CANADA’S FEDERAL ELECTION AND THE PUNJABI LANGUAGE
(This is an updated version of an article I wrote at the time of 2004 Federal Election. As far as the situation of Punjabi language recognition at the federal level is concerned, nothing has changed. Since then we have gone through the elections of 2006, 2008 and 2011. Here we are with another one in 2015. Some people and organizations like PLEA in Vancouver have tried to raise this issue on various occasions, especially during the federal elections. We feel it is important to continue with these efforts with the hope that one day the federal government of Canada will pay attention to the importance of other languages in this proudly multicultural country. – Author’s Note)
Another Canadian Federal election is in the process. As in the past many elections, people from the Punjabi community are fully immersed in it. In the greater Vancouver area, especially in Surrey, close to a dozen candidates of Punjabi heritage, representing major political parties have entered the field. The situation in Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and other large centres is the same. Wherever Punjabis live in significant numbers, they are working to make some Punjabi candidate or helping someone close to the community successful.
Punjabis are contributing enormous sums of money to political parties and offering all kinds of resources and energy to elections. They are raising funds, preparing voter lists, putting up signs, knocking on doors or working the phones. In their homes or at workplaces, people are arguing in favour of their political party’s platform. Big ads are appearing or will start to appear (this time the campaign period is unusually long) in Punjabi newspapers, radio and TV will devote countless hours to election talk. And in all of these activities, they are using Punjabi language. In many places, like Surrey, where Punjabi candidates are running for different parties, the use of Punjabi language is dominant over English. While its exact use may vary in different places, one thing is certain: Punjabi is being used extensively in the current Canadian election campaign as it has been in many previous elections.
However, the reality is that Punjabi is still officially considered a foreign language in Canada.
The respect given to different cultures in Canada is what makes this country unique in the world. This is indeed a remarkable quality and we as Canadians are justly proud of it. Canada’s Multiculturalism is seen as a model in the world. The reality, however, is that multiculturalism in Canada has not advanced beyond a certain stage in the last forty-five years. It is a well-known and accepted fact that no culture can survive without its language. Language is the essential ingredient in the survival of a culture. Yet Canada’s multicultural structure is steadfastly against recognizing any language as Canadian other than its two official languages, English and French.
While in 2004, Punjabi was the sixth most spoken language in Canada, according to the 2011 census, it is listed as the third most spoken language (let me repeat THE THIRD MOST SPOKEN LANGUAGE) in Canada. It has existed here for more than a century and it is not only spoken in the homes but at thousands of workplaces across the country. As a result ,the Punjabi language has contributed immensely to the development of this country, especially British Columbia. To deny Punjabi the recognition of this contribution, and to say that it is not a Canadian language is a form of discrimination known in social sciences as Lingucism. We recognize the fact that with the exception of the two official languages of Canada, all other languages are considered foreign. Should this issue not be raised simply because all languages are treated the same or discriminated against? This is indeed a very complex matter and one that has everyone afraid to talk about it, especially politicians.
In comparison to other languages, the situation of Punjabi is different and consequently, has different needs. Being official languages in their respective countries most other languages receive support to develop and expand in Canada. The proud speakers of those languages themselves contribute necessary resources for the development of their language in Canada. Perhaps for them, comparatively, it is not essential that their languages be recognized in Canada. They themselves give more recognition and respect to their language and look after all its needs. The situation of Punjabi is entirely different. Punjabi is the twelfth most spoken language in the world with some 150 million speakers living in 125 countries around the globe. Yet there is no one single state that is concerned about it. Its speakers consider it less important than religion in conserving their culture. As a community, we continue to suffer from the colonial hangover and consider Punjabi irrelevant in our lives. Consequently, Punjabi needs help to survive and develop in Diaspora. If it is officially recognized in Canada, we in PLEA (Punjabi Language Education Association) believe, it will create more respect for the language among its speakers and also the state, to some extent, will become responsible for it. Punjabi was accepted as one of the six languages to be taught as second language in BC schools in 1994. This has opened many other doors for its development since.
Elections are good times to raise such issues. The question should be put to at least the Punjabi candidates: What will they do to get Punjabi some recognition at the national level in Canada? This language also belongs to all of the candidates of Punjabi heritage including Jinny Sims, Jasbir Sandhu, Amandeep Nijjar and Bill Sundhu (NDP); Sukh Dhaliwal, Randeep Sarai, Harjit Sajjan and Jati Sidhu (Liberal); Nina Grewal, Harpreet Singh, Sucha Thind and Liv Grewal (Conservative). These are the BC candidates in the present election and dozens other are running across the country. Since most of them are using the Punjabi language in their campaigning, the well-being of this language should also be their responsibility.
No one claims this to be a simple matter and it may take a long time to get Punjabi recognized in Canada. But it should at least become an item on someone’s agenda during the election. For example, in a Municipal elections one of the main parties contesting the Vancouver School Board did put Punjabi language on their agenda and issued a press release. Aa a result the issue was briefly discussed in the media at the time. We hope that political parties or at least the candidates from the Punjabi community will take the step and make it an issue in their campaign.
One thing that should be made clear is that we are not demanding that Punjabi should be placed at par with English or French; nor are we saying that we do not accept Canada’s official languages. We fully respect these languages and their historic place and rights in Canada. The knowledge of English language is essential for surviving not only in Canada but also anywhere in the world. Recognizing this fact, a huge amount of money is spent in teaching and developing English in Canada. No one has any issue with that. The only thing we are asking for is that Punjabi should also be recognized for its contribution to the development of this country and a penny or two from our tax dollars should also be spent on this language. We believe that this is a reasonable demand.
As a community we have lived here for 120 years. We have come a long way from the day Komagata Maru was sent away from Vancouver. The Punjabi community is an integral part of Canadian society now. Yet we have not achieved much for our language in this society. We have been very successful in helping our relatives and friends to come to Canada and permanently settle here. Is it not time that we should also make an effort to have landed status for our mother language Punjabi as well?
Vice President, PLEA