The Geoffrey Kelley Interview

The Geoffrey Kelley Interview

This article first appeared in the November 2013 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.
Life in Quebec Magazine is a lifestyle publication covering the Quebec region and is published at least 3 times per year.
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As language and identity questions came to the forefront of Quebec politics last spring, we contacted members of the Quebec government for their own opinions – not necessarily those of their parties – on the matter.  Mr. Geoffrey Kelley, MNA for Jacques-Cartier and Official Opposition critic for aboriginal affairs and relations with the English-speaking community, sat with us and this is what transpired.

Life in Québec Magazine (LiQ):

What is the ideal Québécois linguistic reality?

Geoffrey Kelley (Kelley):

Because of the history of the French presence in North America over the last three centuries, I think we have to start with a respect for the fact that the French language is a minority in a North American context, but at the same time, a majority in a Quebec context.  I think too often there is this thought that in Quebec, the English component doesn’t make an integral part of the fabric here, and that’s just to misread our history.  As a result it probably diminishes a little bit our vision of the future of this society.

We also should have respect for people who come to join us on our shores, so other languages that have contributed to the mix, and then our first peoples, the native languages, which are very, very fragile – languages like Naskapi, where there are 1,000 speakers on the planet and they all live near Schefferville.  I think it’s very important that we look after Cree, Inuktitut, Naskapi, and Innu.  Certain of our languages close to our bigger cities like Huron and Mohawk languages are very much threatened.  

LiQ:

The status of French as the official language of Québec has been firmly established.  Do you believe some other languages should benefit from special rights such as public schools and government services while others do not, and if so, how do we decide which languages get what privileges?

Kelley:

First comes the French language.  You say it’s firmly entrenched… yes and no.  The French language has an important place in Quebec society and that’s something that is here to stay.  People say “oh we can toss out Bill 101 and the Charter of the French Language” – that’s not going to happen.  I think the big confusion we make in our relations with the English community in Quebec is to mix up the strength internationally of the English language and the relative fragility of English-speaking communities here in Quebec.  To separate out the two, and say “there’s nothing to worry about because English is everywhere”, well, in terms of the media, in terms of the internet, you’re quite right, but there are concerns about the vitality of many English-speaking communities in Quebec that have to be looked at, and you have to tease out the two.

The whole question of the First Nations languages I’d put apart, because then you’re into a kind of post-colonial legacy.  They’re a special case, where we have to redouble our efforts to give a great sense of importance to those languages that we, collectively, tried to eliminate.  When I was Minister of Native Affairs, I always pushed that we could do more to support community radios in First Nations communities, whether Inuktitut, in Northern Quebec, or Cree, which has a vibrant radio network, because it’s a relatively inexpensive way to make sure a language stays alive, that you’re hearing it every day with your local news and community news.

To the languages of new arrivals, I think our first priority is to give new arrivals the tools so they can integrate into Quebec society, so we need to be teaching them French.  “Privilege” is a funny word.  I think part of it is just realism – it’s very difficult to find a job in Quebec if you don’t speak French.  Whatever governments and school boards and agencies can do to help people learn French… is that a privilege, or is that just recognition of reality?

I think it’s just a question of a numbers, really.  You can’t make a guarantee that all Italian people in Rimouski will get Italian services if there may only be two of them – I’m just making that up but you know what I mean.  If you have very small numbers it makes it more difficult to reach out to those groups.

LiQ:

Many Québécois would, given the chance, send their children to English public schools at primary and secondary level.  Currently, some Québécois have the right to attend either English or French schools, while the majority of Québécois do not have that right?  Do you feel that’s how it should be? 

Kelley:

In a way, I understand both sides of the question.  There was a fear, 40 years ago, that too many new Quebecers – immigrants – were choosing English schools for their children, and that created insecurity that the future of the French language was in some way threatened. 

Without getting too partisan, we pushed to have the teaching of English as a second language improved in our public schools, because one of the complaints we had is that francophone parents are interested in sending their children to English schools because the teaching of English as a second language in their schools leaves a lot to be desired.  We wanted to have an intensive immersion program for the 6th year of elementary school that the current government has backed off on, or cancelled, which I find unfortunate because on the English side French immersion programs have existed for 40 years and have proven to be quite effective.  To deny access to a similar model, or an adapted model, of immersion is unfortunate, and probably convinces more parents to send their children to private schools.

LiQ:

Currently, Quebec’s laws as they relate to working and signing language have sometimes been accused of putting additional pressure on Quebec businesses working with international partners, which makes them less competitive.  How do you feel about this?

Kelley:

I’d set aside the issue of signs, because it is complicated but we’ve had now a truce on signs for about 25 years.  I think companies coming in to Quebec realize they have certain obligations towards the French language and it becomes part of the price of doing business in Quebec. 

There’s a balance always to be found there, that if not, people just set up business elsewhere because it’s too complicated to do business here.  That’s reality.  So far, you look at the success in Montreal of the many software companies… they manage.  There are these bright, skilled people. 

The thing we have to remember is that we have to stay competitive.  If not just language regulation, but regulation in general, becomes too complicated, they’ll look elsewhere.  It’s very easy to move your human capital to Toronto or New Jersey or the other side of the world.

How can we make what we have, which is a primarily French society with a significant English community and English institutions, open to Europe and to North America? We can play to our strengths, as opposed to take our strengths and turn them into problems like we have a bit of a gift to being able to do in our society.

It was an irony, I thought, in the inaugural address by Premier Marois when the government was elected in the fall, that two areas that she targeted for strengthening and developing the economy were exports and tourism.  Obviously, Quebec has always been an exporting economy.  If we want the economy to boom, yes, we have to make sure that we find new customers for our resources and products.  Sure we can export a few things to France, but if you look around us, overwhelmingly our potential customers – the people we want to convince to buy our products – speak English.  English is an asset in the promotion of Quebec.  Yes, we will get our share of tourism from France or other parts of the Francophonie, but overwhelmingly, if we want people to come to the Festival d’Été in Quebec City, or to the Jazz Festival in Montreal, or to our ski slopes in the winter, many of those people are going to be Anglophones.

One of the echoes we get from the hotel business is that it’s harder and harder to find people who are bilingual to work behind the front desk or in the restaurants or in the hotels.  I think we should do whatever we can to help those small businesses, to keep a small restaurant open or keep an auberge open.  That’s hard work, and government should help make it attractive so that people come, stop at the auberge, and go to the restaurant next door.  I think government should be an ally in all that, not a problem.

LiQ:

Given the size of nearby English-speaking societies and the resources our English-speaking neighbours have at their disposal, Quebec’s current language policies are usually explained as being necessary to protect our language, culture, and society.  Do you feel this is the case?  If we were to remove all language laws tomorrow morning, what do you think the impact would be?

Kelley:

That’s a hard question to answer.  Questions of identity and cultural security are very difficult to measure.  I think a better approach is to focus on the areas of promotion.  There will always be a role to promote language and culture in any society.  The Quebec government will always have a special role to do that in French – as does the federal government.  Everyone says it’s just Quebec’s job to do that, but the years of support that the Canadian government has given to Radio-Canada have made it a vehicle for an awful lot of important cultural expression in Quebec.

If you took the laws off tomorrow morning, what would happen?  I don’t know, but take things like the constant pressure as we privatize Air Canada and other things.  On occasion on my flights from Montreal to Quebec City sometimes the flight attendants don’t know much French.  I find it a little bit odd that on a Montreal-Quebec City-Sept-Îles route you wouldn’t require people to be bilingual… There will always be a need to remind people that the respect for the French language is very important in Canada.  The depth and sincerity of that respect is essential if we want to keep the country together.

LiQ:

Many of the current issues facing language today seem to be limited to local frictions in Montreal and in small towns.  Do you feel the National Assembly level is necessarily best suited to solving these issues, or could they be solved at the municipal level considering the needs and desires of the people living in the affected communities?

Kelley:

It will always be a mix of the two, because there are things that you do need some rules on across the province – access to school being one – but there are other areas where it’s probably right to leave it local and let things work out for themselves.  For example, with our opposition to certain measures on bill 14 we have fought for the notion that once towns and municipalities were given bilingual status, which allows certain operating flexibilities for a municipality that should be grandfathered as long as they want to have that. One of the highlights, for me, of bill 14 was the mayor of Lachute, who is also the préfet of the MRC d’Argenteuil and a former PQ candidate, came to argue to leave well enough alone for the three or four small municipalities in that part of the world, saying they don’t need the National Assembly sticking its nose in their business… and he was right.

LiQ:

Government language statistics typically track “mother tongues” or similar terms that mean almost the same thing.  What is a “mother tongue”?

Kelley:

These labelling things get harder and harder as our world becomes more diversified.  Take my good friend Tom Mulcair – his father was Harry Mulcair, a fiery Irish Montrealer, and his mother a French Canadian, a Québécoise.  Tom grew up listening to both languages all his life.  So what’s his mother tongue?  If it’s the tongue of his mother, it’s French, but he went to English schools, and he’s fluently bilingual.  How do you peg if he’s a Francophone or Anglophone? Those categories aren’t subtle or supple enough to take into account the new realities.  I think we can anticipate there will be more and more bilingual people and it will be harder to slot people in to one category or another.

LiQ:

Final comments on your position on language?

Kelley:

Just respect and realism.  Respect for the history and realities of the linguistic communities is very important, including the First Nations – certainly there has been a profound lack of respect over generations that has to be corrected.  Realism that we do live in a larger world.  We can’t control everything, and what happens in other parts of the world will inevitably have an impact here in Quebec.  We have to be realistic to understand that – that economies are related, that there are these great migrations of people at a level that we have never seen in history.  Of course that will have consequences on the host society, but as long as the respect is there, we will be able to manage diversity.  Finally, to see who we are and see our strengths as strengths, and not as problems. 

Editor’s note: Representatives from the three other political parties at the National Assembly either declined or did not respond to our requests for similar interviews.

Categories: Politics

About Author

Farnell Morisset

Farnell Morisset is passionate about discussing (among other things) the issues of modern social identity for many Québécois who, like him, feel deeply connected to the Québécois nation and culture yet do not identify with the traditional francophone non-practicing Catholic nationalist image. He has an engineering degree from Université Laval and is currently a law student at McGill University.

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