5 Myths That Hinder Language Debates in Quebec

5 Myths That Hinder Language Debates in Quebec

When I think of language in Quebec, I look no further than the former village green in my Eastern Townships hometown of Cookshire, Quebec.

I walk down the sloping valley, past fading Victorian-era clapboard homes to the park where a plaque refers with cultural ignorance to the storied St. Peters Anglican church simply as “non-Catholic”.

A sign celebrating the local tourist board’s heritage route, which follows footsteps of Loyalist and American pioneers throughout the Townships, boldly displays “Chemin de Cantons” in lettering twice the size as “Townships Trail”, at once celebrating and denigrating the English-speaking heritage of the region.

My red-brick former elementary school stands in the corner, where during my childhood, my six- and seven-year-old classmates and I waltzed into school past graffiti, proclaiming in cement on the century-old belltower, “Va chier les Anglais.” [loosely translated as “You English go fuck yourselves”]

English-speakers are not a privileged elite, but a socio-economically disprivileged minority. English-speakers in Quebec earn less than Francophones and have little access and control to economic and political levers in this province, even proportionally below their declining share of Quebec’s population.

Despised, abused, socially and economically marginalized, excluded from mainstream employment and little to no access to basic social and healthcare services in the language of their choice was my experience, and that of the people I care about the most, as an English-speaker growing up in Quebec’s Eastern Townships.

Such is the sin of being born “Anglais” in Quebec. In the midst of renewed linguistic tensions under the past PQ government, Quebecers must confront the myths that haunt us to have a genuine language debate in this province. English-speakers are bogged down by myths which no longer (if indeed they ever did) define our community.

Myth 1: Anglophones act as a united force

The first myth that must be laid to rest is that Anglophones act as a united force. Diversity of opinion, political beliefs, origins, and background characterize the community. Two broad camps have coalesced in their level of political activism, those with a militant and assertive approach to language rights characterized as ‘angryphones’, while those who prefer acquiescence and non-confrontation with the majority labeled the ‘lamb lobby’. There is no one organization that speaks on behalf of English-speakers in this province, nor one leader. Politicians at all levels of government elected from the community are often deafeningly silent during language controversies. The Bill 14 debate highlighted the fractured voice of the community, where a variety of groups and individuals are confronting the law to protect their own special interests, with little cohesion or unity.

Myth 2: Anglophones are a privileged elite

That Anglophones are a privileged elite and that ‘Anglophones are the best treated minority in the world’, are toxic myths which jaundice the language debate and linguistic relations in this province. The English-speaking community is defined by a declining population, an aging population, and what is described as the missing-middle with English-speakers aged 15 to 44 who have, on average, lower levels of education, income and employment than their French-speaking counterparts. Formerly English-language or bilingual institutions from schools, charities, professional organizations, to bodies of local governance were shuttered or replaced by new municipalities, Regional county municipalities (MRCs), Health and Social Services Centres (CSSS) and provincial level administrative structures over the last several decades. There are virtual government monopolies in the domains of healthcare, education, and social services in Quebec; however, these services are doled out in the French-language only (exceptions only where English-speakers and other minority language groups historically constitute a majority). The high tax burden in the province renders it prohibitively expensive for these basic services to be purchased in the open market by the vast majority of Quebecers, even where they are not prohibited by regulation from doing so. In a comparative context, linguistic and ethnic minorities across Canada benefit from far greater positive implementation of government services on a provincial level than do English-speakers in Quebec. On an international level, minorities do not have the same onerous burden of being prohibited from self-expression and independent community development.

Myth 3: Unhappy Anglophones can simply leave the province

Another caustic myth is that English-speakers who are dissatisfied with language policies and national unity debates can simply leave the province. I am sure that I am not alone when I bristle with resentment when I remember the first time when I was told, “If you don’t like the way things are in Quebec, you can leave.” As if I might be as comfortable in Kentucky as I am in Knowlton. This statement denies and strips away belonging and identity, not to mention legitimate public policy concerns, to the twenty percent of Quebecers who choose to define their lives in a language that is not French. René Lévesque’s once said, ‘Quebec is the one corner of the world that we can call home’, and this rings true to English-speaking Quebecers; from fishers on Entry Island in the Magdalens, to farmers in tiny Eastern Townships crossroads, loggers in the Pontiac, and to new Canadians in Verdun and Dollard-des-Ormeaux. However, it must be acknowledged that dislocation is the unfortunate path most English-speakers have chosen to pursue, with over 50% of mother-tongue Anglos leaving the province in the past 40 years.

The myths surrounding the status of Francophones must be debunked as well.

Myth 4: French-speakers are a marginalized majority-minority

The status of French-speakers in the province is no longer one of a marginalized majority-minority. Francophones earn more than English-speakers, occupy technical, business, and professional functions across the province. They make up 97.3 percent of the civil service. The status of Francophones is socio-economically superior to that of unilingual Anglophones and other minority groups in the province, a situation reversed from forty years ago.

It is a myth that French-speakers are in a marginalized, minority status. French-speakers are a powerful majority and continue to define the economic, political, and cultural reality of Quebec. As language scholars Bourhis and Rodrique state, “by shifting the territorial base of Francophones from the province of Quebec to Canada as a whole, and then to the North American continent, the endangered minority position of Quebec Francophones is highlighted, with the effect of minimizing the vitality position of the Francophone majority in Quebec.”[1]

Myth 5: French is threatened in Quebec

The intellectual, legal, and rhetorical underpinnings of restrictive linguistic legislation are held together by one unassailable myth; that French is threatened in Quebec. The Supreme Court reasoned in the infamous Ford signage case that the restrictions to basic human rights in the Charter of the French Language and other legislation was justified by language statistics from an earlier era, indicat[ing] the concern about the survival of the French language and the perceived need for an adequate legislative response to the problem. French-language and French-speakers are no longer threatened in the province of Quebec. Statistics from Statistics Canada, Conseil Superieure de la langue francaise, and the OQLF all show the expansion of French and French-speakers.

Finally, protecting French does not have to come to the detriment of basic human rights and freedoms, for the linguistic minorities or the French-speaking majority. As stated in the ‘Ford’ signage case,

“the requirement of the exclusive use of French… has the effect of impinging deferentially on different classes of persons according to their language of use.  Francophones are permitted to express themselves in their language of use while Anglophones and other non-Francophones are prohibited from doing so.”

The French-language does not have to be legislated in a coercive and exclusionary way.

The Core Issue

The core issue is: Quebec’s public policy is incapable of differentiating between the global hegemony of the English-language and the fragility of English-speaking populations in Quebec (notably off-island Montreal). The French-language in Quebec can and should be celebrated as one of the defining aspects of Quebec society. However, the French-language is not the sole defining characteristic, as is often claimed. The French-language should be a positive right that attracts newcomers and all Quebecers, not an onerous and mandatory obligation.

The PQ’s language proposal, Bill 14, played into these myths, and would have stripped away the fundamental rights of all Quebecers while not reinforcing French language in any positive way. The Barreau du Quebec, the Human Rights Commission and numerous other groups have denounced the ways in which the government wants to deprive all Quebecers of their basic human rights.

I reflect on the fact that no official regulation or law regarding language has changed under the last PQ government. Pastagate was blamed on “over-zealous” language inspectors who went beyond the official parametres of regular inspections. This is was not true. The problem was the law itself. Article 51 of the Bill 101 clearly states, “Every inscription… must be drafted in French. This rule applies also to menus…”

Ask yourselves and those asking for your vote in this election: what party, leader, or candidate, if any, will cease to pander to these myths which rob all Quebecers of their human dignity?

If Quebecers of all language groups can set aside the myths, free from ideologies and burdens of the past, we might all see that we want the same thing: a Quebec where language plays an essential role in human existence, identity, and dignity and where our rich linguistic heritage is respected and celebrated.

Citations:


(1) Group Vitality, Cultural autonomy and the Wellness of Language Minorities, RICHARD BOURHIS, UQAM, CEETUM, Université de Montreal, RODRIGUE LANDRY, Institut Canadien de recherche sur les minorités linguistiques, (ICRML), Université de Moncton, 190.

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Categories: Opinion

About Author

Colin Standish

Colin Standish has a law degree from Université Laval in Quebec City and a history and politics degree from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Colin was born and raised in the Eastern Townships of Quebec and is currently a candidate for the Liberal Party of Canada nomination in Compton-Stanstead. He has learnt French in order to be able to study his chosen degree subject in the language.

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