Switzerland and Canada have points in common, one being their status as decentralized states with more than one official language.

Territorial rights in Switzerland (Under the Cantonal-Sovereignty system)

Known officially as the Swiss Confederation (and before April 18, 1999, as the Helvetic Confederation) Switzerland is a federal republic comprising 23 "cantons." Canada, on the other hand, is a constitutional monarchy composed of 10 provinces and three territories, and its official name is the Canadian Confederation. Switzerland's 23 cantons are the equivalent of Canada's provinces, but they are sovereign states given Switzerland's status as a confederation (Canada, in spite of its official name, is a federation). Still, as in Canada's provinces, Swiss cantons have their own parliament, legal system, civil service, etc.

In addition, each Swiss canton has one or more official languages. Officially unilingual cantons include 14 German-speaking (Basle-City and Basle-Country, Solothurn, Argovia, Lucern, Unterwald, Uri, Glarus, Zug, Schwyz, Zürich, Thurgau, Schaffhausen, Saint-Gall, Appenzell), four French-speaking (Geneva, Vaud, Neuchâtel and Jura), and one Italian-speaking (Ticino). And the following are bilingual German-French cantons: Berne/Bern, Fribourg/Freiburg, Valais/Wallis. Only the canton of Grisons is trilingual: German, Italian and Romansh. And with the addition of Romansh as an official language in Grisons, Switzerland has four official languages (see the next section) and four official names: Suisse (Fr.), Schweiz (Ger.), Svizzera (Ital.) et Svizra (Romansh).

Reference website

Repartition des langue en suisse

Bilingual Cantons

The Swiss Confederation's three officially bilingual cantons are Bern, Fribourg and Valais, and all three have German and French as their official languages. Still, the principal of territorial rights prevails in that the languages in question do not mix inside the canton. No bilingual canton recognizes German or French right across its territory, and not even across a district.

Members of parliament in bilingual cantons use the official language of their choice (German, Swiss German or French). Generally, bills are debated in Swiss-German (Bern) or in French (Valais and Fribourg), drafted in German or French, but then enacted simultaneously in both languages. In all other areas (justice, education, administration, etc.), the district language takes precedence. Nonetheless, the cantonal administration based in the three capital cities (Berne/Bern, Fribourg/Freiburg, Sion/Sitten) responds in principle in the language used by the citizen concerned.

Billingual Cantons

Trilingualism in Grisons

German, Italian and Romansh are Grison's three official languages. Grisons sets itself apart from other cantons in that its leaders have delegated their language-management powers to the communes (municipalities). That means language use in Grisons is governed by communal administrations (Gemeinden), which in turn means the principal of territorial language rights isn't applied in full. That's because neither Grison's constitution, nor its laws have ever provided for the immutability of the Romansh area or territory. Grisons is the only Swiss canton to have taken this route. In short, the choice of official languages in Grisons (for schooling and administration) lies solely with the communes.

Grisons has 212 communes, 138 of which are officially German (65%), 49 officially Romansh (23.1%) and 25 Italian (11.7%). German unilingualism works well in German communes, but Italian unilingualism has had more mitigated success in both Italian and Romansh communes. As for Romansh unilingualism, it has given way to Romansh-German bilingualism.

Canton of Grisons

The cantonal parliament allows all three official languages, but with fully 80% of the speakers, German clearly dominates. German and especially Swiss-German are the languages of parliamentary debate—questions and comments in either Romansh or Italian coming only now and then. Minutes of deliberations are in German only. As for laws, they are written in German, then translated into Italian and occasionally into Romansh (when they carry great importance).

In general, the cantonal administration operates in German, as do the courts. However, the administration responds in the official canton language used by the citizen in question. The canton has German, Italian and Romansh schools, and instruction in a second language is compulsory (Italian or French in German schools, and German in both Italian and Romansh schools). Communes decide on the language of instruction. Thus, Germans living in Romansh communes go to school in German but have full Romansh immersion, whereas Romansh speakers immerse progressively into German. Thus, Germans living in Romansh communes go to school in German but have to study Romansh as a second language, whereas Romansh speakers have to learn German progressively as a second language.

Through the territorial separation of languages, the Swiss Confederation has managed to protect its linguistic communities and avoid language-related conflicts. Switzerland is in fact one of the only countries in which territorial unilingualism can be applied, because the country's national languages are not imposed nation-wide. Clearly, this approach would prove harder to use in Canada, because its official languages are indeed in effect throughout the country, at least in principle.

The Canadian model provides a measure of protection for official-language minorities, whereas the Swiss model overlooks them. Again, Romansh in Switzerland doesn't quite have the same status as other official languages, hence the federal government's remedial action in its case, which is indeed a truly rare occurrence in Switzerland: as a rule, the federal government simply doesn't intervene in official-language matters. Romansh called for special measures because it was being neglected by those who should have been most concerned by its fate: the cantonal authorities in Grisons.

Its unavoidable pitfalls aside, Switzerland's language-management model has instilled peaceful co-existence among several linguistic groups in a single state, certainly a success for the country. And this type of success is rare. But this pax helvetica comes at a price: that of being governed by a German-speaking majority, and by politicians, bureaucrats and business moguls who think and decree in Swiss-German and who are driven by economic prosperity.