Bill 14: Who’s language is the most threatened?

Bill 14: Who’s language is the most threatened?

By Jacquelyn Smith

I don’t feel like French is under attack.

Quebec-Flag_FlyingHaving said that, I don’t live in Montreal and I am not Francophone. Nevertheless, Quebec has some rather strict language laws that prohibit the use of English or any other language for that matter. But from what I have experienced, this debate isn’t really about laws or French for that matter. I have heard French spoken with a hundred different accents by francophones of multiple nationalities in Quebec and Montreal. There seems to be dispute by certain political parties about the authenticity of French. Is it Quebecois enough? Are the non-francophones speaking it often enough or well enough?  I can’t help but feel that there is significant political opportunism propelling these French vs English debates, with Montreal as the new battleground.

What about the rest of us in la Belle Province?

I have travelled to the regions of Québec, principally Beauce, Saguenay and Bas-St-Laurent.  In certain regions I would say that French is threatened, but not in the way that they say it is in Montreal.  I have been in situations where a francophone man from Lausanne chatted with his uncle (in-law) from a village in Bas-St-Laurent for a half an hour. I didn’t understand a word. Afterwards I asked the Swiss what they talked about; he replied that he didn’t know, he couldn’t understand his uncle either. On another occasion I witnessed a similar situation with a friend from Beauce not quite grasping what his Gaspésien counterpart was trying to express because of both of their regional accents. This has never happened to me as an Anglophone.

Gerard Taylor says, that one of the many factors that makes Quebec unique from the rest of the Canadian provinces is that it did not receive the waves of immigration the way everywhere else did, including the small towns. If you go to a rural Saskatchewan town somewhere outside of Moose Jaw (in a seemingly homogenous community) and asked what the ethnic origins of different people were, there would be a variety: Scottish, Irish, English, Ukrainian, French, Polish and German. Usually their ancestors had moved to the Americas after a European war and settled on the vast Prairie that we perceive to be so unicultural. If you asked the same question to a small community in Beauce, Côte Nord or Gaspésie the answer would be clear: their ancestors were French, maybe First Nations, possibly English or Irish. Once you get outside of the cities of Quebec it becomes quite clear that Quebec is a Francophone province.

For four hundred years Quebec has been the French stronghold in North America, even long after it had been abandoned by France and ‘conquered’ by the British. This sense of threat, of being surrounded has led to a resistance, a traditionalism that has made Quebec the unique place that it is today. Paradoxically, it is this sense of tenacity that makes it hard to believe that French is actually threatened. If people in the regions are too stubborn to adopt a French that can be understood by their fellow Quebecois it is hard to believe that they will all of the sudden start using English as the common tongue. Maybe Quebecois have learned English; maybe they have allowed the English common law system to infiltrate their civilist laws. There have always been concessions made to the dominant North American culture without ever sacrificing the heart of Quebec language and culture. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why that would change now, other than perhaps Madame Marois is tired of taking English classes.

Bref, I have a hard time believing that French is really threatened.

However, I equally have a hard time believing that English is threatened, even if English students have to pass a French test to get their diplomas.

I live in Montcalm which is, along with Sillery, a bastion of Anglophones in la Vielle Capitale.  Every day I walk my dog on the Plains of Abraham, we go by the monument of Wolfe:  the old battleground turned public space where all sorts of people of different ages and ethnicities go to enjoy the outdoors. I hear English being spoken in Montcalm, there are two English High Schools in the area, and the area is not so far off the tourist track so it is certainly not odd to hear it. I am rarely served in English at the grocery store or bank, despite my rather obvious accent. When I am addressed in English, quite frankly, I am a little offended. I moved to Quebec to learn French, if I wanted to have non-anglophones speak to me in my native tongue, I would have stayed in my multicultural hometown of Hamilton.

English is the second most commonly spoken native language in the world. It is also the world’s first second language. After university I had many friends who went to Korea, Japan, India and Chile to teach English and consequently pay off their school debts and gain international experience. As an Anglophone I can travel to pretty much anywhere in the world and have someone be able to squeeze out at least a few words in my native tongue, it doesn’t matter how isolated the place seems nor the poverty that it endures. When I was building houses in a ghetto in Nicaragua the children, who barely had any schooling and lived in shanty houses with dirt floors, could grind out a few sentences in English, even if they were just lyrics to Britney Spears songs. In fact, everywhere I have ever travelled, I have been served in English at least once, not necessarily because I am obviously Anglophone, but more so because either I am white or because I am in a tourist area.

English is the international language at this moment in time and it is difficult for Anglophones to understand why they should have to learn another language. Call it a colonialist mentality, call it pomp, or call it plain pragmatism. And from my experiences, I can see why it may be difficult for some Anglophones to understand why they should learn French to get ahead while living in Canada (a bilingual country as those resistant to learning French often claim) when they could move to a small town in Korea and get the best jobs and utmost respect without ever having to learn ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in Korean.

Au Québec on parle français

My answer to that would be because this is Quebec. Come hell, high water, pillage, colonisation, social exclusion, poverty peu importe, au Québec on parle français. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for bilingualism. That doesn’t mean that everyone has to be pure laine or catholic or live on farms, there is plenty of room for the evolution of a society, but learning French won’t kill you. Making an earnest effort to understand the society that you choose to live in (because there are many other places in North America and around the world that are open to English North American “culture”) won’t hurt either. We have a privilege as Anglophones as being the dominant culture of the world; we have a double privilege to live in a French city and province that allows us the opportunity to be bilingual. Why resist the opportunity to be bilingual when it is an advantage?

So when I hear the language debates about Bill 14 and French vs English, I can see the clash of cultures. The Francos feeling threatened by the encroaching Anglo colonialist Empire, the Anglos raging to prevent the sun from setting on the Anglo empire. I think about this when I walk my dog in the Anglo neighbourhood named Montcalm and as I walk by the statue of Wolfe. The two Generals received inglorious executions on the battle of the Plains. The English ‘won’ but the Quebecois endured. All that conflict, all that bloodshed so that 254 years later Anglos and Francos can play Frisbee and walk their dogs together in harmony on these once blood-soaked fields. For me both the battle of 1759 and the battle of 2013 are about the same thing, political opportunism on both sides, and the end result of all of this huffing and puffing is that Anglos and Francos will continue to live harmoniously together, as long as they don’t allow bigotry and intolerance to get in the way.

As for the winners of the language debate of who’s culture is the most threatened, who’s language is disappearing, who is the most marginalised by the other’s dominant culture, who has suffered the most from the other’s attempts at assimilation and colonial presence, the answer is clear.

The group that has lost the most and suffered the most because of crippling language laws, colonialism, the Quiet Revolution and the French Language charter is: the First Nations. Oh, but that’s right. They weren’t invited to the language debate.

Categories: News, Opinion

About Author

Jacquelyn Smith

Jacquelyn Smith was born and raised in Hamilton. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in International Developement from the University of Guelph and is currently studying Law at Université Laval. Jacquelyn Smith lives in Quebec City.

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