Updated: Dec 9, 2020
By: Alessa Dassios. B.C.L. / LL.B. Candidate at McGill University, LAD Volunteer
Canadian communities are filled with people of diverse backgrounds, and with that heritage comes language. The 2016 census showed that approximately 14% of citizens in Canada spoke a first language that was neither English nor French. This number has continued to grow as international immigration into Canadian provinces, such as Ontario, increases year over year. While Canada celebrates and encourages this diversity in culture, we lack a uniform approach to servicing individuals or communities in their native languages.
In Canada, English and French are the only two official languages recognized federally, while each province tends to recognize one or may hold both as official. Territories, such as the Northwest Territories, recognize Indigenous languages as well. While legislation tends to only provide positive rights to receive services in official languages, many Canadians are more proficient, or simply only able, to speak primarily in languages which lack official status.
There are numerous instances where provincial governments have recognized the need for services to be offered in a variety of languages beyond just the official two. Different examples of piecemeal solutions will be explored below to show why offering services or information in a greater variety of languages is of the utmost importance for public safety and community engagement.
Ontario - G1 Written Driver’s Test
Ontario has a graduated licensing system for driver’s permits. The G license is the full and final license to drive a car, as opposed to other vehicles. The initial G1 test is a written knowledge exam on the rules of the road which is currently offered in 27 languages.
The number of languages offered for test-taking has steadily increased over the years. In 2017, Farsi became the 21st offered language of testing. In 2018, tests in Armenian were made available as an option as well. When adding these new language options for the written road test in target communities, then Minister of Transportation, Steven Del Duca, stated that:
"We constantly work to include new languages to coincide with the ever changing demographics of the province and reduce barriers for newcomers - and, to help keep Ontario a North American leader in road safety."
In this quote, then-Minister Del Duca, highlights the importance of language in ensuring that our government supports newcomers and achieves its public safety goals. It is important that individuals on the road respect the rules to avoid collisions and language can present a barrier to learning and complying with these rules.
A necessary precursor to ensuring individuals respect safety rules is that the rules be understood. The Ontario Ministry of Transportation has seen the need in communities for resources in 27 different languages to ensure that the rules of the road are demonstrably understood and more likely to be respected. This, in turn, ensures that public safety is better protected.
Covid-19 Safety Directives
Though driving holds inherent risks of collision which can cause severe bodily harm and property damage, it is not the only area of life which merits communication of rules in diverse languages to better protect public safety or health.
Public health regulations, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic, are designed to achieve similar goals of public safety, using a standardized approach to achieving these goals in our communities (e.g. flattening the curve).
Accordingly, the City of Toronto, though its municipal by-laws are only available in English, has provided free printable poster resources in various languages which outline mask-wearing and hand-washing requirements as well as information regarding how the virus is transmitted.
During the pandemic, we are all asked to wear masks and wash our hands regularly, remain at home as much as possible and respect physical distancing requirements. Though the directives seem simple, the reasoning behind them is more complex and there is some opposition on the ground to such protocols. Even if we speak an official language in which the government bulletins are offered, the ever‑evolving rules and opposing arguments on the internet can leave us baffled. How much worse is it then for individuals who speak neither English nor French to a degree which allows them to fully understand public health virological reasoning or engage with official directives? What of people who do not live in the GTA, but would benefit from information diffused in Farsi, for example?
Call to Action
Though there are some governmental pushes for diverse language resources when the need of public safety is engaged, such as in driving or pandemic response, the approach to meeting community linguistic needs is neither uniform nor wide spread.
Public safety is often best protected by having communities and individuals engaged in respecting a uniform set of rules, such as the rules of the road, to ensure a united front against the risks of harm we all face.
While the public safety risks and the rules to address them may transcend language in their operation, language is a necessary precursor to understanding such risks and rules to protect public health and safety. Providing language services and multilingual resources in various sectors can help prevent miscommunication and foster compliance with health and safety rules and regulations. When it comes to ensuring health and safety information is understood, a uniform approach to preventing miscommunication is worth a pound of piecemeal cures.