Language Requirements Counter to Public Justice Values

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Two weeks ago, Minister for Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenney stated that he believed immigrants should be required to speak English or French before being accepted into Canada, arguing that this would encourage newcomers to integrate more into Canadian society.

His statement was soon picked up by the media, and has since sparked a heated debate about immigration policy in Canada and raised a multitude of questions. How do we integrate newcomers into Canada? What barriers do they face? What kinds of requirements should we place on immigrants? Is a language requirement fair and necessary for integration?

Policies that impose language restrictions would disproportionately affect certain types of immigrants. For economic-class immigrants that come to Canada in order to find employment, developing strong language skills is necessary to engage in employment and support themselves and their families.

However, many people also immigrate through the family-class category in order to reunite with close relatives who have already settled in Canada. For many of these immigrants, prior knowledge of English or French is not an immediate necessity. If a settled immigrant sponsors their grandparent or child to come to Canada, requiring them to speak another language before they arrive is preposterous. Such a restriction would make it much more difficult for families to reunite.

This type of policy would also discriminate against immigrants who are unable to access language training in their home country. Immigration to Canada would then disproportionately favour those from English or French speaking countries, or those with access to language school.

And how far would these requirements extend? Would refugee applicants fleeing unsafe conditions in their home countries be required to speak English or French in order to be accepted into Canada? Would it include the thousands of temporary migrant workers who come to work in Canada each year?

Successful integration is not just based on language. Studies have shown that economic-class immigrants – who often have better language skills – have a harder time integrating themselves into Canadian society than those who are sponsored through the family-class. They are also more likely to have chronically lower incomes. This is due in large part to the fact that family-class immigrants are assisted by their families in the transition when settling into Canada and often have greater social support networks than economic-class immigrants.

And a majority of newcomers actively work to learn English or French when they arrive. A survey of recent immigrants living outside of Quebec found that 96 percent of respondents believed that it was “important” or “very important,” to learn or improve their English. And immersion, as well as schooling, is an important way to learn a language. The same survey found that recent immigrants improved their language skills to a greater extent through media, such as television, radio or newspapers, and everyday interactions with people than with language school alone.

Proposing language requirements for immigration reflects underlying attitudes about immigrants that assume newcomers are not interested in learning English or French and integrating into Canadian society. Discussion of language requirements invites deeper questions about our society’s attitudes towards immigration. Do we view it as primarily an economic tool? Or does it have other purposes that are equally or more important, such as promoting diversity or enriching our culture? Understanding the values we hold about immigration enables us to make policy decisions that reflect these values.

Public justice calls on citizens to practice love and justice in their relationships with one another. Governments have a particular responsibility to ensure equitable relations in society and care for those who are vulnerable and marginalized. If we are to ensure the dignity of all newcomers into Canada, our immigration policies must reflect these public justice values.

Public justice calls us to welcome the stranger. This means having the resources and services available to help newcomers integrate and provide them with opportunities. While language is an important component of integration, it is not the only one. We can also practice active welcoming through a variety of policies and programs, such as providing greater access to employment services and professional accreditation. Providing more support for newcomers could go further in helping people integrate than establishing language restrictions.

And helping people integrate goes beyond providing services. Many new immigrants can feel marginalized or vulnerable. Actively promoting an atmosphere of openness and hospitality, in which newcomers feel they are welcomed, is an essential part of practicing public justice values.

Policies that require immigrants to speak English or French before they arrive would place some at an unfair disadvantage and limit the extent to which many could reunite with families. If we are to truly promote public justice, we must shape our immigration policies upon the values it promotes and not exclude or discriminate on the basis of language.

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