Why young sovereignists are rethinking the PQ’s French obsession

The survival of French used to be a key argument in the sovereignist movement. Plus maintenant.

Language has long been an inseparable part of Quebec’s sovereignist movement. A separate Quebec, a generation of sovereignists has argued, is the only way to ensure the survival of French on a continent where English reigns supreme.

The argument is enduring to the point of cliché: French is forever in danger, necessitating restrictive language laws and an aggressive push to get out of the great, assimilating force known as Canada. If Quebec stays, so the argument goes, French is doomed.

For nearly half a century, the Parti Québécois has peddled this narrative, to varying degrees of success. Yet, after the party’s drubbing in April’s provincial election, which saw it lose power after roughly 18 months as a minority government, many younger sovereignists are rethinking the older generation’s language obsession—and the PQ as a vehicle to achieve their ultimate goal.

“Language isn’t as important as before,” says Jason Brochu-Valcourt, the vice-president of Conseil de la souveraineté du Québec, which promotes Quebec sovereignty. “Most young people don’t see English as a threat to French. The argument that we need separation because French is threatened is old. I hear English in the streets of Montreal and I think it’s part of the richness of the city.”

There is a certain irony in Brochu-Valcourt’s words. The Conseil itself was created by the Parti Québécois in 2003 as a way of reviving the sovereignist flame. Its longest-serving president is Gérald Larose, one of the province’s most prominent language hawks, who is closely associated with the Parti Québécois. Yet Brochu-Valcourt says issues such as the environment and Quebec’s economic development are better arguments for sovereignty than language.

And, unlike the days of yore, the PQ is hardly the only viable sovereignist party. “There are three parties now,” says Brochu-Valcourt, noting Québec solidaire and Option nationale. “The PQ has lost part of its clientele.”

It certainly has—and not just to sovereignist parties. A recent CROP poll suggests 34 per cent of 18-  to 24-year-old Quebecers voted for the federalist Liberal party. At 16 per cent, the PQ came fourth in this age group, behind Coalition Avenir Québec and Québec solidaire. “The PQ is, by far, the party for Baby Boomers aged 45 to 54,” lamented former PQ minister Jean-François Lisée in May. Former Péquiste minister Louise Harel was more succinct. “If the PQ doesn’t recruit the youth within two elections, it’s finished for the party,” Harel told Maclean’s recently.

In order to do that, says Brochu-Valcourt, the PQ must not repeat the mistake of its “secularism charter,” which would have banned Quebec’s public service workers from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols. The PQ introduced the charter last fall while it was still in government in what was widely seen as an electoral gambit to harvest nationalist votes. “I was against the banning of religious symbols,” says Brochu-Valcort. “The proposed bill was very badly structured and presented. It made us look racist. I found it very maladroit.”

Why French is less a preoccupation for this generation’s sovereignists likely boils down to familiarity with English and simple economics. The percentage of 19- to 34-year-old bilingual francophones increased by 15 percentage points, to 56 per cent, between 1991 and 2011, according to Statistics Canada data. Meanwhile, the once-cavernous income gap between Quebec’s French and English populations “is practically non-existent” today, notes a 2010 Statistics Canada study, which also says that more English Quebecers live under the poverty line than the French majority.

“Being francophone in the ’70s meant being oppressed. Now, that inaccessibility is everyone’s problem. It transcends language barriers,” says Molly Alexander, a union organizer who was a candidate for the left-wing Québec solidaire party in the last election. “You can’t propose sovereignty without some kind of project behind it, and language isn’t enough anymore.”

The obsessive focus on French, meanwhile, has led to some embarrassments. Last year, in what became known as “pasta-gate,” inspectors from Quebec’s French language enforcement office said a Montreal restaurant was in violation of the law for having used the word “pasta” on its menu without a French equivalent.

More recently, several prominent nationalists criticized members of Montreal rap group Dead Obies for using both French and English in their rhymes. Using “franglais,” as critic Christian Rioux said, was like “suicide” for the French language. Oddly enough, 24-year-old Dead Obies frontman Jean-François Ruel, who goes by the moniker “Yes McCan,” is a self-declared indépendantiste. Perhaps the road to Quebec sovereignty is lined with both French and English signs.