Canada’s language wars are over

After 50 fraught years of fights, including a constitutional battle or three, French Canada has won

Tongue-tied no longer

Francis Vachon/CP

Tongue-tied no longer
Francis Vachon/CP

Language issues, so the cliché goes, are rarely far below the surface in Quebec, and it was just 11 hot days into last summer’s election campaign that the Parti Québécois got out the shovel. In the outgoing Liberal government, the sovereignist party had no shortage of ready-made targets. Not only was Jean Charest’s government uninspiring and unpopular, it was mired in corruption scandals.

Yet the PQ instead launched a quasi-nativist campaign focusing heavily on matters of the tongue. Charest’s government, PQ Leader Pauline Marois said, “has abandoned the defence of the francophone majority’s rights because it didn’t have the courage to enforce Bill 101.” The solution, as she thundered in a stump speech on Aug. 12, was nothing short of a radical reform of the province’s language laws, which Marois promised in the first 100 days of a PQ government.

Bill 14 contained a raft of new measures further restricting access to English services and schools—including a stipulation forbidding francophone students from attending English CEGEPs, Quebec’s network of junior colleges. “The French language is Quebecers’ most precious gift. It’s what makes us distinct in North America,” the premier-to-be said, as a gaggle of Péquiste MNAs nodded somberly around her. “We must be vigilant.”

If the PQ hoped to harvest political capital from its familiar linguistic sabre-rattling, it was sadly disappointed. Marois was unable to gain a majority government, despite having as an opponent one of the least popular outgoing premiers in recent history.

And while much of Quebec’s English minority has been predictably frothy in its opposition to Bill 14, the PQ’s fleur-de-lys-draped efforts to rally the francophone majority around the French language once again has been met largely with indifference from francophones themselves.

According to the CROP polling firm, the PQ has dropped 11 percentage points since Bill 14’s introduction in December. In yet another rarity in Quebec politics, the most recent CROP poll has the PQ in a dead heat with the Liberal party among francophone voters. It’s as clear an indication as any: Language battles, which have dominated so much of Quebec’s recent history, are becoming more and more passé.

English is hardly the threat it once was. Nearly 85 per cent of Quebecers believe it is important to be bilingual. “The survival of French isn’t a preoccupation anymore,” says Hélène Dauphinais, a 48-year-old CEGEP economics professor and mother of two college-aged kids. The PQ, she notes, quickly did away with its idea of preventing French students from attending English CEGEPs, largely as a result of pressure from francophone parents such as herself. “If they’d done that, I would have taken to the streets,” she says.

As members of the only French-speaking society in North America, Quebecers will always be somewhat worried about the future of French. Yet in pushing forward with Bill 14, along with months of pro-independence chest-thumping by the Marois government, the Parti Québécois seems to have found the limits of this concern—much to the disappointment of sovereignists themselves.

“Quebecers want to live their life, they don’t want to fight,” laments former PQ cabinet minister Jean Garon. “We hardly even speak about the battle anymore.”

If Garon is right, it raises the question: Why are Quebecers suddenly so apathetic about language issues? One reason may be the simple fact that Bill 101, Quebec’s landmark law enshrining French as the language of society and commerce, has worked like blazes in ensuring the primacy of French within Quebec’s borders.

And as former Péquiste cabinet minister and Bloc Québécois MP Serge Ménard notes, Canada’s Official Languages Act, which brought coast-to-coast bilingualism to Canada nearly 45 years ago, has essentially deflated the nationalist argument that French is in danger of disappearing.

“Official bilingualism played a very important role in national unity,” says Ménard, who retired from politics in 2011. “We thought for a long time that French Canadians suffered injustices. Official bilingualism brought forward the idea that Canada was a francophone country and that francophones had a role to play.”

It also has an unlikely ally in Stephen Harper, a former staunch critic of official bilingualism who, as Prime Minister, has overseen one of the largest increases to language-duality funding in the last 40 years. In 2001, Harper likened official bilingualism to “the god that failed”; today, he is more likely to channel Pierre Trudeau, the former Liberal prime minister who created the Official Languages Act. “As Canadians, we are very proud of the coexistence of our two national languages,” Harper wrote this year.

By creating an environment in which French is protected (if not spoken from sea to sea), official bilingualism has both bolstered the French fact in Canada, and apparently made francophones in Quebec more comfortable and secure. In short, after 50 often-fraught years of tussles, fits of pique and ennui—not to mention a constitutional battle or three—you might say Canada’s language battles are over. And the winner, judging by the progress and gains made over nearly a half-century, is clear: French Canada, by a long shot.

The Town of Mount Royal (TMR) is a swanky redoubt in the northern part of Montreal. A place of proper flowerbeds and expansive bungalows, “the Town,” as locals call it, was a suburb of Montreal before the city expanded around and beyond it in the 1950s. It was wealthy and almost exclusively English—Reginald J. P. Dawson, its longest-serving mayor, barely spoke a word of French. Only Westmount, that old-money burgh to TMR’s south, is a bigger source of so many hoary “rich anglophone” stereotypes.

Dawson served as mayor of TMR until 1987 and died in 1991. He’d hardly recognize the place, were he alive today. There are bilingual signs, for one, since the Town is now 45 per cent French. There is also a 44-year-old fellow named Philippe Roy sitting in his old chair, the first francophone mayor in the TMR’s history. And Roy is fuming mad about the PQ’s plans to effectively take the English language out of the Town.

Part of Bill 14 would remove the so-called bilingual status of 89 boroughs and municipalities in Quebec whose English population has dipped below 50 per cent, meaning a government-enforced end to bilingual correspondence, billing and signage within these communities. The measure, according to PQ Minister Diane De Courcy, was to stave off what she called “institutional bilingualism.”

Roy wants nothing of it. “There are hardliners who will always say that the fight isn’t over, that French is in danger, but I don’t see it,” Roy says. “There’s a self-assurance in Quebec now. We know that French isn’t threatened, and we can move onto other things.” He isn’t alone in his opposition to Bill 14. At least a third of the mayors who signed resolutions condemning the measure are francophone.

The vast majority of Quebecers want some sort of protection for the French language, yet they cringe (along with everyone else) when the excesses of this protection become the object of international ridicule. In a letter sent earlier this year, the Office québécois de la langue française ordered the owner of a Montreal-area Italian restaurant to remove several non-French words, including “pasta,” from his menu. “Pastagate,” as the controversy was quickly dubbed, was the Kafkaesque volley heard around the world—the bureaucratic equivalent of PQ Education Minister Marie Malavoy’s utterance last year that English was a “foreign language.”

About 150 km southeast of Montreal, in the wooded suburban outskirts of Sherbrooke, comes a familiar refrain against this sort of thing. Dauphinais, the CEGEP professor, has seen first-hand the effects of language laws on francophone students. (Under Bill 101, the children of francophone and immigrant parents must attend elementary and secondary school in French.)

She notes how it has resulted in generations of kids who can’t properly speak or functionally write in English by the time they finish high school. And though the PQ has backed off its proposal barring French students from English CEGEPs, it has instead suggested a quota system by which English students would have priority over French students at Quebec’s six English-language CEGEPs—even if a French student happens to have better marks. Bill 14 would also compel toddlers to attend French daycare. (Maclean’s made several attempts to speak with PQ Language Minister De Courcy, to no avail.)

“We are hurting our youth,” Dauphinais says. “We have people who get into the M.B.A. program at the Université de Sherbrooke who aren’t bilingual. They are supposed to be the crème de la crème of our managers and executives, and they can’t even speak English when they get to university.”

It’s a telling statement. In Quebec, English was long seen as the oppressor’s language—the tool of what former premier René Lévesque once called Quebec’s “white Rhodesians.” In 2013, the language of Shakespeare is now the language of globalization and business; it’s necessary, but has not been seen as a threat, since Bill 101 has kept English sufficiently in check (even too much, as Dauphinais suggests) to placate most Quebecers. And French is even more necessary in contemporary Quebec. “Today, if you’re English and you don’t speak French in Quebec, you’re going to pay the price,” says Frédéric Bastien, a history professor at the English-language Dawson CEGEP. “That wasn’t always the case.”

It certainly wasn’t. Across the country, francophones historically earned less than their English counterparts; they sometimes considered themselves, as the hyperbolized title of Pierre Vallières’ 1968 oeuvre suggested, the White Niggers of America.

The opposite is true today. According to a 2012 study by the Ottawa-based business group RGA, “Francophones have a lower unemployment rate and higher average salaries in their respective provinces.”

In Quebec, according to a 2010 Statistics Canada study, the income gap between English and French Quebecers aged 25 to 44 “is practically non-existent,” while a larger proportion of English Quebecers live under the poverty line than their French brethren. Even stately old Westmount can’t rely on old clichés: According to the 2006 census, the median income of French Wesmounters is nearly 25 per cent higher than their English neighbours.

Francophones benefited not only from the French-only precepts of Bill 101, but the Canada-wide, French-as-well measures in the Official Languages Act, as well. Shortly before the Liberal government enacted the Official Languages Act in 1969, the Calgary Herald heaped scorn on the policy, saying the federal civil service would be run by “a small cohort of bilingual technocrats” as a result.

Disdainful as it may have been, the prediction was quite close to the truth. Nearly 60 per cent of Canada’s 197,000 federal civil servants hail from Quebec and Ontario, according to Treasury Board statistics. The majority of the positions are bilingual—a particular boon for Ontario francophones, who “are per capita, more prosperous than anglophones,” says the commissioner of official languages, Graham Fraser. The Calgary Herald was incorrect only on one point: The cohort of bilingual technocrats wasn’t particularly small.

What English Canadians have received in return, beyond a taste of worldliness afforded by Canada’s réalité francophone, is relative linguistic peace. Put simply, and much to the chagrin of Quebec nationalists, Quebecers are gaga for official bilingualism: 94 per cent favour the policy, according to the 2012 Environics poll.

And while it hasn’t quite met the federal government’s own lofty 2003 goal of having 50 per cent of 15- to-19-year-olds bilingual by 2013 (the figure stands at roughly 23 per cent), official bilingualism has at least endeared itself to a large swath of English Canadians. While they may not speak the “other” language, English Canadians are at least charmed by the idea that they (or at least their children) could do so relatively easily, thanks to the burgeoning system of French-immersion schools.

Many are doing just that, according to a Statistics Canada report released this week. Since 1961, “the number of bilingual people has never stopped growing,” it reads. “This increase in the number of bilingual people over the last 50 years . . . corresponds to a growth rate of close to 160 per cent.”

“Despite its mixed history, public support for the concept of bilingualism is now at an all-time high,” reads the Environics poll report, which notes how nearly 65 per cent of Canadians support Pierre Trudeau’s model of coast-to-coast bilingualism. British Columbia is a new-found bilingual convert. Support for official bilingualism there increased by 15 percentage points, to 60 per cent, between 2010 and 2012.

The relative success of the Official Languages Act masks an important point: that the goal of the policy was never, as one overheated group of Albertans declared in 1968, to have French “shoved down their throats.” Instead, as Fraser told Maclean’s last October, the Act “guaranteed the right of the people to remain unilingual . . . so that individuals don’t have to learn the other official language to deal with the federal government.”

It also served the very important role of defusing the threatening noises emanating from Quebec. In 1963, nationalism was on the rise in the province, with murmurs of a full-blown separatist movement that would culminate, in 1968, with the formation of the Parti Québécois. In a uniquely Canadian fit of panic, prime minister Lester B. Pearson called a royal commission to study the issue, and the resulting report was the basis for the Official Languages Act.

The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was a voluminous and, at times, painfully earnest examination of Canada’s language travails throughout the country’s history. It heard from hundreds of Canadian individuals and organizations.There were soft-focus reports from the anglo-Montreal enclave of Pointe-Claire, where “bicultural soirées” brought French and English people together for dinner and, presumably, awkward questions.

There were bilingual picnics atop Mont Royal, meetings between blue-haired anglophones and fiery young nationalists. There were cross-cultural student weekends between Toronto and Montreal. “It was huge,” says Ménard, who took part in one of these weekends. “There was an interest, even a discovery, of French in Canada. It showed that English Canada was open to the reality of the French fact.”

There was also anger and suspicion. “I have concluded that [Quebecers] would not be satisfied until they have at least acquired complete control of Quebec, and would then continue to expand furthur [sic],” wrote one John Bowen from Toronto in a letter to the commission in 1964. “I see no evidence of a gradual merging of the Québécois into the general group.”

Today’s bilingual, bicultural reality lies somewhere between the earnestness of the Pointe-Claire soirées and Bowen’s Upper Canadian scorn. Save for maybe poutine and famous Las Vegas transplants Cirque du Soleil and Céline Dion, English Canadians haven’t exactly embraced French culture. The reverse is also true: Rick Mercer, Erin Karpluk and George Stroumboulopoulos could probably stroll down Montreal’s rue Ste-Catherine est together and few people would notice until they tried to order lunch.

Yet Quebecers have hardly stayed put. Since 1961, Quebec has had a net migration to the other Canadian provinces, chiefly Ontario and Alberta—which are today home to three officially bilingual municipalities. One could argue that Quebecers do so because more and more of them can speak English: 2011 marked the first time that the number of bilingual 15- to 19-year-old Quebecers breached the 50 per cent mark, according to the 2011 census.

Outside of Quebec, official bilingualism has chugged along steadily. In 1971, there were about 1.3 million bilingual people outside of Quebec. In 2006, that number stood at just under 2.5 million. The francophone population outside of Quebec has also grown—though not nearly fast enough to keep up with the influx of some 250,000 immigrants every year, the majority of whom don’t speak French. Still, the language is hardly dying, as many predicted it would. If anything, Canada’s policy of official bilingualism has allowed French to grow modestly outside of Quebec and, coupled with Bill 101, flourish wildly within it.

Along the way, Canada’s policy of official bilingualism has converted notable non-believers. Apart from beginning all his speeches in his very passable French, Harper adopted and renewed his initiative to fund bilingual education, cultural and immigration programs across the country, to the tune of $1.1 billion over five years. “In 2006, the Harper government studied the [Liberal] plan carefully, and then it put its own stamp on it,” Fraser told Maclean’s recently.

Meanwhile, Bill 14, the Parti Québécois’ proud initiative to revive the language shibboleth, is currently stuck in the legislative swamp of Quebec’s national assembly—more than anything a victim of Quebecers’ indifference.

Linguistically, it seems, Quebecers appear at ease. Canada’s policy of official bilingualism has never been more popular across the country. In 50 years, the French language has gone from economic albatross to political flashpoint to something banal and accepted—even celebrated. The battle, you might say, has been won. Vive le Canada français.