Justin Trudeau admits failure to uphold French language during pandemic
French has become a collateral victim of the coronavirus pandemic in Canada, forcing the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, to defend failures to uphold laws requiring labels and services in both official languages.
Canada is officially bilingual, but the government has allowed the sale of imported disinfectants labelled only in English because of “the extreme situation in which we find ourselves”, Trudeau said on Tuesday.
“In certain situations, we are ready to allow unilingual signage and labelling,” he said.
“But we would certainly prefer that this not happen because our linguistic duality is not just a question of our Canadian identity, it’s also a question of safety for consumers.”
The move has outraged representatives of Canada’s francophone minority, who called it “dangerous” and “disrespectful” to those who had fought hard over the centuries to preserve their mother tongue.
According to the latest census, almost one-quarter of Canada’s 37 million people speak French on a daily basis.
“Nothing justifies the lack of respect for our two official languages. It is a health and safety issue,” said Senator René Cormier.
Canada’s language commissioner, Raymond Théberge, has also lamented a lack of public French-language health announcements in New Brunswick and Ontario provinces, which have large French-speaking communities.
French speakers, he said, must be able to understand messages sent by government institutions, especially during the current pandemic, which has killed about 3,000 Canadians.
Trudeau said not all companies that have converted manufacturing to make medical equipment or hand sanitizers, for example, have either bilingual staff or the capabilities “to make that happen”.
Similarly, Canada has had to turn to new sources of imports for key supplies, which may not conform to labelling rules.