The issue that won’t die

03.25.04

There’s a lively debate going on at Paul’s site about the Quebec language laws. Even though everyone I know is so ridiculously sick of talking about language politics, it seems that the issue just won’t go away.

This time, it’s about the court case brought by angry Francophone parents demanding the right to send their kids to English schools:

In the most potentially explosive case, a group made up largely of francophone parents is seeking the right to attend English schools, arguing under the Quebec Charter of Human Rights it is illegal to discriminate against someone based on family relationships.

Should they win, the case could prove to be a political nightmare for Premier Jean Charest’s government, which could find itself caught between a) respecting the ruling and angering French nationalists who don’t want to see Bill 101 weakened or b) invoking the notwithstanding clause and risk angering the Liberal Party’s anglophone and federalist supporters.

This is of course an extremely ironic case, given that it’s discriminatory – for once – not against us hated Anglos but against Francophones who merely want to give their kids the opportunities that a working knowledge of English affords them. All the evidence indicates that learning a second language won’t jeopardize a child’s mother tongue, and that the younger it is learned, the better. The level of English being taught in French public schools is ridiculously ghastly.

And under the law, only parents who were educated in English in Canada have the right to choose to send their kids to French schools. That right is lost after a generation. So, for instance, if I should decide to send my kids to French school one day, because I want them to be bilingual, they will lose the right to send their kids to English school (assuming they stay in Quebec).

It should be about freedom of choice. But for too many Quebecois, it’s about the collectivity superceding individual rights. People who are living in the past enact defensive laws seeking to “preserve” the French “character” of Quebec by oppressing English in any way possible. English is illegal on signs unless it’s half the size of the French or less. Workplaces with at least 50 employees must conduct all internal communications in French. And parents can’t choose educate their kids in English… unless, like most politicians, they’re rich enough to send their kids to private schools, in which case they can do so in any language they please.

You see, it’s not enough for the nationalists to take pride in their French culture and heritage. No, everyone else has to as well. That’s why preference is given in Quebec to immigrants from French-speaking countries. That’s why ridiculous requirements about working in French keep many talented and industrious people out who don’t speak French. The nationalists are worried about being assimilated by a “sea” of English, and fight to preserve the French majority in the province no matter what the cost to progress, openness, or individual rights.

You’d think this would piss me off, as an anglophone living in Quebec. And yeah, it does. But the other side of the coin is that, like the vast majority of people in this province, I just don’t care enough. Because I’m so sick of hearing about it. That’s why a guy like Howard Galganov didn’t get the support of the vast majority of Montreal anglos for more than about five minutes. He was militant in a situation that we have pretty much come to accept and deal with. Every so often there are flare-ups, but for the most part, people are content to leave the hardline bickering to the politicians. Just about all of us in Montreal speak two or more languages. We conduct conversations in “franglais” or a mix of whatever happens to make the most sense at the time. And we’re tired of the politicians trying to drive us apart.

So I think it’s wrong, but I’m not ready to be all up in arms either. I argued that we shouldn’t blow the whole thing out of proportion:

I’ve done my share of ranting and raving against the OLF, Bill 101, and pretty much anything to do with sovereignty or rights. But I do think it lacks perspective a little to call the nationalists “fascists” or “terrorists” (with the notable exception of the FLQ, of course, who are terrorists). Anglo power is all very well and good, but I’ve mellowed somewhat. Back in 1995, I thought all separatists were hiding devil’s horns in their hair. I now realize that they have some views that – while I disagree – aren’t coming from nowhere.

With the notable exception of a few individual FLQ terrorists firebombing coffee shops, the nationalist movement has been nonviolent and political since the mid-70s. And with the exception of a few hardliners on each side, most people would really rather that the issue just go away. We’re tired of it. We don’t like to be told that our language laws make us a fascist dictatorship. We know better; they’re inconvenient but they’re a compromise that usually works, and when it doesn’t, nobody’s getting murdered or tortured or starved. For the most part, we put up with the crap cause this is otherwise a great city to live in and most of us have friends on both sides of the political spectrum, and in absence of a referendum campaign to drive a wedge between us, we can put our differences aside and just talk about something else. Plus, today’s Montreal has so many ethnic groups that are neither anglophone nor francophone that it just seems absurd to talk about this as a two-sided issue, when there are many people in between who are comfortable in many languages and don’t identify with either side.

It’s ok to agree to disagree sometimes. I’m looking forward to the day when the politicians catch up with the population, and stop making every election about language or sovereignty.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tali 04.01.04 at 8:49 PM

There’s another side to this, too. In Finoland – the only place with a language situation remotely similar to that in Quebec – there have been problems with people who use the minority-language schools as places to give their kids a new language. The problem is that the (majority) Finnish-speaking kids have become such a large percentage of the student body at some (minority) Swedish-speaking schools that the Swedish-speaking environment is lost. In the long run, this means that the native speakers of Swedish are deprived of the strong background in their own language they would otherwise get in school, and of one of the few totally Swedish-speaking environments many of them will ever experience. The Finnish-speaking kids, meanwhile, are sometimes stuck with a sort of halfway Swedish competence – good for using in class but not so useful outside of class – that results from a Swedish speaking school becoming a Finnish-speaking environment.

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2 Tali 04.01.04 at 8:50 PM

My point in the other comment is not that Quebec OR Finland is right, but it is that issues around bilingualism are complex and shouldn’t be easily dismissed.

(Oh, and I have no idea where the extra “o” in “Finoland” came from…eeee-vil computer.)

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