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.

14 thoughts on “A More Civilized Approach to Montréal’s Perennial Language Debate”

  1. Why drag the CBC, SRC or NDP into this?

    Those are all progressive federalist organizations – leave them alone, they’re the good guys.

    Jean Naimard is a troll. Don’t feed the trolls.

  2. You, sir, are completely out of your mind. You mistake your entourage of socialists and moral-relativists for Society. We are not French. We are French (and English)-speaking Americans. I certainly do not believe in big government, and neither you nor anyone at the NDP, the CBC, or Radio-Canada speak for me

    Re-read the last sentence in your post. You’re a bigot and an idiot. You’re welcome to leave Montreal.

  3. I remember well my past in communism. Back then “imperialism” was a common word inciting hatred to Western countries including Canada; at this time, in my country, people had no right to study foreign languages as English and French, there was control over media, and everybody had to follow the “Party Line” (an expression that is still used by PQ). Imperialism is a death phrase, but NATIONALISM and NATIONAL hatred is still much alive… This anti-English rhetoric in Quebec is appalling, Quebec politicians should invest their efforts in making whole Canada bi-lingual… Nobody forgets its past (and the people who now feel insulted by Quebec nationalists wouldn’t forget the wrong); evil cannot be corrected with another evil. Speaking about the past, I should say that QUEBEC is not a colony today, nor Canada is anymore; also Quebec never has been a state, but a province/colony – first French, later British: this is the past, this is the truth… BTW I love French.

  4. You are welcome to stay, but you have to understand that you are in a french country, which doesn’t have the same legal expectations that an anglo-saxon country has.

    In Rome, you do like the romans do.

    Here, we are french, we like big government, we don’t trust private entreprise at all (but we trust government), we don’t worship personal responsibility, we put collective rights before individual rights (so we force the immigrants to assimilate into french) and we don’t think that good food and good sex are sinful like the puritans that live elsewhere do.

  5. The IMPERIALISTS count first and foremost on people forgetting about the past to keep their stronghold over their colonies.

  6. I don’t think we’re out of the last politically-caused economic downturn yet. So much of the local developments seem to be government driven. Once interest rates rise, the condo building boom will peter out overnight. And if the local governments ever got serious about dealing with their debts, so will go the rest of (what appears to be) the recovery. We need to attract capital from outside Quebec for a real recovery, and the stable climate needed for that is still somewhere well off in the future.

    /my 2 pessimistic cents

  7. I haven’t heard the word “imperialistic” since my departure (many years ago) from a gray, uni-lingual, underdeveloped, very closed, culturally backward communist state… You cannot imagine how dangerous is your rhetoric and how many human fates can be destroyed by the application of an ideology of HATRED and political confrontation…

  8. I prefer to be called Québecois. Quebecer, Quebecker, Kébeker etc all sound strange to me. Québecois has a nice balance to it, in that there are three syllables, the first hard, the last soft, and the middle one, ideally pronounce, lying somewhere perfectly in between. The word looks like a cloud to me, a big puffy cumulonimbus with just the right amount of length trailing in wisps behind it.

    I saw a cloud like that once, standing on the shores of a Laurentian Lake. On a celestial sea of gray it stood out with the sunlight peeking out from under it.

    It’s my home too, and I’m here to stay.

  9. I’m from a country which has ( virtually ) one people and one language. I can tell you, from my experience, that diversity is a strength of a society. ” Us and Them ” mentality just traps you into a rigid monolith, which would lose necessary vitality to survive. I just wonder how younger generation perceives this outdated idea.

  10. Kevin – every proper linguist (I humbly include myself) agrees with your initial point. Spoken language and ‘culture’ are completely separate, and totally non-equivalent things. Folks who’ve never thought seriously about the subject(s) often equate them, but they’re in error.

    There’s no shortage of cases throughout human history: situations where multiple disparate cultures share approximately the same language vs. a single, unified people speaking two or three. Either way, you can “lose” one thing and not the other. [That is, if you’re inclined to the mistaken belief that a change to a language or culture is a ‘loss’ instead of the natural state of affairs].

    For an interesting comparison to Quebec’s foolishness of the last half-century, take a look at the Turkish Republic’s language reform initiatives of the 1930s. You’ll see a lot of the same comic false assumptions. I mean… it’s comic if you don’t care much for civil liberties.

  11. Some gross inaccuracies need to be corrected in your paper:

    1) It’s not “separatist” but “sovereignist”. Separatists are the english, who, for 250 years, have kept the indians and the french separate from the canadian political and economic process.

    2) The “plan nord” is yet another of those extremely regressive schemes where the natural ressources have been raped and pillaged in the same modus operandi for 250 years. The plan nord offers the usual privatization of profits and socialization of losses policies that have been gradually introduced over the last 30-40 years.

    3) Pierre Curzi is right: french is threatened in Montréal; the recrudescence of english-only signs and stores where service is unavailable in french, as well as the greater number of people forced to work in english is a testament to that.

    4) Unfortunately, the language police is the product of the imagination of the most imperialistic english, and for as long as the liberals will be in power, it will remain so. There is no way in hell that a party for whom 95% of the english vote for (that’s the legendary “ethnic voting”) will do anything beyond token support of law 101.

    5) Your dream of “bilingual society” just because bilingualism only insures that the english don’t have to learn french. This will never happen; any politician who suggests this will be skinned alive.

    Your rant is the typical waste-island rhodesian babble that can be reduced to the traditional english rant about Québec: it was better when the english ran the show, only the english know how to run a country, and those frogs should be put back in their place.

    No matter how hard you try to make yourself believe you are a quebecer, you cannot ever prevent the true imperialistic english who is culturally unable to understand other cultures from peeking from beneath the thin veeneer of respectability you drape yourself in.

  12. Même si je ne suis complètement d’accord avec votre affirmation que le français n’est pas menacé au Québec, je trouve vos observations perspicace et raissonable. Vous êtes la voix du bon sens, et j’espére qu’il y a beaucoup d’autres qui en dirait autant. Merci.

  13. I’ve said it elsewhere, I’ll say it here too because it bears repeating, and I want to see if I’m the only one who has noticed.

    There is a line of thought that I have encountered repeatedly among bright, educated, (mostly) unilingual francophones: language is culture.
    Not a component of culture, not something a culture uses. Language is synonymous with culture. If you speak a language well enough, you become a member of that culture.
    This also presupposes the idea that there is only one culture per language.

    I don’t know where this idea came from, because to me it seems fairly weak and ill thought out, but it seems to be very common among Quebec’s thinking classes.

    But it is my belief that this ridiculous notion is at the heart of the current language squabbles in Quebec; it’s why separatists hate Sammy Sugar; it’s why people obsess about Montreal becoming less French ( or as they out it, becoming English); it’s why the pettiness will continue until someone with balls and brains at Radio Canada stands up to his separatist boss.

    People like Curzi, Dutrizac, Lisée and others knew that Bill 101 was going to make people learn French. But they thought that learning French would cause people to adopt French culture. When they realized that anglophones who stayed after Referendum I were
    Learning more French they thought they would get more recruits to their cause. They thought the few Anglos like Daniel Turp who joined the PQ were just the first wave…
    But now, 35 years after , they are wondering what the hell happened. They see francophones learning English in CEGEP and university and think ‘theyre rejecting our culture,’ they see allophones flipping between 3 languages an not supporting sovereignty, they see Anglos running the Caisse de depot and they don’t know what’s going on.

    It’s not just ‘how did we lose’ it’s ‘how can they use French as much as us and not BE just like us.’

    Simply put, they are trapped by an incorrect interpretation of reality.

  14. Fantastic piece Taylor. If only one of our leaders here is Quebec had the balls to say and do what you’re proposing we would indeed live in a much better society!

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