Immigrants must speak our languages

Posted on March 24, 2009 in Equality Debates, Inclusion Debates – Opinion/Editorial – Immigrants must speak our languages
Published: Tuesday, March 24, 2009.   Rudyard Griffiths, National Post

Jason Kenney, the federal Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, should be commended for kick-starting a much-needed public discussion about the language skills and civic literacy of aspiring Canadian citizens.

For too long, Canada has avoided the kind of common sense dialogue about immigration policy that Minister Kenney is galvanizing. The reality is the “quietism” of successive federal governments about all things related to immigrant selection and recruitment is a public policy debacle of historic proportions: tens of thousands of newcomers languishing in dead-end jobs, the out-migration of up to 40% of professional male immigrants in the last decade alone and the justifiable hardening of attitudes among visible minority groups who rightly feel they are being exploited economically.

Minister Kenney is spot on in his assertion that the ability to speak one of Canada’s two official languages is fundamental to an immigrant’s economic success and overall social integration. In fact, detailed multi-decade research shows that language proficiency outstrips job experience, educational background, gender and age as the factor which has the greatest positive impact on a newcomer’s ability to settle successfully in Canada.

That said, making proficiency in reading, writing and speaking either official language a prerequisite for every person applying to come to Canada is only part of the solution. Of the 250,000 newcomers Canada welcomes each year only a quarter have their language abilities assessed in the process of becoming permanent residents. The majority of newcomers begin the path to full citizenship as dependents of a “primary applicant” or citizen and do not have to demonstrate they can speak French or English. Canada needs to redouble its efforts to ensure that this much larger group of permanent residents attains basic language proficiency as quickly as possible.

Basic language proficiency is especially important for immigrant women. Having entered Canada as spouses of primary applicants, and therefore not pre-screened for language proficiency, women are significantly more likely to lack a working knowledge of French or English. This situation must be addressed so that every female newcomer attains the basic fluency needed to participate in civic life.

The federal government should also put special emphasis on second-language training for school-age children, particularly in the country’s major cities. In Toronto, the city that attracts the majority of newcomers to Canada, the percentage of elementary schools with English-as-a-second-language (ESL) instructors has declined from 41% to 29% in the last decade while the number of students requiring such instruction has doubled. The federal government should find ways to work with the provinces to get more funding for language instruction into urban classrooms to relieve overburdened ESL instructors.

We would also do well to revampour citizenship exam. According to Dominion Institute research, immigrants take the exam seriously. Let’s build on this dedication by designing a much more comprehensive exam that covers a range of subjects related to Canada’s history, political systems and the responsibilities of citizenship.

Few, if any, of Minister Kenney’s predecessors have propelled public debate over how to make immigration work for newcomers and Canada in such positive ways. Those of us hankering for more common sense citizenship and immigration reform look forward to seeing what sacred cows this creative policy thinker will choose to startle next.


– Rudyard Griffiths is the co-founder of the Dominion Institute and the author of Who We Are: A Citizen’s Manifesto (Douglas & Mc-Intyre Books).


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