Free French lessons?

02.19.04

Gazette columnist Henry Aubin adds his two cents into the volatile pool of Quebec language issues, proposing free French lessons for students who graduate from university in Montreal and then end up leaving the province to seek employment elsewhere. It’s Aubin’s idea of a way to solve the brain drain:

Students flock here from outside Quebec, then leave in droves, diplomas in hand.

[ . . . ]

But that ignores an important fact. As the city-hall study confirmed with numerous interviews, the majority of these people love Montreal and would be happy to make their lives here were it not for certain constraints.

Like what? Political instability and a rotten job market have faded. The new disincentives, the study suggests, include high taxes, the city’s secondary status in the global knowledge economy and, finally, “language policy.” The first two problems are complex and can’t be solved quickly, but one facet of the language issue is – believe it or not – easy to improve.

Aubin’s idealistic proposal has a few problems attached to it, though.

First, a few French classes are unlikely to improve someone’s fluency level to that needed to work in most positions. I’ve been learning French for almost my entire life, and while I’m functional, I’m certainly not perfect. If I – a fourth-generation Montrealer with a bilingual education – had trouble finding a job because of the language issue, then what’s to say that a free French class will help grads from outside Quebec get employed?

Second, there are a number of programs and language courses already offered either for free or extremely cheap, similar to what Aubin proposes. YES Montreal, for example, offers a basic French course. Most of the universities, have continuing education classes held in the evenings that are cheap. And the best deal of all: students from outside Quebec who decide to come here and major in French language or literature can attend university paying Quebec resident tuition. That’s a discount of thousands of dollars to encourage people to flock to Montreal to study French! A few do it… most don’t.

Perhaps most important of all, most people in Quebec don’t see the departure of visiting university students post-graduation as a problem in the first place. After all, students come from outside Quebec, pay higher tuition, get educated, live here a few years, and then go back home so they don’t take up jobs. And by leaving, they don’t threaten Quebec’s “French character”. After all, most of the English-speaking ones aren’t desirable immigrants to Quebec precisely because they’re not francophone… so people are not looking for a solution because to them, there’s no problem. It’s no use telling them that a better-educated workforce will lead to job creation and an expansion of the proverbial pie, with more prosperity all around. No, to them, the English interlopers are stealing their French jobs, and good riddance to them anyway.

In a week where Quebec is still reeling from perceived attacks by Don Cherry, Conan O’Brien, and the Liberal corruption scandal, it may not be politically savvy to say this. But I’ve never really cared much about being politically-correct in the past, so why start now? Quebec needs to grow up, toughen up, and open up. It’s that simple.

Our society is threatened by openness and change, and reacts defensively to any attempt to educate and re-create the definition of the future. The politicians keep the French Quebecois here by not enabling them to learn English from a young age, cutting off most of their opportunities elsewhere. They keep the English out by not making job opportunities available to them. In these ways, Quebec’s character stays French, that’s true. But the economy also stagnates behind the rest of Canada, as one opportunity after another is squandered.

I suspect that when Ontarians who graduate from McGill cite the “language policy” as a reason not to stay in Montreal, they mean much more than being able to function in French. They mean the dirty little secret that nobody likes to talk about but everyone knows: the English are not really “part” of Quebec society. They’re not wanted. And even if they stick around and get a job and learn French, they’re still the Big Bad Anglos who want to oppress the Quebecois and threaten its precious French majority.

That is the real “language policy” and it’ll take a helluvalot more than some free French classes to solve.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Charles Tupper Jr 02.21.04 at 6:07 AM

If you believe openess and reform is the means to stimulate growth in Quebec then isn’t being a federalist counterproductive? The Quebec society you describe exists, in large part, due to very generous subsidy from Canada (transfer payments, HRDC job programs, CIDA grants, Export Development Corporation not to mention immigration subsidies are much more generous than in other parts of Canada). In return, for most of the last century, Quebec provided the ethnic block vote to ensure the Liberal Party retained power. Separation is the only thing that will stimulate reform in Canada and Quebec.

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2 Puck 03.03.04 at 9:38 PM

Your views on Quebec are very ironic. It is too obvious but I just have to “quote” you.

” the Arabs are not really “part” of Israel society. They’re not wanted. And even if they stick around and get a job and learn Hebrew, they’re still the Big Bad Arabs who want to oppress the Israelies and threaten its precious Jewish majority. ”

I understand. The situations are completely different.

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