Defining Language Groups: A Case Study of Eligibility for Minority Language Schooling in Canada

Date: Mar, 2010
CRISE Working Paper No. 77
Author(s): Denise Reaume

Political, economic, and social tension between language groups is a feature of life in many states as well as transnational bodies such as the EU. If not addressed, such tensions can lead to division, violence, and the ultimate breakup of political units. The need to accommodate the aspirations of the French- and English-language communities has been recognised in the Canadian Constitution since its inception in 1867. For much of Canada's history, its federal system of governance has been the main tool in the service of horizontal equality – since Quebec is the home of most French Canadians, the allocation to provincial jurisdiction of many of the spheres of regulation that affect everyday life has enabled the government of Quebec to protect the linguistic life of French Canadians to a large extent. But changes to Canadian society and to the Canadian constitution (in 1982) have complicated this simple federal solution to achieving horizontal equity. An important area of recent contest concerns access to minority language education – English schooling in Quebec; French schooling in other provinces. The 1982 Constitution enshrined a right to minority language education, setting out eligibility criteria and prescribing managerial control for the minority. The provisions constitute an unusual mixture of what look like very individual rights and provisions that indicate more group-based objectives. Judicial interpretation of these provisions brings out a pervasive tension between the collective ambitions of the provision and some of its individualistic attributes. Since courts in many legal systems are traditionally more adept at protecting individual rights and seeing and attending to forms of vertical discrimination, the individualistic elements of the Canadian provisions are in danger of undermining the central point of the provision – to use access to education as a key means of sustaining the French and English-language communities on an equal basis.

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