The O’Hagan Annual Essay on Public Affairs is a research-based examination of the current economic, social, and political realities of Canada. Commissioned by the editorial team at The Walrus, the essay is funded by Peter and Sarah O’Hagan in honour of Peter’s father, Richard, and his considerable contributions to public life. Richard O’Hagan is a member of the Walrus Foundation’s board of directors.

In the dwindling light of a winter afternoon, amid the northern sprawl of Winnipeg, a line of school buses turns slowly into a parking lot outside Maples Collegiate. The high-school students have already left for home. Most of the bundled-up children who clamber out of these buses are between five and twelve years old. They arrive here three afternoons a week in their hundreds, not to practise sports, not to learn arts, but to retain or regain their ancestral languages.

Indoors, emerging like butterflies from the chrysalises of snowsuits, the children offer a glimpse of tomorrow’s Winnipeg—tomorrow’s Canada—that is very different from the past. Those heading to classes in German, Italian, or Polish are mostly second- and third-generation Canadians. Their teachers work on conversational skills—“so, when the kids are at a family gathering, they can start to participate,” says Cathy Horbas, who oversees the Heritage Languages Program for the Seven Oaks School Division. By contrast, most of the children entering the five classes in Punjabi or the three in Filipino are new Canadians who already speak the family language; their focus is on reading and writing it. Their parents grew up in societies where it’s normal to be fluent in several languages, unusual to speak just one.

And then there are the kids whose grandparents or great-grandparents knew the languages of the river valleys, the plains, the unending pine forests of Manitoba. The kids who come to Maples Collegiate in hopes of learning Ojibwe or Cree. The kids who will sleep tonight, many of them, not among their own families but in the homes of those paid to look after them. Last fall, the federal government declared the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in Canada’s child-welfare system to be a humanitarian crisis—in Manitoba alone, nearly 90 percent of children in foster care are Indigenous. When they’re placed with non-Indigenous families, it’s not just a language that’s missing from their young lives—it’s an entire culture.

“We have to be careful how we address the children,” says Barbara Nepinak, an Ojibwe elder who visits the after-school program regularly. (Ojibwe is often written Ojibwa or Ojibway. The language is also known as Anishinaabemowin.) “We can’t dwell on family relationships, because there’s a disconnect. Most of the children have foster mothers, often from the Philippines. They’re fine, loving people, but they don’t understand the culture.”

Winnipeg rises on the land of Treaty One, the first of Canada’s eleven numbered treaties, and at 93,000, its population of Indigenous residents exceeds that of any other Canadian city: it has the largest number of First Nations people and of Métis people. By definition, their languages were never foreign here—that’s what “indigenous” means. But, in a city where one in four people were born outside Canada, a city of 700,000 echoing with voices from India and Latin America and the Philippines, Indigenous languages seem alien to many. Winnipeg is, in this light, a microcosm of the whole country—and the languages that ebb and flow through its wide streets speak volumes about Canada’s evolving identity.

It never takes much in Canada to make language a political issue. A century ago, debates on the topic were crystallized by the so-called Manitoba schools question. In 1916, the Thornton Act, named for Manitoba’s education minister, R. S. Thornton, shut down the entire French-language education system in what Louis Riel had helped found as a bilingual province, making English the only language that could legally be taught in public schools. Its proponents heard the music of languages other than English as a danger, a weakness, an embarrassment. Two years later, Thornton declared: “Our aim is to plant Canadian schools with Canadian teachers setting forth Canadian ideals and teaching the language of the country.” In the same period, Ontario and Saskatchewan took similar anti-French measures.

The emergence of a separatist movement in Quebec in the 1960s spurred the federal government to declare Canada a bilingual country: next year will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Official Languages Act. Its provisions, along with those of the Constitution Act of 1982, give speakers of English and French the right to be served in their own language in all federal institutions and courts as well as the right to receive public education in either official language. But the celebrations may well be muted. For, as the multilingual nature of Winnipeg suggests, the Official Languages Act incarnates a vision of Canadian identity that, to many people, seems less and less relevant.

One reason is the continued erosion of French outside Quebec. Another is the explosive growth of non-European languages, including Mandarin, Cantonese, Arabic, Punjabi, and Filipino; each of them now has more than half a million speakers in Canada. A third, crucial reason is the federal government’s desire to pass an Indigenous-languages act before the 2019 election—a direct response to the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The report, issued in December 2015, asked the government to pass an Indigenous-languages act and appoint a commissioner to oversee it; it called on universities to create degree and diploma programs in these languages; it used the phrase “Aboriginal language rights.” In the past eighteen months, Canadian Heritage, the department responsible for drafting the act, has been prioritizing the file.

Photograph by Whitney LightPhotograph by Whitney LightPhotograph by Whitney LightPhotograph by Whitney Light

The act is, in the prime minister’s words, being “co-developed” by the government and three national Indigenous organizations. It’s expected to give formal recognition to the dozens of Indigenous languages still spoken here and to commit long-term funding for their maintenance and recovery.

Will the price of the new Indigenous-languages act and large-scale immigration in recent decades be Canadians’ long-held belief in linguistic duality? Laws that were passed when Pierre Trudeau was prime minister enshrined English-and-French bilingualism as a key principle of Canadian public life. But, in the era of Justin Trudeau, the future appears multilingual—a complex verbal landscape in which Indigenous languages enjoy an official place. Half a century ago, doubts about the identity of Canada as a bilingual country were expressed mainly by English Canadian diehards and Quebec separatists. Today, as the voices of Indigenous communities and new Canadians gain volume, those doubts are much more varied—and they’ve taken on a different tone. Canada’s core language tension now focuses not just on the prominence of French at an official, national level but also on a growing self-awareness that ours is a country shaped by far more than the legacies of two colonial empires.

Derrek Bentley steps into a handsome building that houses the Centre Culturel Franco-Manitobain in St. Boniface, an old neighbourhood of Winnipeg that was once a separate city. Streets here are still named Jeanne d’Arc, La Vérendrye, Louis Riel. None of Bentley’s ancestry is French. Yet, at twenty-four, he’s the president of Conseil jeunesse provincial—a Manitoba group that is, he explains over coffee, “run by and for youth, so they can live in French culture in their own way.”

For a long time, Manitoba’s conseil jeunesse served only those whose mother tongue was French. Then it expanded to include people, like Bentley, who are francophone—and francophile—by choice. Bentley attended French-immersion school as a child. In grade nine, fearing he might lose his second language, he fought for the right to switch into an entirely French high school. There are twenty-three schools for francophone students scattered across the province, and they have been run, since 1994, by a school board of their own. R. S. Thornton must be turning in his grave.

Now the conseil jeunesse also strives to welcome multilingual newcomers from countries such as Congo and Rwanda. “The community has realized,” Bentley says, that “conversations can become more and more vibrant with these multicultural backgrounds.”

The resources that Ottawa makes available to French speakers outside Quebec—and to English speakers in Quebec—are often generous. It’s no surprise that many Indigenous leaders see the Official Languages Act as a wonderful precedent for an Indigenous-languages act. But Franco-Manitobans have often had to battle hard for their rights. In the 1980s, when French speakers were urging the province to offer bilingual services, the offices of the Société de la francophonie manitobaine were destroyed by arson. A so-called Manitoba Unity Committee sprang up, its goal being to prevent “creeping bilingualism.”

Today, French is a marker of cultural prestige. Among middle-class parents with aspirations for their kids, in Winnipeg as in many other cities, French immersion is a desirable choice—despite the lack of genuine fluency with which most students graduate. But across the province, the everyday use of French is on the decline. Whereas the 1971 census showed that 60,485 Manitobans spoke French as a mother tongue, by 2016 the figure had fallen to 40,520. These numbers are emblematic of the broader struggle for all francophones outside Quebec: If the language keeps on shrinking in its historic western stronghold, what chance does it have in Halifax or Hamilton? Except for New Brunswick—francophones make up just over 30 percent of people in Canada’s only officially bilingual province—no province outside Quebec now has a mother-tongue francophone population of even 4 percent. “The question of numbers is important,” says Graham Fraser, who served as Canada’s official-languages commissioner between 2006 and 2016. “One of the things that has made the application of the Official Languages Act easier to understand is that there are 4 million French-speaking Quebecers who don’t speak English.” Rights don’t depend on numbers. Services often do.

The Official Languages Act did not try to correct demographic imbalances, nor was it designed to reduce the rights of English speakers; it merely aimed to give French speakers equal rights. After it was passed in 1969, linguistic duality became a widely accepted goal among English-speaking Canadians, and bilingualism has since become a cornerstone of Canada’s global image.

Yet, last year, even a federalist government in Quebec felt compelled to support a Parti Québécois motion denouncing the widespread use of “Bonjour, hi” as a greeting in stores and businesses. “The federal government has struggled for decades to get civil servants to say ‘Hello, bonjour,’” observes Fraser. This bilingual greeting, known as an “active offer,” is meant to indicate that federal services are available in both official languages. Salespeople in Montreal, says Fraser, have casually embraced the idea. But a level of bilingualism that in most of Canada might be applauded, officially at least, is condemned by nationalist Quebecers as a threat. Montreal has more trilingual residents than anywhere else in Canada, and the limited space French occupies in the city is a subject of constant debate—especially considering the erosion of French outside Quebec. Nearly half of all Quebecers are able to carry on a conversation in both official languages; in the rest of Canada, just under 10 percent of people can do so.

Census data from 1996 show that the number of mother-tongue francophones in Canada exceeded that of people with a non-official mother tongue (anything other than English or French) by more than 2 million. By 2016, the picture was very different: mother-tongue francophones are now fewer in number than those who speak a non-official mother tongue. A generation from now, will the French-speaking community in Manitoba—or anywhere else outside Quebec and parts of New Brunswick—still be vibrant?

To some, that’s not the right question to ask. Akoulina Connell, CEO of the Manitoba Arts Council, spent much of her career in Quebec and New Brunswick before moving to Winnipeg. Fluently bilingual in French and English, she’s aware of the sensitivities, political and linguistic, that come with any debate touching on the place of French. “But in a post-TRC context,” she insists, “we have a stronger awareness of the deep social wrongs that have been perpetuated by both francophones and anglophones. Linguistic duality is a colonial concept.” Parts of immigration policy, Connell suggests, are geared toward reinforcing the power of the two colonizing languages.

“I don’t want to use the word ‘resentment,’” says Melanie Kennedy, who directs Indigenous Languages of Manitoba (a non-profit group funded by the province), “but there’s certainly some envy of Franco-Manitobans. It seems so simple for them, as opposed to how hard we have to fight. You can only do so much with no money.” But Derrek Bentley, looking at things from a Franco-Manitoban standpoint, insists that “it’s always an upstream battle for any minority community. There’s so much work involved in getting the services and resources so the community can flourish.”

And, indeed, protecting French language rights and preserving Indigenous cultures are not mutually exclusive.

“What distinguishes us from our southern neighbour,” says Justin Johnson, “is the idea of [official] bilingualism.” At twenty-six, Johnson is the president of the Fédération de la jeunesse canadienne-française. He comes from the small town of Lorette, historically a Métis encampment—La Petite Pointe des Chênes. His great-great-grandfather André Beauchemin was part of Louis Riel’s provisional government in 1870. “But we never talked about it,” Johnson admits. When he was growing up, he says, most of his mother’s family spoke English, and they weren’t proud of their Métis and French past—it felt like a burden.

Today, Johnson is happy to call himself both Métis and French Canadian. “Our ideas founded the country,” he says. “And they should be seen in a modern context. Bilingualism, religious liberty—these notions are part of the Canadian character. The reason the French community is vibrant now are the Métis people who shed blood on the plains.” The resistance that Louis Riel led in 1870 aimed to preserve Métis rights to practise the Catholic faith, use the French language, and maintain their own culture.

Johnson doesn’t speak Michif, a language of the Métis people. Only about 200 people in Manitoba do. And yet—such are the complexities the government has to navigate in preparing an Indigenous-languages act—Michif can’t be overlooked. It fascinates linguists, having long been seen as theoretically impossible: it consistently marries the nouns of one language (French) with the verbs of another. Across the Prairie provinces, the language’s Indigenous element is Cree, often mingled with Ojibwe; according to a Michif language instruction website, the question “Where do your grandparents live?” would be expressed, “Taande tes granparaan aywekachick?”

Where Indigenous languages are being spoken now in Canada. Original infographic including the country’s 12 Indigenous language families at Canadian National Geographic. (Map: Chris Brackley/Can Geo).

Michif has not been standardized, nor was it ever the language of all Métis people—many of them spoke French, others quickly adopted English, and a few developed a now near-extinct idiom known as Bungee (it interwove Cree with Scots Gaelic). Yet, thanks to the precarious survival of Michif—in all of Canada, a little more than 1,000 people, less than 0.2 percent of all Métis people, according to census data, can speak one or another form of the language—the Métis National Council has been asked to “co-develop” the Indigenous-languages act, along with the Assembly of First Nations and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. The difficult question is: What can the act reasonably be expected to achieve?

“It’s shocking to me how many Canadians don’t know the meaning of the name Canada, the name Manitoba, the name Winnipeg,” says Niigaan Sinclair, a professor in the Department of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba. (He is also a member of this magazine’s educational review committee.) When it comes to place names, “it means we have an illiterate citizenry.”