By Colin Standish
The views expressed below are the author’s, and are not necessarily shared by staff and owners of LifeinQuebec.com.
“This was Buick Settlement,” my father said as he waved his hand towards a grassy knoll wedged between a yellowing farmer’s field and swampy marshland on a backroad between the Eastern Townships villages of Cookshire and Lennoxville. Only the trees, standing in orderly rectangular lines still faithfully providing shade to phantom houses, pay homage to the fact that a hamlet full of homes, farms, and people once existed here. I marvelled at this small patch of raised earth and how whole communities could seemingly cease to exist.
Now, like Buick Settlement, and innumerable tiny Townships crossroads from Maple Leaf, Learned Plain to Vale Perkins which exist only in memory and on fading maps, the Eastern Townships faces an assault to its very existence. The Quebec government’s proposals to revoke the (albeit limited) bilingual status under section 29.1 of the current Charter of the French language for recognized municipalities in Bill 14, An Act to amend the Charter of the French language…, will serve to further marginalize and isolate English-speakers in the historical Eastern Townships and hinder equal access to government services for linguistic minority communities across the province.
The proposed changes to section 29.1 of the current “Bill 101” would revoke bilingual status on a rolling basis for any town or city which fell below the arbitrary 50 percent mother-tongue English-speaking population mark. Out of the 18 Townships villages currently recognized as bilingual, fifteen of them would lose their bilingual status under the proposed changes. According to the latest Statistics Canada census, only the communities of West Bolton, Brome Village, and Stanstead would retain the right to communicate with their citizens in English, post bilingual signs, and to sponsor bilingual community papers. The English-speaking hubs of Lennoxville, North Hatley, Ayer’s Cliff and the Town of Brome Lake would cease to be officially bilingual. Bolton East, Bury, Hatley, Newport, Ogden, Potton, Ulverton, and Sutton would all become unilingual French municipalities.
This is not to mention the towns of Magog, Richmond, Cookshire-Eaton and scores of others which have significant English-speaking populations which fall below the fifty percent mark and do not currently benefit from bilingual status. In contrast, official-language minority communities across Canada benefit from bilingual community status, ranging from 20 percent for Acadians in New Brunswick and 5 percent for Franco-Ontarians.
The current bilingual status under section 29.1 does not hinder any francophone from receiving service in the French language, as all government documents are provided in French and the administration continues to function in French in bilingual communities.
Bill 14’s attack on historically bilingual municipalities lays bare the glaring contradiction of nationalistic governance in Quebec since the Quiet Revolution; where a society predicated on preserving a minority-language group (French) systematically seeks to weaken, marginalize and assimilate its own minority-language group (English).
Carved out of the lower St. Lawrence Valley in the late 1780s by Loyalists, the Townships have long served as a shelter for English-speaking Americans escaping political upheaval. Generations of New Englanders escaping drafts during the Civil and Vietnam wars fled North. Even Jefferson Davis, the former President of the Confederate States of America, came to Lennoxville to convalesce after the Civil War. The antebellum-style mansions ringing Lake Massawippi in North Hatley stand as a testament to the dejected Southern landowners who reportedly closed their window blinds in disgust as trains carried them through the North to Canada. The shelter, through numerous pieces of regressive language legislation, has slowly become a prison.
When one tours the former Eastern Townships today it is a study of vacated spaces, disembodied communities, and mournful memories.
The Eastern Townships have seen their original counties, townships and municipalities slowly administered out of existence and replaced by faceless regional administrations. The historic English-speaking community is often linked by communities of interest (kinship networks, agricultural associations, education institutions) along the lines of former municipalities, townships, and counties which no longer exist. They have been replaced by new municipalities, Regional county municipalities (MRCs), Health and Social Services Centres (CSSS) and provincial level administrative structures over the last several decades. The elimination of the last vestiges of the region’s linguistic heritage will deprive Quebecers and Canadians of the complex and rich sources of our identity.
As local historian Bernard Epps wrote, “the idea seems to be to erase everything which made the Eastern Townships unique and integrate it into the rest of Quebec. They are succeeding to the extent that the Townships may soon exist only in history.”
Yet, the Townships retain a reputation for being an anachronism in contemporary Quebec. A cross between a bucolic bilingual paradise and the former Anglo-Saxon heartland of Quebec where picturesque New England style towns replete with clapboard Cape Cod, Greek Revival and Second Empire houses border tree-lined streets, as immortalized in Louise Penny novels. However, behind the veneer of boarding schools, lakeside mansions, and antique shops the myth of the privileged Townshipper is laid bare by the harsh reality most English-speakers face.
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. A majority of English-speaking women are out of the labour market. Youth stand to earn 4,000$ less a year than a francophone their age with the same education. Between 1971 and 2001, due to economic and political instability in Quebec, the number of English-speaking Townshippers dropped almost 30%. The proposed changes to municipal status will only compound these issues and penalize a population that requires assistance and understanding.
As the Supreme Court of Canada reasoned in the infamous ‘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.”
Allowing English-speakers access to services in the language of their choice does not hinder access to French language services at the municipal level. Bill 14’s changes have the sole effect of prohibiting Quebec’s linguistic minority from attaining government services in their preferred language and from self-expression.
The original “Bill 101” was passed when Quebec’s English-speaking community was too fractured to form a united and coherent opposition. We need to ensure this does not happen again.
The modifications to section 29.1 of “Bill 101” will push our community further into obscurity. If it is made into law, we must remember it was us, through our period of inaction, who allowed cold, calculating provincial governments and bureaucracies to destroy our community.
I, for one, will not go silently into the night. I know my ancestors deserve better, my community deserves better and my province and country deserve better.
- Tell your town council and mayor to pass the resolution from the borough of Côte Saint Luc denouncing the changes to bilingual status municipalities.
- Only the Township’s villages of Ayer’s Cliff, Memphremagog, Sutton, Brome, Potton and West Bolton have passed similar resolutions.
2. Contact your Liberal or CAQ M.N.A. and encourage them to vote against the measure.
3. Submit your opinions to the legislative commission studying the bill by February 11.
 “A Biography of No Place” by Kate Brown, p. 225