[lg policy] Canada: Breaking through Quebec's language barrier

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sun Jun 21 20:24:39 UTC 2009

Breaking through Quebec's language barrier

It would be an exaggeration to say that peace reigns - but do the
events of the past week show two communities that have learned to live
in an equilibrium?

By HUBERT BAUCH, The GazetteJune 20, 2009Comments (5)

There were straws in the wind last week that augured well for the
state of French-English relations in Quebec. Among the new inductees
to the Ordre nationale du Québec were Judge Michael Sheehan, honoured
for judicial accomplishment and his outstanding work on suicide
prevention in both anglo and francophone milieus, and Heather
Munroe-Blum, principal of McGill University, once held as a bastion of
anglo dominance in the province. "I felt moved because it's a
recognition of McGill as a Quebec institution and an important
player," she said.

At the Université de Montréal, often caricatured as a separatist
hotbed, the school's Centre d'études et de recherches internationales
announced it will be offering a groundbreaking eight courses in
English as part of its summer program. "We're breaking through a
wall," said Jean-François Lisée, the centre's executive director.
"It's something that maybe couldn't have happened 15 years ago." Even
what shaped up as a language downer, the banning of two anglo bands
from a concert associated with this week's Fête Nationale
celebrations, came out on the upside. The event organizers beat an
abject retreat in the face of scathing denunciations of the anglo
exclusion from prominent mainstream francophone voices across the
political spectrum calling it a regression to the bad old days of two

More telling and more stinging to the franco-hardliners running the
show than any anglo hissy fit - the general anglo reaction was more in
sorrow and cynical bemusement than in anger - were the voices of
sovereignist notables who sided with les blokes. Like headline rocker
Éric Lapointe who said the anglo exclusion feeds retrograde
perceptions and explains why the independence cause is stagnating.
"It's not by excluding some Quebecers that we'll succeed in getting
our country." Lisée, formerly a senior adviser to Parti Québécois
premiers Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard, called the episode a
great day for Quebec nation-building. "Imagine, anglos banging on the
doors to get in on the Fête Nationale." Not only were the anglo groups
hastily restored to the bill, but in the bargain Bloodshot Bill and
Lake of Stew got a Warholian fame boost, from fringe acts to the most
talked about bands in the province - in both languages - at least for
the three days the flap lasted, exemplars of the dictum that there's
only good publicity.

"What struck me was the rapid reaction from franco-phones to say that
while there are elements of Quebec society from another era, there is
today an open and welcoming society," said Université du Québec à
Montréal political scientist Alain Gagnon, who previously taught at
McGill. "It was settled very quickly for the best." There's general
agreement among rational folk that the episode was in the end a
reassuring demonstration of how French-English relations have evolved
to a level of relatively comfortable accommodation that sits well with
a majority of both language communities. It would be an exaggeration
to say that language peace reigns unperturbed in the land of Quebec,
but the last major English-French confrontation - over bilingual signs
- was 20 years ago and while there have been occasional eruptions of
hostility since, they have tended to be over lesser grievances that
were soon passed over.

There is still a cadre of self-anointed language hawks in a perpetual
state of anglophobic froth and a rearguard of the Howard-Galganov
"angryphone" faction, but both operate on the political fringe and
their appeal is largely to a limited audience of hard-line converts.
Meanwhile, francophones have become more secure in their dominant
position in the province and more accommodating of les autres, while
anglos, substantially more reduced in numbers and influence, have
adapted to their secondary station and taken up in large part the
so-called burden of bilingualism that once chafed so sorely on

Gagnon says that a while back he was out of the country for some
years. "When I came back to Quebec I found a new society in Quebec.
I'm very impressed by the rapprochement between the two communities.
There's more and more complicity, in the workplace, in festivals, in
local political organizations where before anglophones were in their
milieu and francophones in theirs. That's a very positive change and
it confirms that Quebec is becoming a globally inclusive society, and
that's good for everyone." Robert Donnelly, president of the anglo
Quebec Community Groups network, agrees the linguistic climate has
significantly improved over the past 20 years. "Every now and then
something comes up related to Bill 101, but the communities seem to be
getting along for the most part. Don't ask us if we support Bill 101,
but we've learned to live with it. We're at a happy medium." Lisée
suggests that the goal of language policy in Quebec should be to
preserve the present linguistic equation for generations to come by
measures to sustain both the current francophone and anglophone
critical mass in the province. "I believe the equilibrium we have is
pretty much what we like to live in. But then we're all facing
anxieties, francophones and anglophones, as to whether it will last."
Despite their community's decisive gains over the years and its
entrenchment as Quebec's undisputed first language, there remains a
common insecurity among francophones as to the long-term survival of
French in Quebec that manifests itself both defensively and
aggressively. It is an attitude fostered not only by North American
demographics and English dominance in the greater world, but also by a
legacy of denigration and subjugation by anglo elites in bygone times.

To that end there are also straws in the wind that warn of possible
turbulence ahead on the language front. Things like the Bloc Québécois
push to extend Quebec language law to areas of federal jurisdiction in
the province, the controversy over mayoral candidate Louise Harel's
deficiency in the language of Shakespeare, and the impending Supreme
Court ruling on Quebec legislation to close a language-law loophole
that allows students otherwise ineligible to gain access to English
public education by spending a year at an anglo private school.

Down the road lies the prospect of a PQ government whose recently
announced means of pushing for sovereignty would be to wrest powers
from Ottawa by way of sectorial referendums on specific items, such as
exclusive jurisdiction in matters cultural. La Presse columnist
Lysiane Gagnon sketches a discouraging scenario for such an operation:
The PQ would of course be for it, and the Liberals, who clamoured for
just that during the last federal election campaign, would be
hard-pressed to oppose it. Francophone artists, who in fact benefit
greatly from the present system whereby they have recourse to two
benefactors, would stifle themselves for fear of being tagged as
traitors. "By default, the running of the No campaign would be left
... to the anglophones." Demographer and political scientist Jack
Jedwab agrees the linguistic climate is far more manageable than it
was in times past, but also sees potential for language troubles
ahead. "There's always an ongoing language debate in Quebec. It's part
of our culture. It has been for decades and will be for the future, as
unforeseeable as that might be. You're just not going to find a
permanent consensus on this issue." He suggests the likeliest
flashpoint would be the next census if it shows a further francophone
decline on the island of Montreal. It is a controversy that has been
festering since the last census, in 2006, showed mother-tongue
francophones on the island down to 48.8 per cent, outnumbered by
anglos and others.

Jedwab's Association for Canadian Studies commissioned a recent survey
on language attitudes that shows the biggest gap in attitudes on
language is the degree to which francophones perceive that French is
threatened in Montreal (87 per cent) as opposed to non-francophones
(24 per cent). "In fact there are very few francophones who don't
think that French is threatened in Montreal compared to
non-francophones who tend to have a diametrically different view. It's
a near consensus among franco-phones, the highest I've ever seen
recorded." Lisée agrees the issue of French predominance in Montreal
is of primordial importance. "I think it is a legitimate objective for
Quebec as a whole to make sure that we keep a clear majority
francophone language use on the island of Montreal. If the francophone
population drops much below 50 per cent, it will be bad for
equilibrium." What's happening here is a typical North American
phenomenon. Upwardly mobile families have long tended to migrate to
the suburbs to be replaced by immigrants in the city core. Here the
migration in recent years has been by francophones moving to Laval or
the South Shore, both overwhelmingly francophone, once they start
having children, to be replaced in their former midtown digs by
allophone newcomers.

Lisée suggests the way to tackle the issue is with greater insistence
on French knowledge as a criterion for accepting immigrants and
housing subsidies for families who choose to stay on the island.

But then Lisée is as moderate and rational a sovereignist as they
come, and a constant of the ongoing Quebec language debate is that
when it rises to a fevered pitch, emotional reactions and retrograde
perceptions tend to sweep moderation and sweet reason aside.

hbauch@ thegazette.canwest.com


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