Quebec is a paradox as a French-speaking province in a largely English-speaking country. And that fact, rooted in history, has been a source of perennial controversy around one fateful question: Should the province separate from the rest of Canada or remain a province but with special rights to reflect its unique character?
It’s a question I also grew up hearing.
Before moving to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, I was a die-hard Montrealer. And, in many ways, I still am.
Driving through the city this week, where so many sights bring back memories, reminds me of this attachment.
Montreal has a way of sticking to you. There is an ethnic melody to the place, an intimacy to the architecture, a standing invitation to uncover neighbourhoods, a downtown made for dreamers, a cultural ambiguity that beguiles you.
Like a precocious lover, Montreal is a city that keeps you on your toes.
Take away the anglophones, though, and you lose the frisson of unpredictability that’s given the city its unique charm. Nothing would be more monotonous than the city drowning in one exclusive language. It’s the flourish of English that has traditionally given French Montreal its special accent, making it rise above all other cities of the American continent.
The leaders of the province don’t seem to get this. They see English as a threat rather than a treat.
Instead of honouring the anglos who chose to stay in their beloved Montreal rather than join the exodus to Toronto, they’ve become experts at alienating them.
Their latest salvo is Bill 96, a blunt instrument which mandates French as the “only official language” of Quebec and revises the 1977 Charter of the French Language (Bill 101) in a way that is even less forgiving of non-French speakers. Under the new bill, immigrants will be required to communicate with the government in French after six months of arrival. Among other provisions, the law will cap enrolment at English CEGEPs, and those students will now have to take three additional French-language classes in order to graduate.
The bill also establishes a French language commissioner with the authority to penalize institutions that don’t comply with the law.
In short, the new law will take a society where French already dominates and further ram it down the throats of its non-French minority. Not very romantic.
Bill 96 is a sneaky way to separate without separating. The government knows that referendums over sovereignty are risky; two have already failed to pass, one in 1980 and another in 1995. So it’s shrewdly passing laws to gain the spoils of separation without the hassle of asking the people for approval, and without sacrificing the economic benefits of staying in the Canadian orbit.
The government wants its éclair and eat it, too.
The problem is that when you sacrifice the goodwill of a loyal minority, you can lose more than you gain. This new bill is overkill. Right on cue, the backlash among anglos has been fierce.
“As the adoption of Bill 96 redefines the relations between English-speakers and the state,” Montreal Gazette columnist Allison Hanes wrote last week, “it will usher in a new and uncertain period for Quebec’s anglophone minority, with fallout that is political, social and existential.”
What could make such alienation worth it? Was the French language even in need of protection in Quebec?
According to a 2017 Statistics Canada study on language projections, 8.1 million Quebecers are projected to speak French as a first language in 2036, compared to 853,000 who’ll speak English. That’s a 10-to-1 ratio. Where’s the threat?
Instead of rewarding the anglos for their loyalty to a French-speaking province, Quebec’s short-sighted leaders are punishing them. Instead of seeing this minority as a cultural asset that helps define the special magic of La Belle Province, these leaders are threatening anglos with heavy-handed enforcement if they don’t play by the new rules.
Instead of delivering a future of amity and solidarity, the provincial leaders are delivering a future of animosity and lawsuits—a future where the lawyers prevail over the poets.
I’m still a die-hard Montrealer, but I can’t say I’m happy to see where my beautiful old city is going.
David Suissa, who grew up in Montreal and graduated from McGill University, is editor-in-chief of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.