Measures to promote and protect French are welcome, but not steps that would suppress English and the English-speaking community.
As citizens of the sole bastion of French in North America, English-speaking Quebecers have accepted the need for rules and practices to protect and support the French language and culture. We are also committed to living and thriving in a predominantly French Quebec. We are increasingly bilingual, with every succeeding census recording a gain of several percentage points in our competence in French. The 600,000 members of our community who voted with their feet over the last half century have left behind them pretty much only those who are committed Quebecers to enjoy all that is good about living here.
But there are still 1.14 million of us, and we still comprise more than 13 per cent of the population. We are not going to and should not be asked to disappear or to deny our material contribution to the economy, culture and feel of Montreal and Quebec.
Measures by the Coalition Avenir Québec government to promote and protect the French language would be welcome if that is what they were designed and targeted to do. But the devices being discussed so far have the distinct character of suppression of the English language and the English-speaking community.
Closing English CEGEPS or universities to francophones; prohibiting or at least discouraging the Bonjour-Hi greeting; applying the Charter of the French Language to federally regulated industries; restricting the population entitled to services in English to “historical anglophones” — these things would do nothing to protect or promote French. Rather, they would suppress English at the cost of the civil liberties of all Quebecers and would lead to the serious reduction in services available in English to our community.
These are solutions looking for problems.
As the debate about the status of the French language in Montreal and Quebec heats up, the proposition that French is in peril or in decline seems to be an article of faith among the political class. Contradicting this orthodoxy is treated as proof of not belonging in the new Quebec and subject to serious time in the penalty box. See Emmanuella Lambropoulos’s public lambasting and departure from the House of Commons Official Languages committee.
The demographic data show that language use is changing. It is transitioning toward a more diverse profile that reflects how Quebec, Canada and the world are going to evolve. Immigration trends (entirely the byproduct of active government policy in immigrant recruitment) have produced a more cosmopolitan atmosphere. But anyone living here in this century who asserts that French is in decline is not remembering the Montreal of 2000 or 2010 accurately.
So we are facing one of those “don’t let the facts get in the way of a good argument” situations.
The opposition in the National Assembly, the Liberal federal government, a gang of former premiers, commentators by the dozen, are all singing in chorus. The proposals being advocated are being discussed in the context of the narrative that French is in danger, with political pressure mounting on governments to act.
There appears to be a well organized and co-ordinated campaign to justify a paradigm shift in the role of language practice and Quebec’s autonomy. This has dire implications for language peace in Canada and the French minorities elsewhere in Canada.
Where is the response?
English-speakers, let’s speak up for ourselves, let’s ask for some respect for our contribution and our commitment to life in Quebec.
Instead of suppressing English in Quebec and putting a strain on our current language peace and the connection of Quebec to the Canadian whole, we should view English-speaking Quebec as a positive and important bridge to the rest of Canada. English-speaking Quebecers not only welcome the flourishing of French, but are keen to be enthusiastic ambassadors of Quebec beyond our borders.
Geoffrey Chambers, former president of the Quebec Community Groups Network, was the founding executive director of Alliance Quebec and is a long-time volunteer for English-speaking community organizations.