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CAUT Bulletin Archives

March 2015

Language & diversity in the age of austerity

By Robin Vose
March marks both International Francophonie Month, and Aboriginal Languages Month (with March 20 being the Journée internationale de la Francophonie, and March 31 celebrated across Canada as National Aboriginal Languages Day), and this seems as good a time as any to reflect on the linguistic and cultural diversity that enriches academic life in this country.

While bilingualism may be an elusive goal for many of us, the fact remains that our multicultural national profile provides uni­que opportunities for engagement with language communities throughout the world — not only in French and English, which are both officially recognized and most widespread, but also in a whole range of global tongues. The benefits of scale and diffusion for Cana­dian scholarship are obvious. But different languages also give voice to distinctive cultural traditions and thought systems, and whenever these are brought into dialogue they inspire new ideas, new research directions, new perspectives and new discoveries.

Of particular significance in this regard, though still greatly disadvantaged by the devastating impacts of colonialism, is the vital role of Aboriginal languages in the articulation of indigenous knowledge. Aboriginal languages and indigenous knowledge together constitute a wide-ranging and intellectually important legacy that sustains and benefits First Nations peoples above all, but which is also increasingly finding its place in general scholarship. Its long-term potential to broaden the intellectual horizons of society as a whole cannot be denied.

CAUT is a bilingual, national organization, with an international outlook, and it supports the preservation and ongoing develop­ment of indigenous knowledge, languages and cultures. As former president Greg Allain reveals in his forthcoming study on the history of francophone CAUT service and activism, we have come a long way in our ability to accommodate and promote the interests of our membership in both official languages. Efforts to better serve our Aboriginal colleagues have likewise been a focus in recent years, and this fall we look forward to hosting the 5th CAUT Forum for Aboriginal Academic Staff in Winnipeg. A new CAUT project will also soon assist with the publication of long-awaited teaching materials in the threatened Maliseet language. We still have a lot of work to do to better embrace the diversity of cultures and languages that surround us, but the willingness of CAUT members to work toward a better, more diverse and more inclusive future is always inspiring.

Unfortunately, austerity and rationalization pressures undermine this work. As profit-oriented “bottom line” mentalities of the corporate world continue to seep ever more corrosively into government offices and public institutions, including universities and colleges, budget cuts and restructuring exercises are everywhere evident. On campuses across Canada this has meant program closures, unfilled positions, and a generalized deterioration in service. But it has hit linguistic minorities — those whose “difference” cannot be immediately reduced to a quantifiable monetary value — especially hard.

A case in point is the situation at the University of Guelph’s satellite campus in Alfred, a small agricultural college serving franco-Ontarians, which was recently severed from its institutional home and now faces an uncertain future. Reduction of a francophone presence in local universities and colleges can be a major blow to communal identity and wellbeing in a minority context, but the blunt-force trauma of “program prioritization” has no place for such considerations.

The same is true of corporatizing trends toward the evaluation of academic research by means of simplistic and inappropriate “impact” metrics, despite their clear bias against francophone and minority language publications. CAUT opposes evaluation metrics that undervalue research disseminated in French, and encourages full recognition of francophone research fora such as the Association francophone pour le sa­voir (Acfas).

CAUT, in partnership with its Quebec allies, will continue to promote the interests and defend the work of Canadian academics working in English and French, as well as those fighting to sustain Aboriginal languages, at universities and colleges across the country. A diverse linguistic heritage is an important part of what makes us distinctly Canadian, and our achievements in this sphere have played a major role in fostering respect for Canada on the international stage. Corporate management philosophies and fiscal shortsightedness must not be allowed to erode that heritage.

In July CAUT welcomes the World Congress of Education International to Ottawa. Representatives of EI affiliates from all over the world will consider contemporary issues facing their organizations, including issues relating to linguistic and cultural diversity in the advancement of knowledge, and decide on policies and strategies toward positive resolutions. It is essential that Canadians continue to listen, to learn and to share with others if we are to remain among the world’s future academic leaders. And austerity be damned.