On February 17th, English rights protesters rallied in Montreal in protest of the Parti Quebecois’s newest addition to Quebec’s language laws. There is little question that bill 14 hurts Quebec’s Anglophones – it makes it harder to work in English by lowering the number of employees any business can have before it must switch to French, and prevents municipalities from operating bilingually unless they are majority English. However, the part of the bill that has perhaps received the most attention so far is how it rewrites the rules for post secondary education; it is here that the irony of French language laws is bared most clearly.
The law makes it considerably more difficult for a student who graduated from a French high school to transfer to an English CEGEP. The intention here is pretty obvious: promote the use of French in education. But a closer look at the new law reveals the cynical nature of Quebec’s language policy. Ask yourself: who does the law target? Clearly the answer to that question would be students who have graduated from a French high school – in other words, it impacts only students who without question are already fluent in French. Indeed, the reason that students often switch to an English CEGEP is to learn the language, as fluency in English is critical to success in Canada.
In other words, the PQ’s new bill exists to prevent Francophones from learning English, even to the detriment of their future.
The education language policy is hardly an exception. This anti-English rhetoric is prevalent throughout language policy. Another example: in the very same bill, the PQ has banned most Quebec towns (those with an English population of 50%) from having bilingual status. Towns are already legally required to support French communities via French services, but many with significant (but not necessarily majority) English populations also support English citizens , by, say, having two message boards side by side, one in English, and one in French. The horror!
Apparently, this sort of accommodation is so harmful to the French language that the PQ took it upon themselves to ban it. Note that it does nothing to help Francophones – they are already protected under the law. Just like with the new CEGEP rule, the policy is not so much about the promotion of French as it is about eradicating the use of the English language.
In Quebec, anything that’s not French is anathema to la langue nationale. Rather than encourage Anglophones and allophones to learn French, the PQ has chosen to focus its efforts on preventing bilingualism. Rather than help Francophones succeed by expanding their options, the government lashes out at other languages, the desires of its population – French or English – be damned.
Is it simply a belief in a zero sum language policy? That every time a Quebecker says a word in English, somewhere else a mot dies? For a succession of governments seemingly obsessed with language, such ignorance seems hard to believe. After all, Switzerland, with 4 official languages, operates largely in English when a common tongue is needed. Even though English isn’t one of the official languages, it serves as the ‘connector’ language. Despite that, the diversity of languages continues in Switzerland.
This could easily be done in Quebec, with French as the connector language. Rather than focus on a ‘French only’ policy, we could see a ‘French at least’ position, where French was sufficient to participate in Quebec but knowledge of other languages was not discouraged.
That’s hardly a brilliant observation. Let us not anticipate that Marois comed to her senses and adopts this policy, because encouraging French is only part of the reason why language policy wins votes.
The ugly side of language politics was recently demonstrated on the Montreal metro , where a woman threw a temper tantrum because someone had the temerity to speak to her in English. “ Ici, on parle Francais. Francais!” she howled, before ultimately deciding that she would rather remain in the presence of this anglo-toungued devil (not to mention dozens of open jawed onlookers) than suffer the inconvenience of getting on another train. This is only one of many incidences, which include several other temper tantrums, and an assault by an STM worker on a woman who sought her services in English (Apparently, Anglophobes are particularly sensitive to the lingual sanctity of public transport).
These are extreme incidences – but they highlight a xenophobia in Quebec that every political party, to some extent, panders to. No question, many Quebeckers have an honest desire to simply protect their native tongue. But among those exist a minority who reject diversity. Herein lies a distinction often missed in language politics: there are two types of policies. One is pro French: subsidized language classes, marketing for Francophone culture, laws that mandate the presence of French. The other anti-English, and it is here that we find the sign-size laws, the segregated education, and of course the all-important town bulletin regulations. This latter type of policy, and the xenophobic attitudes that provide it with political appeal, have no place, and hopefully no future, in a modern, progressive, and tolerant Quebec.
– Ben Reedijk
(Featured photo: caribb, Creative Commons, Flickr)