April 11, 2013 by The Editor
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.