There is something of a minor political row in Canada over the status of the Gaelic language, specifically Scottish but also Irish. Several days ago Jason Kenney, Canada’s federal Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, dismissed what he claimed were “heritage” languages like Scottish and in particular the public funding of these tongues, advocating instead an emphasis on the learning and adoption of English and (somewhat more begrudgingly) French. His comments drew a hostile reaction from the independently-minded provinces of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, which formerly had significant Gaelic-speaking communities and where substantive efforts have been made in recent years to raise the profile of the Gaelic languages. Nova Scotia in particular now has the Oifis Iomairtean na Gàidhlig (Office of Gaelic Affairs) and the increasingly important Colaisde na Gàidhlig or Gaelic College at Baile Anna (St. Anne’s) which links to Scotland’s Sabhal Mòr Ostaig.
According to the Chronicle Herald Kenney has dismissed the criticism of his remarks saying that:
“… the newspaper story and headline were “a classic example of torqued journalism.”
Kenney said he was referring to his own department and did not know that Nova Scotia funds an Office of Gaelic Affairs.
“I am a proud Irish descendant myself and so have huge respect for efforts to keep heritage languages like Gaelic alive,” said Kenney.
“I have no objection at all to provincial or local governments supporting such programs as part of preserving important aspects of regional culture.”
But Kenney said such programs would be unaffordable at the federal level because there are more than 200 non-official languages spoken in Canada.
He said it’s also not possible to single out for protection certain languages that have been spoken domestically for centuries.
Kenney signed off his letter with a touch of Gaelic: “Le deagh dhurachd,” or “With best wishes.””
Earlier the provincial assembly of Nova Scotia debated the controversy with strong cross-party support for the Gaelic languages of Canada:
“It started with a Gaelic-language motion from Inverness Tory Allan MacMaster, the MLA from the province’s heart of Celtic country.
“Mar sin cuireamaid romhinn, gur aithne do’n riaghaltas naiseanta an fhiach a bheir gaidhlig agus dualchasen eile do Chanada agus d’a muinntir,” MacMaster said in his ancestors’ tongue. The phrase translates to: “Therefore be it resolved that the federal government recognize the value Gaelic and other ethnic languages bring to Canada and her people.”
The resolution, which also said Gaelic culture contributes $32million annually to the provincial economy, was supported by all three parties.
Outside the chamber, MacMaster said Kenney might have a different take if he came to Nova Scotia to enjoy some Gaelic culture.
“Do we want to live in a world that’s empty of any vibrancy and diversity, or do we want to live in a world where we celebrate all the wonderful cultures we have?” said MacMaster, who took Gaelic in university.
“While I might not be closing business deals with it, it’s still an important part of my life, and I think anybody who connects with their people and with their language of their past feels more fulfilled.”
Kenney said his office is putting an emphasis on linguistic integration and has tripled funding to teach the official languages of French and English to Canada’s newcomers.
But the issue of official protection is a touchy one for several Gaelic supporters. Gaelic was once the third-most prominent language in Canada but has gone through a long — and arguably forced — decline.”
The former premier of Nova Scotia, Rodney MacDonald, and now the head of Colaisde na Gàidhlig, has also waded in to the argument stating that the Gaelic language is part of the cultural fabric of the Celtic community of the province.