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International Mother Language Day

Honourable Senators, I rise today to speak to Bill S-247, An Act to establish International Mother Language Day.

Bill S-247 is a legislative proposal by Senator Jaffer to designate the twenty-first day of February as “International Mother Language Day”, noting that English and French are the two official languages of Canada as guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

As a multicultural society, Canada recognizes that preserving ones mother language is paramount to preserving ones culture. We understand that language supports identity.

When my daughters Shaanzeh and Anushka were children, I was insistent that they learned to speak Pashto, my mother language, which is spoken in both Pakistan and Afghanistan and Urdu the national language of Pakistan.

It was important for me that my children be able to express themselves fluently in both languages and be connected with their heritage.

Further, I knew that being multilingual would open doors to educational and professional opportunities in Canada and internationally for my daughters.

In Shaanzeh’s final year of high school, she performed her volunteer hours at law firm in Toronto. One day, a lawyer walked into the front office and asked if anyone spoke a language called Pashto?

On that day, my daughter was able to facilitate communication and make a client of the firm feel at ease in a way that nobody else who worked there could. That is a valuable asset.

Also, when working at a Legal Clinic in Toronto, she answered the phone on her very first day to man with limited English skills. All of a sudden she heard him say to someone in the room with him in Pashto “she’s a law student, do you think that she knows what she’s doing?” Shaanzeh immediately switched to Pashto and assured him that everything that she did for the firm was reviewed by a lawyer of the firm.

Further, my daughter Anushka, did her PhD thesis in Pashto at the University of Alberta. Being able to speak our mother language presented a unique opportunity for her to do all of the research for her thesis in Pakistan. This is something that never would have been possible without her knowledge of our mother language.

My daughters’ lives have already been positively impacted in so many ways both here in Canada and abroad as a result of their ability to speak my Mother language. And I know that because of this, they will ensure that their children are able to do so as well.

In my work as a Senator, I often turn to my mother language when traveling throughout Canada. For example, when I am speaking at community events, it is not unusual for me to switch back and forth from English to Pashto to Urdu. I find it a wonderfully powerful way to connect with an audience and moreover, engage with new immigrants, especially women.

Earlier this year, I hosted an information session on Bill C-45 with a group of television, radio and print news agencies who serve the Pakistani community in Toronto.

Throughout the meeting, everyone, myself included, switched back and forth from our mother language and were able to substantively share views, information and ask questions.

I believed it important to meet with ethnic media because of the significant role that ethnic media plays in bringing news to the Canadian immigrant population in Toronto and informs the national discussion.

At present, the Canadian Ethnic Media Association lists more than 1, 200 outlets operating in Canada. On some radio stations listeners can hear up to 20 different languages. These stations not only inform listeners, including new immigrants and immigrant senior citizens, but are also a way for parents to teach their children their mother language.

When considering the importance of preserving mother languages we must consider Canada’s indigenous population and the trend of declining indigenous languages across the country.

Statistics demonstrate that the number of people in Canada who spoke an indigenous language dropped from almost 26 percent in 1996 to 14.5 percent in 2011.

The importance of language in indigenous communities is critical. It is their identity, their traditions, their ceremonies. Mother language ties into everything, said language instructor Sasha Doxtator. We know that once a language dies, the culture often dies as well.

Honourable Senators, the importance of mother languages cannot be undervalued. “It is the preservation of invaluable wisdom, traditional knowledge and expressions of art and beauty, and we have to make sure that we do not lose this” said the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development.

In the last 115 years, the linguistic composition of Canadians with a mother language other than French, English or an Indigenous language has varied considerably.

In 2016, 22 percent of the Canadian population declared a language other than English or French as a mother language. Currently, there are over 200 languages spoken in Canada.

Being multilingual is a valuable asset both in Canada and abroad. Canadians should be proud to share their mother languages; celebrate and preserve linguistic diversity.

Honourable Senators, I support Bill S-247 and will thank Senator Jaffer for all of her work on this bill in my mother language.

Manana, which means thank you in Pashto.