The provincial election in Quebec is over. Yes, I know, it wasn’t just any election — it was THE election. Everybody, breathe easy. The bullet has been dodged and a collective sigh of relief is audible right across the province. That’s because an unlikely alliance of interests in Quebec combined forces to oust a government that threatened to permanently rip apart our social fabric. At one point seeming inevitable, many of us in Quebec became apoplectic at the mere thought of a Parti-Quebecois majority government. Yet most of us are now enjoying a smarmy sense of satisfaction, particularly among Quebec’s minorities. So what now? Before we get too comfortable resting on our laurels, maybe we should take stock of this “victory” because, lest we forget, a more familiar problem still looms large.
Mostly lost in all the campaign hoopla around value charters and referenda was the fundamental and traditional discourse on language rights. It reared its head briefly, if only to victimize our incoming premier as a language “weakling” — someone ill-prepared or unmotivated to defend Quebec’s French character. Though for the most part, language issues stayed on the backburner this time.
Over the last twenty-odd years, most language “moderates” in Quebec have bought into the popular narrative that we have reached a so-called equilibrium between minority rights on the one hand, and the defense of the French language on the other. Anglophones have been mostly cowed into accepting the status quo through a feeling of resignation. Most francophones aren’t thrilled about the idea of raising the spectre of language either, fearing the scrutiny and instability that inevitably results. But, somehow, the language issue keeps annoyingly popping up, rearing its ugly head every few months without fail (see: Pastagate).
How can we resolve it once and for all? Always fearful of giving language hawks an excuse to clamp down even further, Anglophones might wish to leave things well enough alone, lest they poke the sleeping bear. But privately, most would admit that their utopian Quebec would be one free of the shackles of language legislation, where English could once again flourish. As if the repeal of Bill 101 would mean the sudden and miraculous appearance of new English schools, English storefronts and English place-names. Not likely to happen, of course, but this IS the vision that so many of us not-so-secretly aspire to. Well, maybe we should be careful of what we wish for.
I, like most Quebec Anglophones, have bitterly opposed our language laws and the various methods by which they are enforced since I was first old enough to understand them. My virulent opposition was centered solely on two arguments and they are both compelling: that a) legislating against a language or its speakers is an affront to the fundamental right of free expression and b) this type of social engineering creates two classes of citizens — with one of them on the losing side of discrimination. Beginning in the 1970’s, Quebec made a series of dubious choices to sacrifice some of our rights, ostensibly to protect its linguistic heritage. I’ve heard many argue that language laws are “necessary” to protect the French language. I think they sincerely believe that this cause trumps our sacred fundamental rights. What seems of less concern to them is how dangerous it is to cross that line — I mean, what other freedoms should we abandon in the name of a “common good” and where would it end? The reality is that you cannot equivocate on individual rights — either you believe it is an inviolable legal precept… or you don’t. This is precisely why we have entrenched certain principles into our constitution — to protect them from the vagaries of the majority’s opinion. Fear of something has never been a valid excuse to rescind or diminish the rights of an individual, even if that fear is justified. Benjamin Franklin said it best: “Those who would sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither.”
I think it’s fair to suggest that most Anglophones agree with the above. However, therein lies the problem: these very same Anglophones have no issue with those parts of our language laws that actually protect English-language public institutions. It’s the least we can expect, we argue. How else to ensure our minority rights and the survival of our culture amidst a sea of French? Sound familiar? If it does it’s because it is precisely the same argument used to justify harsh measures that protect French from English. The old idiom of having your cake and eating it too is fitting. This hypocrisy would be tolerable save for one little fact that seems to be inconvenient to English-speaking Quebecers — the lingua franca (pardon the pun) in Quebec is French. Always has been, always will be. It may not have always been the dominant language of business or of the power-wielding elite but it has always been the mother tongue of the vast majority of Quebecers. Time to not only accept this reality but to realize that it is actually a good thing. The French character of Quebec is beautiful, enriching and pleasantly quirky. It is a source of pride for all of us. And let’s all admit — when we’re abroad, we all like to show our feathers and dabble in the language of Moliere to impress our poor, unilingual brethren in the rest of Canada or the U.S.
Putting aside the idiosyncrasies of French in Quebec, one cannot deny its natural linguistic supremacy in our province. Even if no language laws existed, save for a few small enclaves, French would still enjoy hegemony over other languages here — and rightly so. I cannot for the life of me understand why so many Anglophones have failed to come to terms with this one fact. I mean, no one questions the supremacy of English in the U.S. or of Polish in Poland.
Right about now I would expect to hear the common refrain that equates the status of French as a minority language in Canada with English as a minority language in Quebec. It goes something like this: It is French that is the true minority language in Canada — not English — and therefore, Anglophones in Quebec should not be treated like a minority at all. This leads to the related argument that if one minority in Canada can impose the supremacy of its language in one particular region of the country then another minority within that same region should be able to do the same. Why make distinctions between minorities? It should be an equal playing field for all. The above proposition might seem reasonable to many but that doesn’t make it any less wrong. One can indeed make a distinction. First off, Quebec is a defined jurisdiction with its own history — a large volume of which precedes its confederation into Canada. The Anglophone minority in Quebec was never a separate entity with a fully distinct history from the rest of Quebec. Whatever our underlying intent, we migrated gradually to Quebec over two and a half centuries always with a full understanding that we were moving to a place where French was already entrenched as the common tongue. In short, what that means is that Quebec and its French heritage should rightfully enjoy a status in Canada that the English minority in Quebec cannot reasonably claim. What it doesn’t mean is that we are obliged to assimilate and abandon our own language. We can even hope for some special considerations. In some countries the language minorities are substantial enough (but without any defined regional delineation) that accommodations are made, such as multilingual government services. But let’s be clear — these are accommodations, not rights. That is a crucial distinction at the very heart of the argument. Yet, we Anglos still cling to our cherished schools and hospitals and the various crumbs we’ve been thrown as though they were sacrosanct and undeniable. They are neither.
The desperate way that we hold on to these vestigial English institutions and ”rights” speaks directly to the mistrust we have towards the succession of Quebec governments that have victimized us in the name of either misplaced ideology or political expedience. Make no mistake — this mistrust is well earned. It is the residue of pre-Quiet Revolution Quebec — a zeitgeist still fresh in the memories of those old enough to recall when English held dominion over French in many key aspects of the Quebec experience. Equally remembered is the often deliberate nastiness and prejudice that coloured the dialogue between these two communities. Needless to say, these are memories not easily forgotten. Quebec’s political arena has been reduced to a grudge match between curmudgeonly old boomers trying to either recreate or stave off a bygone era.
But times have changed and younger Quebecers — English and French-speaking — need to disregard the apocryphal and incendiary narratives of previous generations. As for us Anglos, the only real rights we should insist upon with regards to English in Quebec is the right to speak it, post it, write it and advertise it anywhere or anytime we want. That’s what we’ve been denied and that’s all we should be demanding. No more, no less.
Let us for a moment imagine a Quebec with no language laws. There are most certainly many francophones who shudder at the mere thought of this but I am convinced that the supposed peril that French faces internally is mostly imagined. It’s true that no language laws would mean that English-only signs could once again dot the landscape. But while this will be of small reassurance to the language cabal in this province, I can confidently state that francophones cannot and will not suddenly “catch” English like they would a flu simply by reading a sign.
More to my point and more worrisome to the majority, it would also mean that all newcomers to Quebec could once more begin to choose English public schools for their children. Wouldn’t that endanger the future of French in Quebec due to the declining native birthrate of francophones? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But in my vision of a just and fair Quebec, the point would be moot. Why? Because there would be no more English public schools. Yup. You read that right. No more English schools, English Hospitals or English daycares. For that matter, there wouldn’t be officially French ones either. There would just be schools, hospitals and daycares. And since the common language of Quebec is French, it follows that it would be the common language of our schools and of other public institutions as well. I’m not saying this would be enshrined in some sort of official language law — it would just be de facto. Do American schools need to expressly state that they are English? Are there laws in Mexico stating that hospitals must operate in Spanish? Of course not. It just is that way. Before any of you start screaming about impracticality or constitutional amendments, I am merely outlining a vision — one that could settle the language debate for good. I am stating that if we Anglophones want the freedoms we hold so dear returned to us, we must distinguish between our rights and our wants. I’m not saying that a public school or a hospital couldn’t make accommodations or cater to some degree a particular linguistic minority. A school board in Montreal’s West Island might opt for a more enriched English language program or a hospital might decide to keep more multilingual people on staff if it is in a particularly immigrant-dense neighbourhood. And why not? The whole idea is to remove restrictive legislation from the entire equation. Only then can equality reign and linguistic peace be achieved.
For you Anglophones who suspect that I’ve gone insane in order to suggest the above, consider this: The legal protections and institutions you hope to maintain are the very instruments of your subjugation. When you differentiate yourselves from other Quebecers by seeking special status, you highlight a distinction between “us” and “them.” Might you not be inviting reciprocal discrimination? How can you be accepted as equals when you demand privileges that no one else has? At what point — if there is one at all — should a minority get special considerations? Should we create public Italian, Hebrew or Tamil schools? Arabic hospitals? The lines become blurred. Who gets to decide when or where we need to create a new linguistic sub-state? Too many exceptions can nullify a rule. It should also be considered that demanding this degree of privilege infantilizes our entire community, as though it couldn’t survive without its proverbial nanny. This archaic concept of “separate-but-equal” does nothing but exacerbate and propagate mistrust between people and taken to its extreme, can result in pernicious levels of bigotry. Just ask our neighbours to the south how much pain it caused them (and still lingers) before they finally abandoned the idea. I mean, is this what we really want? Not if we claim to stand for true equality for all.
As I said before, Quebec is French. Get over it. That means that if I want to send my child to a public school, I should naturally expect that the curriculum is taught in French. It means that no public servant should be compelled to speak any language whatsoever by virtue of law, including nurses, judges or police officers. It should be up to common sense and proper hiring practices to make the determination what languages are required to do one’s job. But it also means that absolutely no limitations on English in the private sector can be permitted if we are truly to call ourselves a free society. This is how it is elsewhere in democratic societies. The majority should never infringe on individual rights. But beyond that limit, one must accept the principle that the majority still does rule. That is, in essence, the very definition of democracy.
As minorities, we are entitled to our fundamental rights. This includes the right to speak English but does not extend the right to hear it. The same goes for our French-speaking brothers — it is a mistake that far too many make. For too long, we all have been waiting for the other side to blink. Anglos have spent decades waiting for language-fueled nationalism to die — language hardliners in the francophone community have spent a generation waiting for us to leave. Neither will really happen. The sooner everyone awakens to reality, the better. Then Anglophones can learn to accept the supremacy of French in Quebec by setting aside unreasonable demands and francophones can loosen their stranglehold on English language rights without the fear that cultural extinction will ensue.
So it comes to this: The English-speaking community cannot at once argue the Darwinian point of view that the francophone community must survive on its own merits without protection while simultaneously demanding protections of our own. At different scales, we both face a similar challenge: we are linguistic islets surrounded by a vast ocean. We must be no more afraid of assimilation that we expect our counterparts to be. Guile, trust and intrepidity are needed for us to rise above past pettiness. If we can find that trust in each other and bring a fresh perspective, then perhaps one day soon we can boast of a sublime Quebec where people are judged only by what they say and not by the language in which they say it.