

While I’m beating up on our beleaguered Immigration Minister, here’s something else to consider. Yesterday, Jason Kenney suggested that new immigrants just aren’t trying hard enough to learn English or French, and will now be absolutely required to demonstrate ‘competence’ (as determined by…?) in one of our two official languages or be denied citizenship.

In some ways this story is a bit of a man-bites-dog tale. After all, as Kenney himself points out, language skills are already supposed to be a requirement for citizenship – it’s mostly a matter of enforcement and of determining what constitutes ‘competence’.

But Kenney’s sudden concern over the language skills of new Canadians seems pretty hollow given that he also recently cut funding to a language program for immigrants run by the Canadian Arab Federation. The irony has not been lost on the CAF, who point out that the ESL services they offer have nothing to do with the advocacy activities that Kenney had taken such exception to – and that most of the people in the program are actually Chinese.

There is another aspect to the issue of language skills and immigration that no one seems to be addressing.  Among the many impediments to new Canadians learning English or French – time, money, aptitude – one of the most basic is age.  Quite simply, the older you are, the more difficult it is to learn a new language.  So in some ways, Kenney’s new emphasis on language skills discriminates against elderly immigrants being brought in as part of extended family units.

We North Americans tend to forget that in most parts of the world (and even here until recently), children, parents and grandparents all tend to live together or in close proximity.  The grandparents look after the kids while the parents work, the parents care for the grandparents at home instead of sending them off somewhere, and everyone increases their chances of integrating successfully because they can all help each other find jobs, housing, social activities, etc.  Not only is this arrangement extremely stable, it also cuts down on the need for services such as day care and old age homes.

So why would our government want to discourage grandparents from immigrating along with their extended families by requiring them to learn another language so late in life?

Something to consider.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. musa permalink
    April 6, 2009 9:07 am

    I agree that new citizens should be able to speak a certain level of english in order to function as an active canadian citizen. That is obvious. However, it is ironic and counterproductive to be cutting funding from the CAF which teaches english to immigrants. More over, I heard that Kenney is cutting funding from overall english programs for immigrants.

    Many countries from where immigrants come from do not have adequate english programs. Canada must do more in teaching immigrants english and provide resources.

  2. March 24, 2009 1:08 pm

    rudyard griffiths weighs in on jason kenney and the language skills of immigrants:

    http://network.nationalpost.com/np/blogs/fullcomment/archive/2009/03/24/rudyard-griffiths-kenney-nails-the-language-issue.aspx

    • March 24, 2009 1:17 pm

      It seems to me that Griffiths, like Kenney, is putting the emphasis in the wrong place. I certainly think it’s true that an inability to speak the prevalent language of a society makes one extremely vulnerable to economic exploitation. But Griffiths seems more interested in testing than in teaching (he brings up government funding for ESL, but seemingly as an afterthought and sideshow to his main interest, which is regular evaluations and examinations).

      This approach doesn’t seem like it would solve the “problem” of language acquisition – it would just push it away by refusing people who haven’t (yet?) learned English.

      In addition, the language needs of different generations can be quite different. Green Jenny captured some of these problems very well in the original post. Griffith’s solution – universal testing – wouldn’t seem to build in accommodation for those sorts of different needs.

  3. corsullivan permalink*
    March 22, 2009 1:42 pm

    Living in China has certainly sharpened my perspective on things like this. On the one hand, my struggle to learn even the rudiments of Mandarin has given me a lot more sympathy for people who are learning English or French as a foreign language. On the other hand, daily life here also makes me realise just how much trouble my linguistic incompetence causes. Waiters and taxi drivers often have to struggle to understand what I want, and Chinese friends and colleagues basically have to switch to English if they want to include me in the conversation. Despite my best intentions, I’m constantly inconveniencing people, and I’m isolated to some degree from most of what happens around me.

    I’m in China on a purely temporary basis, and I wouldn’t dream of trying to become a Chinese citizen or even move here permanently unless my Mandarin were good enough to allow me to participate more fully in society. From our Canadian perspective, I really don’t see why we shouldn’t ask that prospective “new Canadians” at least be able to talk to us in one of our official languages. How else can they possibly expect to become well-informed citizens and voters? I take your point about grandparents, but I still think the benefits of requiring language skills outweigh the disadvantages.

  4. reneethewriter permalink
    March 22, 2009 10:13 am

    greenjenny, you beat me to the punch! Thanks for yet another great article…good to get your take on Minister K.
    Here’s come follow up questions ( part of a post i was writing this morning…but…)

    Commentators have raised practical questions that Minister Kenney, if he is serious in his pronouncement, will have to address:

    -what is the required level of English for immigrants, how will this be measured?
    -will the “test” for “proficiency” be applied only to immigrants or also to “natural born Canadians”?
    -will English/French language proficiency need to be acquired overseas or in Canada?
    -given Canada’s changing ethnography, does the old “French/English founding peoples” thing still hold true? Why English/French?
    -do the “gatekeepers” within the applicable bureaucracies hold systemic biases against certain language inflections and accents?
    -don’t a great many people confuse fluency with accented language?
    -does language proficiency, if it indeed can be measured in a multiple choice exam, guarantee “good citizenship”?
    -what in the world defines The Good Citizen?

    How do France, Britain, Germany and the United States deal with these issues? or India?

  5. March 21, 2009 9:58 pm

    I just finished reading John Ralston Saul’s ‘A Fair Country’ (which EVERY SINGLE CANADIAN should read, BTW), and he points out that many if not most of the ‘white’ immigrants who came to this country after Confederation – Ukrainians, Germans, Irish, Italians – were most certainly not considered to be of the same ‘culture’ as the British or French, and in many ways were not even considered to be of the same race. Remember the ‘Godless Hun’ propaganda of the two World Wars?

    There are remnants of this attitude still seen in the U.S., where ‘Latino’ is considered to be a separate race, even though the term can refer to anything from an indigenous Central American to a European Spaniard. And here, where Arabs are considered racially different from those of European descent even though, technically, they are all racially Caucasoid.

    It’s sad that racism and bigotry in this country tends to cloak itself in xenophobic, anti-immigrant language – as if that somehow makes it ok.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      March 22, 2009 1:26 pm

      I more or less gave up on John Ralston Saul after reading “On Equilibrium”, which I thought was very erudite but also very incoherent. He obviously had a vast library of quotations and allusions at his fingertips, and was just as obviously incapable of building any kind of logical argument around them… or at least, that was how it seemed at the time. I’ll give “A Fair Country” a chance if I come across a copy, though.

      And yes, our society seems to have fallen into the habit of discussing racial categories without the slightest attempt at rigour or consistency. Start with the fact that terms like Caucasoid inevitably get fuzzy around the edges (which explains the Arab/European problem), throw in a measure of bigotry at one end and political correctness at the other, and you get a truly godawful mess. I suspect that political correctness is actually the main factor preventing anthropologists from coming up with a more workable classification, although there will always be some people who slip between the cracks of any taxonomy.

  6. March 21, 2009 3:56 pm

    Hi, Cor

    I was pondering some of Kenney’s recent actions myself, here, but I hadn’t heard about the funding cut at the Federation.

    As I wrote on my blog, I’ve always found certain elements of the nationalist flag-waving over immigration policy to be quite disturbing. Most white Canadians are descended from people who entered this country under racist immigration regulations which gave them great privileges in getting across the border. People born in Canada acquire their language and job skills through a publicly funded education system which is given to us by law and by right. And even with that education, I think most of us wouldn’t qualify for immigration and residency, let alone citizenship.

    I’m not going to say that there shouldn’t be a language requirement – if only because it seems to me that people with a poor grasp of English or French will also be extremely vulnerable to exploitation. But Kenney’s strategy doesn’t seem like the right way to start a discussion on the subject.

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