The continuing constitutional debate in Canada and the apparent intractability of the issue of provincial-federal relations draws attention to one of the most fundamental challenges facing many contemporary states: devising a system of government for a multilingual society such that different linguistic groups can give it their allegiance. The Canadian dilemma needs thus to be seen in the context of a more general conflict between languages-conflict between individuals and between communities, of course, but also conflict within the individual.
In this chapter, I shall first consider certain general questions that arise from sustained contact among languages, and then describe the specific Canadian situation before making the case for a Swiss type of ethnolinguistic federalism as a means of reducing the tensions between Canada's two official language communities.
Languages are born and languages die. Some live long and some do not; some have many descendants while others disappear without successor. To reflect on that history of successes and failures, it helps if we reverse the more common way of studying languages and if we think of languages as having people rather than people having languages. The latter, like religions or other symbolic systems, compete for scarce resources; they compete for speakers, writers, and thinkers; more precisely, they compete for people who have a limited capacity and a limited willingness to think, speak and write. How many languages are now competing for survival? As in the case of animals the count varies