Quebec Bill 14

18

April 11, 2013 by The Editor

Quebec Flag/Drapeau de Quebec

Quebec Flag/Drapeau de Quebec

Struggles over minority language rights are nothing new. There are many examples from the 20th century alone that show how governments have used laws, intimidation, and violence to suppress the languages of minority populations.

Welsh schoolchildren, for example, were punished with humiliation for speaking Welsh in the 19th and 20th centuries. Breton activists have struggled for years for official recognition of their language by the French government. In Canada, First Nations children in the 20th century were taken from their homes and placed in residential schools where their languages and cultures were forbidden and where many were sexually and physically abused.

In Maine, children from French-speaking homes in the 20th century were punished in schools for speaking French. Many other examples could be used to illustrate the point. It is a blight in the histories of all nations who attempt to control the peoples within their borders by denying this central aspect of culture.

In Quebec, Bill 14 is currently being debated in a committee of the Assemblée Nationale. This bill would broaden the application of Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language passed in 1977, to ensure that French remains the main language of the province in all respects. French speakers form a majority (at about 85%) in Quebec, while they represent a minority, in the range of 25-30%, in the whole of Canada.

Proponents of the bill, which was introduced by the Parti Québécois government, include a wide array of organizations such as the largest labor unions in Quebec, the French heritage group Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montreal and others. The argument in favor of the bill is that more must be done to ensure that French remains the language of Quebec.

Supporters point to Montreal as an example of the marginalization of the French language, where all of daily life can be experienced in English and many people have come to expect that is not only their right, but also the right direction for the province. Their fear is that by the time such a scenario reaches Quebec City, the homeland (along with Acadia) of French culture in North America will no longer be French.

Opponents of the bill include Anglophone rights organizations who claim Bill 14 undermines their human rights by denying them the opportunity to live and speak in the language of their choice. They say the bill is discriminatory and will allow “language inspectors” too much control over private and business life. Opponents claim that English is the language of business in the world and forcing French on companies will drive business away. They point to the exodus over many years of Anglophone residents to Toronto.

The public debate has been acrimonious from the start.  Language politics raises the ire of people on all sides, all claiming the moral high ground. In following this debate on Twitter, comment boards, and in the media, I am repeatedly struck by the vile nature of many comments from the Anglophone communities around Canada. French language proponents and activists have been subject to an array of insults from the old canard “communists” to accusations they are anti-semites, fascists, nationalists, hillbillys and the like.

If this were just a matter of comment boards, it could be ignored. But this sort of calumny is also taken up by national and international media. For example, this article in Time magazine by Montreal Anglophone writer Hillary Brenhouse quotes many put-upon Anglophones who object to having to use French at all. The whole tenor of her article, which is passed off as journalism, is that the Québécois people are waging a war on English speakers.

While we can be sure that there is a tit for tat of insults and accusations going on in this debate, the larger issue for me is why are English speakers so intent on forcing French to the side in Quebec? Furthermore, when the debate veers from language rights to name-calling of the sort I’ve mentioned, just what are these proponents of English doing?

Much of the wider discussion from writers such as Brenhouse focuses on revenue loss. But there is another explicit tone which says, if you are for Bill 14, you are among the most vile people on the planet. In other words, the French Canadian workers, the rural and small town residents, and the generations of Québécois who have maintained their culture against all odds for 400 years, are all obstacles to a greater English Canada.

I speak English as my primary language. I can get by in French which I learned as an adult. My father’s generation had French as a heritage language. My grandfather’s generation and before were French-speakers from the Detroit-Windsor area. He learned French in a home in Northern Michigan. What would some of these Anglophone activists have thought of my French Canadian forebears and the language they spoke? One of the insults I have read repeatedly is that they don’t really speak French at all, just some illiterate dialect no one can understand.

It is with regret that the descendants of many immigrants look back on lost languages. How much more so when language and culture is lost because of social exclusion and cultural marginalization? Quebec is a French-speaking island in the sea of English-speaking Canada. It is regrettable that the colonialist mentality that formed Quebec into “Lower Canada” in the 19th century is still at work, seen in the protests of activists, journalists, and politicians today.

Whether Bill 14 passes or fails, it reminds me of similar social conflict last year in Quebec during the election that brought Pauline Marois to the premiership, and of the Maple Spring. Yet with social media activists such as Put Back the Flag and aggressive campaigning by Anglophones, such as this video by the mayor of Cote Saint-Luc, it is as yet unclear whether the minority Marois government will be able to pass this legislation. And if not, will a loss be to their benefit in the long run.

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18 thoughts on “Quebec Bill 14

  1. Sue Pearson says:

    I love reading your blog. Thanks for the update on the language issue. Well-written!

  2. Gary Allum says:

    I really enjoy this blog and I love reading the very informative history and news articles. It is one or the only things I read thoroughly on the Internet and occasionally I will print it off to read later—yes, I know; ink on paper! What a hoot!
    ~Gary Allum, Writer

    • James says:

      Thank you very very much Gary. I really appreciate that and your feedback. It’s confidence building. There is so much to read out there, that I am happy to be able to provide some writing that is of value to others. What kind of writing do you do?

  3. André says:

    You talk about Maine and Quebec, but not about Ontario, Nova Scotia, Manitoba, Saskathewan…

    • James says:

      Thanks for your comment! I mention Maine, Quebec, Wales, Brittany, Northern Michigan to a certain extent – there is a long list – Catalonia, for example is another. Please share some examples of the experiences in the communities of Ontario, NS, and the other provinces. Best Regards – JL

  4. fojap says:

    Once, when I was in Greenwich Village, a man tried to pick me up in a bar. When I introduced myself with my very French sounding name he said, “Ah, je n’ai pas parlé français depuis la morte de ma mère.” I asked if his mother was French, and he said that in fact she would have never described herself as French and her first language was Breton. However, French was his first language.

    When I lived in Quebec City, I knew a man, a friend of my ex-husband, who worked on a project to revitalize the Gwichin language in the Northwest Territories.

    As it happens, I moved to Quebec the year that they had the referendum. I read the coverage in the U.S. papers, as well as in Quebec papers, mainly Le Devoir, and I have to say that the American coverage was highly biased. The reporters were often Anglophone Canadians I often got the impression that they only spoke to English speakers in Montreal. As far as the prejudice towards French Canadians on the part of Anglophones, I’m sorry to say that it existed before the internet was commonplace. It actually surprised me, being an American who didn’t grow up in an area with a large French Canadian immigrant population. My general impression is that Americans, and really the rest of the world, are not aware of the prejudice against French Canadians that exists in Canada.

    Oh, yeah. It’s French. There are some regional dialects in Quebec, but what most people there speak is French. They have a distinctive accent. The first time I went to France after having lived in Quebec, the French thought I was Canadian because of my accent, but I had no problem being understood. Neither did my ex-husband with whom I traveled there once. In fact, I had an easier time than I had years earlier when I had gone there with nothing more than the French I had learned in school. I just spent a month in France in December of last year and, while my French is far from perfect, I think it’s good enough that I can state with some confidence that the language spoken in Quebec is French. Saying that French Canadians speak some sort of degraded version of French is just a hateful lie and anti-Francophone propaganda.

    Sorry if the comment is very long. I get angry hearing about the prejudice against French Canadians. It’s funny, because I did not adjust well there and returned to the U.S. There are both good things and bad things in the culture, like in any culture. But I’ve found the criticisms that Anglophone Candians make against the Francophones to be hateful and inaccurate. Also, for what it’s worth, I didn’t have any big problems with the language laws. I haven’t read about the proposed changes, so I don’t have an opinion on them, but I often found that Anglophones exaggerated the burden. Of course, I knew I was moving to a French speaking region and I expected to have to speak French. I’m not sure why some people are so resistant to the idea. Over the years, I’ve met a lot of people who have grown up as bilingual and it’s such a wonder gift for those people to have been given by their parents. I know a woman who is French and German, grew up bilingual herself, and lives in New York. Her young son speaks both French and English and now she’s started sending him for German lessons and speaking German with him at home. I think it’s so great for that kid, to have three languages before he’s even ten.

    • James says:

      Thank you so much for your interesting reply. I appreciate hearing from people who have lived in Quebec and getting a sense of the situation from their perspective.

      I agree that the reaction from the Anglophone community is way out of proportion. It’s as if they think the world must be (obviously) on their side. If you have a good PR machine and enough people willing to write negative pieces you can gain a lot of attention. At bottom, beyond the bigotry, there is a message that anglophone activists seems to be transmitting and that is: the future must be in English, but if they fail at making Quebec change, they will undermine Quebec on the international scene and cast them as uneducated villains. It all seems very spiteful to me.

      I also appreciate your comment about the Breton woman. The Breton are very much similar in their pursuit of language rights and national identity. Very similar indeed.

      Thanks again for reading and responding.

  5. Thomas says:

    Well, you’re highlighting well the everyday language debate/name-calling from Montreal’s Gazette readers, but you could have explained the purpose of this new legislation : the main goal is to prevent employers from asking English when it is not really mandatory for the job. Let’s say you’re a janitor in Baie-Comeau ; it’d be nonsence to ask you to be perfectly fluently bilingual, yet, such things happen sometimes (I exaggerate, of course, but I think you get the point). Another aspect is to ensure it’s possible to work in French in some categories of enterprises that do not have any such obligations yet according to the current law. Currently, a lot of cities are officially bilingual, yet, in some of them, their anglophone population has diminished so much the said cities should no longer have their bilingual status according to now’s legislation.

    http://thepoliticalbouillon.com/en/quebec-bashing-the-national-pass-time-of-anglo-media/

    • James says:

      I appreciate your link Thomas and the critique you offer, which is a valid one. I tend to write for people who do not closely follow Quebec politics, so background information is important, just to get a sense of what the issues is about. But you are right, and the way you describe the issue is very helpful.

  6. UnCanayen says:

    About Quebec bashing just look at the comments after the terrorist attack at Métropolis against Paulin Marrois… It’s insane and sick.

  7. Jenny says:

    James:
    Let me begin by recounting my story as a once ignorant English speaking insecure Canadian. I am still only English, which does sadden me, but I grew up in many parts of Ontario, mainly northern Ontario, where we had a mix of not only English, but First Nations and French, I was oblivious to the language barrier and issues of how since the days of early Canada that we English have pushed and bullied our language onto many regrettably. I quite enjoyed learning French (Core) in school, but never pursued it beyond my first year of high school. You see I had parents whom were insecure about their own language and enjoying the diversity of difference, so was not encouraged to take anything up that was different or new. I am a mother of five children, four of whom excelled in their French learning throughout school. I encouraged each of my children to reach beyond and to try new things, experience new ideas and methods. I am saddened to say that I have many regrets not being multi-lingual and it was a cruel blow to our present society when our forefathers who came here and bullied the native people of this land and forced them into ways that were foreign to them, but the most devastating tragedy was to all but extinguish an entire culture and many native languages, it was a genocide of our native Canadians that is still reeling from this generations later! Their is no difference to what we are doing to the French language and culture that is being slowly extinguished now, I applaud you and your fight to keep this alive, we are supposed to be a country of many cultures, opening our doors to others, yet here we are closing a door to our past, what message can we possibly be sending? Why is it that we have not yet learned how to live with both languages equally? I as an English speaking person, feel that a compromise is available, we can still retain a level of English in Business by having on staff interpreters while in the province of Quebec, I agree that French is the main language that should be used wherever possible, the culture should be embraced and celebrated by the rest of Canada, we need to find ways to attract people , rather than forcing, we must place incentives. Much more work is possible when we place the decision in their own hands
    (residents, business owners, tourists), and with an incentive program, this will have them adopting and changing voluntarily. We need to restore the balance removed generations ago by going back to our roots and restoring them, a tree does not survive long if we remove it’s roots, as a country we are that tree that is slowly dying without the roots!!

    • James says:

      Dear Jenny – Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments and for sharing them here on my blog. It is very interesting to hear of the perspective of someone who has lived/lives in the Anglophone world and how this effects you as well. It is also heartening to know that you understand my post as an attempt to explore the dangers of language suppression and the loss we would all experience if this language were absent from North America. I think it is also very important to apply this to First Nations communities and to do everything possible to keep their languages alive – but also to encourage non-First Nations people to learn them (or at least about them.)
      It’s a big issue – I hope people will be reasonable in the long run! Thanks again for writing.– James

  8. HotDish says:

    Thanks for posting this article. I was born in Montreal, but my family left when I was a toddler. I got my undergrad degree in Quebec, and lived in Montreal again for a short period of time about 12 years ago. From what I remember, English always seemed to be as prominently spoken as French in Montreal (unlike Quebec City, the Eastern Townships, and many other parts of Quebec, where French was clearly the main language).
    I was back in Montreal for a visit just last week, and it struck me that French seemed to have become significantly more prominent in the past decade. I didn’t hear any English conversations in cafes or while on the bus, and French was always the first language spoken to me when I entered a business. I have lost a lot of my French over the years, and there were a couple of times when I couldn’t think of a French word. In these cases, I found that most people I spoke to were unable to be of much help, as they didn’t have much English (and I did not get the sense that they were pretending).
    Do you have any idea whether French has finally tipped the scales in Montreal, or was I imagining things? I would imagine that the existence of McGill University will make it hard for French to ever become as prominent in Montreal as elsewhere in Quebec. But it really seemed different to me this time.
    P.S. I’m Anglophone, but am and always have been supportive of the fight to keep Quebec French. I was kind of hoping this was a sign that things were finally moving in the right direction.

    • James says:

      Thanks for visiting, HotDish! When my partner and I last visited Montreal (about 5 years ago) it was definitely more French than English. Only in a few areas did we find that English predominated or that French was clearly a second language – as my partner says that was in the more ‘hipstery areas’, near McGill, Westmount, Hampstead etc. I hope to visit again soon. There has been a real push esp in the past couple of years around language and it seems to be working to ensure French remains dominant. Possibly the balance of politics on the federal and provincial levels has made that all the more possible.

  9. Lynn says:

    do a little more research, your only providing one side of the story and the point of view from Anglophone Canadians in other provinces, you might have better insight from Anglophone Quebecers themselves.
    Also, Durham report was never implement and in the end the Crown allowed the French Canadians to keep their language and religion (unheard of during colonization).

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