A More Civilized Approach to Montréal’s Perennial Language Debate

SJB Day, 1990 – Cartier Monument (where the Tam-Tams take place) – credit to Ed Hawco

I find this photograph very interesting. It shows people scaling the George-Etienne Cartier Memorial on June 24th 1990, when ethnic tensions between three ‘founding’ groups – Aboriginals, French and Anglo-Celtic, were at an all time high. I find it interesting because Cartier was a Father of Confederation, a man crucially important in setting up the dual language and dual political culture of Canadian federalism. I don’t think too many people know much about him, or what he represents as a French Canadian establishing vital cultural rights for French Canadians, so many years ago. He is a important as Macdonald, with whom he is often paired. The failure of the Meech Lake Accords, coupled with increasing public scrutiny and criticism of both Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Québec Premier Robert Bourassa, a local land dispute with the Mohawk of Kanesatake and a weakened economy all helped push calls for another referendum, which would occur in 1995. In turn, the Anglo-Québecois community responded by creating their own political party (the short-lived Equality Party), in addition to Anglo rights lobby groups. Ultimately, the unnecessarily provocative actions by the Bourassa and Parizeau governments would serve to galvanize the Anglo-Québecois community, likely preparing them well in advance to defeat the separatist cause during the 95 Referendum. And as we remember, it was damn close.

Fast forward to 2012 and guess what, we’re in almost the exact same position. The global economy is in a bad state, we have a very unpopular premier and an much-loathed Prime Minister – and both of these people seem legitimately disinterested in pushing a progressive agenda, supporting the distinct society of Québec, or embarking on any major plans for nation building (with the possible exception of Charest’s Plan Nord, which promises $80 billion in Northern development funding, spread out across multiple sectors. It’s an ambitious plan that seeks to expand Québec’s energy, transportation, mining and forestry sectors, and the provincial government is touting the project as being equivalent to what the James Bay hydro-electric dams did for our economy in the 1960s and 1970s, but so far it seems to be little more than a plan. In any event I digress; unemployment is still too high in Quebec and job opportunities are still limited).

And so is it any surprise that we’re falling head-long into the abyss of language bickering. It began in earnest with L’actualité’s recent inflammatory issue, which provocatively asserts the French language is severely threatened in Montréal. They based their findings on a poll which utilized loaded questions designed to make the French language and culture seem generally unappreciated by Anglo-Québecois. I was surprised, because typically L’actualité is reasonable, well-rounded and seemingly federalist in editorial orientation. But hey, money talks right? It’s not surprising that more Anglo-Québecois bought this issue of L’actualité than any other. Then Pierre Curzi had to open his big mouth and pronounce his ‘feeling’ that French was threatened in Montréal, and that more drastic measures had to be employed in order to protect the ‘fragile’ French language and culture of Québec. And then, much like his predecessor Bourassa, Charest decides to play populist by creating more language police when he should be finding a solution to the growing unrest amongst Québec’s student population.

It bothers me to no end that those who are quick to sound the alarm on language issues rarely spend any time looking up the legitimate statistical information pertinent to the issue. The Franco-Quebecois population is growing, but so too is that of the Anglo-Québecois community, albeit at a smaller rate. Immigrants are still forced to attend school at Francophone school boards, despite the availability of spaces in the bilingual ‘Anglophone’ boards, and the actual number of people who use French as their primary language of communication is rising as well. Given that the total population is growing, it should be no surprise that both languages are in use. There are more people now who can speak both comfortably, and thus do. People like Lisée or Curzi believe, apparently honestly, that if English is being used by one person, it means some the whole of the French language is threatened.

Well excuse me, but there is no doubt in my mind that the French language is safe and secure here in Montréal inasmuch as Québec. There’s no question Montréal is a French city, and as a member of both linguistic communities, I can only say that my culture doesn’t need to be supported by draconian laws or over-zealous inspectors. Curzi and Lisée’s opinions do not represent reality, just their flawed perspective of reality. It’s a populist appeal that can whip people into a frenzy, and given we have an election coming up, both of Québec’s major political parties will be playing the ‘Anglophones are threatening your cultural identity’ card. It’s bullshit and extremely destructive to our city.

What the Baby Boomer political establishment of Québec fails to understand is that languages support each other. Teach a child two languages, they’ll master two languages, possibly more. We could have built a fluently bilingual society, enthusiastic to converse in both languages inter-changeably. Instead we support punitive measures to punish those who would dare not conform to the majority. If we don’t put our foot down and stop this lunacy, we will instigate another prolonged economic and political depression in Montréal. How many more of these prolonged affairs can we tolerate? The last one lasted about a quarter century.

The simple fact is that in an increasingly globalized world, multi-lingualism and inter-culturalism will become the norm, and as Montrealers we have a privileged position wherein we can exploit our society’s multi-lingualism to economic advantage. There are a lot of jobs which require fully bilingual individuals, so it shouldn’t be any surprise to the Francophone majority of Québec that the principle minorities of this province – Anglophones, Aboriginals and Immigrants, have all endeavoured to become proficient in the majority languages of the province and country. It makes business sense because it’s common sense.

Charest, the OQLF, Curzi, Lisée, the SSJB – all of these people/organizations could implicate themselves in protecting and promoting Québec culture, society and the French language if they actually wanted to, by re-enforcing French as the language of high-culture, academia, politics, etc. They could use their influence and resources to make French more chic than English, if they’re really bothered by people speaking English in public. Punitive measures will do nothing but sew seeds of discontent and anger. Is this what they really want?

I want people like Lisée, Marois and Curzi to stop pretending Québec’s culture is threatened. Of course it isn’t – it’s over 400 years old and represents one out of every five Canadians. And Montréal rivals Paris for the production of original French-language media. And parents throughout Canada push their kids to learn French so they can go to school in Montréal and have access to the best jobs in the country. No kidding! It’s almost as if anyone bitching about the status of the French language and/or culture in Québec has their heads thoroughly planted up their own ass. I’m tired of this province’s apparent leaders trying to con me into believing I’m a member of a minority group. More than seven million people inhabiting a territory as large as Western Europe with an advanced program designed to integrate immigrants from other Francophone nations is hardly a minority situation. These self-deprecating opinions are wreaking havoc on our collective morale, and are thoroughly baseless to begin with.

I’ve had enough. I’m not in the minority, I’m not threatened, and I’ll gladly continue to speak both languages and appreciate both cultures. I’ll gladly use French and English where each is appropriate, and I’ll be damned if I let anyone tell me what to do. Given the Anglo-Québecois community, Aboriginal community and Immigrant community have all adapted effortlessly into the fold of a majority Francophone province, I can only say stay the course and we’ll benefit immensely, but it remains in our best interest to ignore the bullshit when we see it. There’s no sense in throwing fuel on the fire.