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Quebec’s 60-year war against the English language

PoliticsQuebec's 60-year war against the English language

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Quebec politics has perpetuated the oppression myth and exaggerated demographic angst

Author of the article:

John Weissenberger, Special to National Post

Publishing date:

Jan 10, 2022  •  2 hours ago  •  13 minute read  •  15 Comments Demonstrators gather outside the Bell Centre in Montreal to protest the unilingual English-speaking interim head coach of the Montreal Canadiens, Randy Cunneyworth, in 2012. Photo by Dario Ayala/THE GAZETTE

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Tensions between Quebecois and religious and linguistic minorities in the province have exploded on several fronts. These include Bill 21, which is meant to secularize the provincial public service, the kerfuffle over Air Canada’s CEO admitting his lack of French and even language criteria for the general manager and coach of the Montreal Canadiens.

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The first flare up concerned the province’s proposed language legislation, Bill 96, which underwent public hearings last fall. Predictably, “further strengthening” the language of Molière means weakening English. The bill adds restrictions for English on commercial signs, extends French “certification” requirements to businesses with as few as 25 employees, strips automatic bilingual status from municipalities whose English population sinks below 50 per cent and limits the number of students allowed in English colleges. Less surprising is the creation of more bureaucracy, including a ministry for language and a “commissioner of the French language,” costing about $104 million. At least we know where some of those equalization dollars are going.

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The responsible minister, Simon Jolin-Barrette, jauntily insisted that the bill actually protects English-language rights, asserting that critics may not have read all 100 clauses in the 200-page text. He maintained that “the whole bill” and the verbal assurances he’d given preserve rights. In other words, rest easy, if you can’t see your rights explicitly etched on a single tree, it’s because they’re out in the forest somewhere.

Quebec’s complexities may escape the casual observer, with the overall situation not seeming particularly odd. Quebec is French, after all, and whatever it does is its business. In seeming agreement were federal politicians, who have been virtually mute since Bill 96’s introduction in May, probably for fear of electoral consequences in the province. Unfortunately, the new legislation is a reminder that language strife is a not-quite-dead horse that can still be flogged repeatedly for political advantage.

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Such conflict began when English settlers arrived almost 250 years ago, about 100 years after the first wave of French colonists. These United Empire Loyalists — Americans loyal to Great Britain who fled the revolution — settled in the Eastern Townships near the United States border, the Gaspé region and northwest of Montreal. This often marginal land, unpopulated by Europeans, meant physically carving a life out of the ancient forest, clearing it by hand and dragging countless boulders from the fields to form the ubiquitous stone fences of the region. The arrivals produced areas of predominantly English populations, with strong ties to the land, notably in the Eastern Townships themselves, an area about twice the size of Prince Edward Island.

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The “revenge of the cradles,” Quebec’s population explosion in the 19th century, saw a large influx of French-speakers into English-settled areas in and around Quebec. However, English majorities persisted in parts of the Eastern Townships and Gaspé, along with Huntingdon and Pontiac counties. In the early 20th century, Sherbrooke was still one-third English, and parts of Quebec City were still up to 40 per cent anglophone.

That said, farmers in the Eastern Townships and Gaspé fishermen didn’t enrage Quebec nationalists as much as the reviled merchants of Montreal — the paleo-one-percenters of 19th-century Quebec. While most Quebecois maintained their rural occupations, a handful of these immigrants — often arriving dirt poor from the old country — built the economy of Quebec and later the new country of Canada, for better or worse.

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The Anglo business elite was no figment of nativist imagination, representing one kernel of truth in an overflowing feedbag of grievances. Denizens of Montreal’s Golden Square Mile, the collection of mansions at the foot of Mount Royal, controlled most of Canada’s money. The 19th century was also the height of British imperialism, and its mores dominated much of the globe, not just Quebec. Unsurprisingly, the province’s cities had an outsized English flavour and Quebecois often needed English just to get by, sometimes even being forbidden to speak French at work.

Did some lower-class Anglos, basking in the reflected grandeur of the magnates, look down their noses at the French? Undoubtedly. To this day, Quebecois families recount stories of some relative or other who was denied service in French somewhere, typically at Montreal’s iconic Eaton’s department store. While such real or apocryphal slights long fed the narrative of historical slights, it’s hard to see why an ancestor’s bad retail experiences should cloud current social or political debate. But they have.

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By contrast, from 1774 onward, religion (and thereby education) and the property rights of the Quebecois were guaranteed by the British Crown. Quebecois dominated provincial politics from the 1840s, with English premiers collectively serving less than 10 years. They’ve also punched above their weight in Canadian politics, with Quebecers serving as prime minister for 62 of the 121 years since 1900.

Despite the conspicuous wealth of the few, the vast majority of Anglos were not bankers, industrialists or railroad owners. They were common people, “colonials” like their French neighbours, sharing the same hardships, modest lifestyles and generally limited horizons. Plus, disparities between English and French workers had largely disappeared by the nationalist explosion in the 1960s. By 1980 — the year of the first separation referendum — French speakers had almost caught up to anglophones, in terms of how well they were represented in white collar jobs and how much they were paid (in the Montreal region).

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Sadly, the cultural symbolism and political narratives of the 19th century proved extremely durable, including the obsession with the coveted private sector “C-suites.” From the mid-20th century, the province shifted economic priorities, which included expropriating private utilities to form Hydro-Quebec. It was perhaps a bonus that many of the owners and executives were Anglos.

Meanwhile, the bureaucracy was monolithically French. In the 1970s, non-French bureaucrats represented about one per cent of the public service, despite English speakers still making up about 20 per cent of Quebec’s population. The number’s now around 0.9 per cent. Ontario francophones, by contrast, make up four per cent of that province’s population, but eight per cent of the provincial civil service. And while 20.6 per cent of Canadians are French-speaking, over 26 per cent of federal bureaucrats are francophones. When challenged with such numbers, a Parti Québécois minister — displaying singular self-awareness — once remarked , “We really have no lessons to learn from the rest of Canada about welcoming or integrating people.”

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By the 1960s, this complex history was cast into a familiar, simplistic narrative. Quebecois Marxist Pierre Vallières’ memoir and magnum opus, “Nègres blancs d’Amérique,” saw oppressed French-speakers colonized by Anglo-American capitalists and requiring revolutionary liberation. Anticipating today’s post-modern orthodoxy, Vallières further analyzed Quebec society on the basis of entrenched “power dynamics.” Viewing linguistic and cultural animosity through a Marxist, oppressor-victim lens was increasingly accepted by violent revolutionaries and the political class alike. Whether Quebec history could realistically be shoehorned into such a narrative or if the violent upheavals of the ’60s were proportionate to the alleged historical injustices is open to question.

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Such developments cannot, however, have been lost on those — of all political stripes — who have crafted Quebec’s education and language laws. For students of this onslaught, the numbers of the various bills roll off the tongue: 63, 22, 101, 178 and now 96. The first — Bill 63, introduced by a Union Nationale government in 1969 — was meant to limit immigrant children’s access to an English education, while 1974’s Bill 22 (Liberal) made Quebec unilingual (even as Canada was extending official bilingualism).

The separatist Parti Québécois brought in the expansive Bill 101 in 1979, the Charter of the French Language. Still darkening provincial politics today, it sought to “make French the language of government and law, the normal and everyday language of work, instruction, communication, commerce and business.” The bill created “rights” in areas normally governed by the spontaneous interactions of civil society, namely: the right of workers to carry on their activities in French; and the right of consumers to be informed and served in French. These were meant to redress the longstanding, often very personal, resentments discussed above. Lastly, Bill 178 (Liberal, 1988) modified the “charter” in light of constitutional challenges.

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Increasingly, Quebec’s language policy became a chimeric blend of Maximilien Robespierre and Inspector Clouseau, with authoritarianism its watchword. From the Commission de Toponomie giving French names to geographic landmarks and places, to the beefed-up Office de la Langue Francaise (the “language police”), the inner pencil-neck in many minor bureaucrats emerged. They spanned the province with (literal) tape measures, checking font sizes on signs, masquerading as retail customers to test for “appropriate greetings” and manning snitch lines on which the most linguistically vexed citizens could rat out their unwitting neighbours.

The French charter severely restricted access to pre-university public education in English, making it available only to children with at least one parent educated in a Quebec English school. Due, again, to a constitutional challenge, this was watered down to an English-educated parent from anywhere in Canada. Those who could afford private schools, including separatists, could obviously access better English instruction for their kids.

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Bill 96 augments Bill 101: unilaterally modifying the Canadian Constitution to declare Quebec a “nation” and applying provincial language restrictions to federally regulated workplaces. When asked, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau affirmed Quebec’s right to edit the document, saying, “It is perfectly legitimate for a province to modify the section of the Constitution that applies specifically to them (sic),” and noting that Quebec’s unilingualism had “already been recognized.”

Montrealers of a certain age may recall a shop called International Fruit on St. Lawrence Boulevard near Pine Avenue. In the ’60s, immigrants were often greeted in their own language — Hungarian, Polish, Yiddish, etc. — at the cash register. By contrast, a burning public policy question has inflamed Quebec for years, concerning the phrase, “bonjour/hi.” Debate has raged over banning this greeting from businesses and government offices. Governments have promised to tackle the offending phrase, specifically the bit on the right side of the diagonal, due to concerning statistics from the provincial language police: apparently, French-language greetings in Montreal “dropped from 84 to 75 per cent between 2010 and 2017.” Shocking.

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With public policy fuelled by personal and historical anxieties, cultural extinction is a recurring theme, despite all evidence to the contrary. As recently as the 2018 election, Premier François Legault said that he feared his “grandchildren would no longer speak French.” Such fear makes Quebec one of the few jurisdictions where demography is a solid career choice for new grads. Worth noting is that the peak proportion of English speakers in Quebec, 25 per cent, was hit in the 1840s, almost 200 years ago.

As Canada’s principal metropolis up to about 1970, with roughly 40 per cent of its population not-native-French speakers , Montreal remains a major flash point. Its cosmopolitanism clearly unsettles nationalists. The Montreal region is still about 40 per cent non-French today, but English in the rest of the province has basically been extinguished. So the idea that “perdre la metropole” (losing Montreal) is likely or, even if it happened, would cause some kind of demographic domino effect, is simply wrong.

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When Bill 101 mandated unilingual French signs to maintain the “French face” of the province, it deliberately hid the faces of Montreal’s remaining 40 per cent. Years before “bonjour/hi,” the word “stop” was removed from street corners, leaving “arret” (even though France itself uses “stop”) and, for decades, “stop” signs were frequently spray-painted by vandals.

Why Quebecois are offended by “hi” or “stop” in the first place is a fair question. Is it a distasteful reminder that there are non-French people around? Apparently, trivial everyday events are so offensive that they must be extinguished by legislation, and the “right” to French must be enforced.

As is so common these days, the least reasonable people set the tenor and scope of the Quebec debate. Historical grievances, many mythical, are taught in schools and preserved, to be dusted off for political use. There is widespread belief in the idea that Quebec is a net contributor to Canada’s finances, for example. Politicians often face genealogical scrutiny, as when Pierre Elliott Trudeau was accused by nationalists of being “more Elliott than Trudeau,” and separatists sought to embarrass former premier Jean Charest because he was baptized “John” rather than “Jean.”

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No Quebecois, certainly none of prominence, ridicules these arcane attitudes and policies. Some astute observers, like Conrad Black , bemoan the fact that Quebec’s political class didn’t uphold the bargain implied by a bilingual Canada. But this is not what ethnic nationalists do. Similarly, Barbara Kay’s proposed special status for Montreal simply makes too much sense. Nationalists would never allow a “distinct society” within their own.

Quebec politicians and intellectuals had a choice as they asserted power from the ’50s onward. They could have employed some kind of collective “golden rule,” treating their minorities as they would themselves like to be treated. Instead, they went for a good, old-fashioned settling of scores, as practised by ethnic nationalists everywhere. Minorities weren’t to be trusted to learn French as a common courtesy, and retailers to figure out it was good business — they’d be fined into linguistic compliance.

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Non-French Quebecers have learned, the hard way, that minorities can serve a dual purpose. They are simultaneously obstacles on the shining path to the monocultural utopia, but also politically useful in rallying voters to the nationalist banner. Ethnic nationalism and the myths of the Quebec historical narrative are just too glorious not to be true. For separatists, in particular, the one solution for what ails the province — independence and unilingualism — is simple and neat. We know where minorities sit in that equation.

Conspicuous by their absence as defenders of minority rights are the scions of the Anglo establishment. By contrast, prominent Jewish Montrealers like acerbic novelist Mordecai Richler and filmmaker William Weintraub stepped up. The former drew nationalist ire for ridiculing the absurdities of the ever-expanding language restrictions, while the latter documented the achievements and decline of English Montreal in print and film. One can’t help but see the irony of these men, whose families likely fled persecution in Europe only to again be targeted in Quebec.

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Quebec’s minorities lost another champion last year with the death of William Johnson . A respected journalist, author and member of the Order of Canada, as president of Alliance Quebec (the federally designated representative of Quebec Anglophones), Johnson vociferously defended English-speakers’ constitutional rights and opposed the nationalist drumbeat. For his commitment and passion, nationalists and establishment Anglos alike vilified the typically soft-spoken Johnson. The latter dubbed him “Pit Bill,” just as they called anyone vocally promoting minority language rights “angryphones.”

Had one credible Quebecois emerged to call foul on the stupidity and excesses, things might have been different. Clearly, Trudeau and Charest wouldn’t do, because they were genetically compromised. But the entire Quebec political class, the cultural and intellectual elites, are with the program and it’s unimaginable that a pure laine Quebecois would spurn Vallière’s myth or, heaven forbid, laud the contribution of English speakers — from clearing the wilderness to setting the foundations of Quebec’s economy.

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Réné Lévesque was touted as a linguistic “moderate,” but a 1968 session with students at Scarborough College is revealing. The future premier displayed seething resentment toward what he called Quebec’s “privileged minority,” the “money group” in Montreal. Incensed at the arrogance of “the money elite,” Lévesque suggested “the quicker they leave the better.” He was also fond of the slur “Westmount Rhodesian,” referring to the tiny white minority that once ran Zimbabwe, a nod to the colonial-oppressor myth that ultimately tarred all Anglos, not just he moneyed few. Lévesque got his wish when the Anglo elite followed their money down Highway 401 and, stunningly, even internalized the Westmount Rhodesians label.

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In retrospect, English Quebecers failed in two key areas when facing Quebecois nationalism and the assault on their rights. Many, particularly community leaders, passively accepted the oppressor-oppressed narrative spun by radicals like Vallières, and believed by separatists and federalists alike. This acquiescence in their own delegitimization sapped their ability to assert English historical and cultural rights. Second, they fatally underestimated the all-consuming power of nationalism itself to propel some Quebecois relentlessly toward a quixotic ethnic utopia, where any opposition could be justifiably crushed.

There are many legends passed amongst English Quebecers and the Anglo diaspora — the hundreds of thousands who’ve left the province since the ’60s. Most have to do with hockey — which team, from which decade, was really the best? — Montreal comfort food and the endless summer of Expo ’67.

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Another involves the Five Roses Flour sign in Montreal’s harbour. For decades, the giant red neon sign stood atop the tall brick building in the lower town, alternately flashing the words “farine” and “flour.” That is, until Bill 101 came along and “flour” was removed. The legend is that there is a large secret warehouse — unknown to the Office de la Langue Française — where the five two-storey-high letters are hidden. These, along with the thousands of illegal apostrophes removed from commercial signs, will be brought out and restored, one day, when the universe returns to balance and linguistic sanity is restored.

Far more likely, unfortunately, is that Quebec politics will perpetuate the oppression myth and exaggerated demographic angst. Canadian realpolitik — the necessity of winning federal seats in Quebec — dictates enduring political gain in “strengthening” French and strangling English. Consequently, Bill 96, and the rest of the current mess, predict the prospects for Quebec’s minorities. Whether or not Quebec bans “bonjour/hi,” the message to Anglos and others is “va-t’en/bye-bye.”

National Post

John Weissenberger is a Calgary geologist, originally from Montreal, who speaks three languages, including French. A longer version of this article can be found at c2cjournal.ca.

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