Heads or tails?
A (New?) Perspective on the Age-Old Language Debate
By Julie Jacques
I live on a coin – on one side is my English socialization; friends, boyfriend, education, even this newspaper. On the other is my French upbringing; my family, neighborhood, and culture.
My two-sided nature means that I’m privy to constant language disagreements, already so commonplace in Quebec.
In the omnipresent fight between anglophones and francophones, no one ever wins, and as someone on that spinning coin, it’s hard to know where to stand on contentious issues.
Flip a coin: heads.
On this side, I believe our language laws are important. I support the Bloc Quebecois and maintain that French representation in our federal government is crucial, lest our values be overshadowed. Here, I see my Grandma’s fear, rooted in a generational survival instinct, that English will overtake her grandchildren’s heritage, and that she, with only her native French, will lose them entirely to a different culture.
I don’t fully back the CAQ and many of their “French-preserving” policies. I have benefitted from bilingualism and the public English education system my whole life, so, of course, I am against the Parti Quebecois’ attempts to suspend Dawson and McGill’s expansion. Here lies the opportunity of “the language of business” and the reason my francophone parents sent their children to English-speaking schools.
But let me pull back:
With the highest population of French-speakers in North America, why shouldn’t Quebec defend our interests on a federal level? Many francophones back this position – they are the reason Blanchet’s Bloc swept Singh’s NDP off the map in 2019. The election left Quebec’s anglophones feeling cheated and underrepresented in public offices, but the truth is that they are about 13.4% of Quebec’s population (not quite a big enough percentage to have a huge influence in an election of that scope). In the end, the nature of democracy means that statistically, a singular minority group doesn’t have enough voting power to sway an election. Of course, this notion becomes problematic when it allows for minority groups to be oppressed.
At the very least, we can agree that anglophone communities face some adversity. 13.4% is a very visible minority, especially when 80% are concentrated in the city of Montreal. Despite this, it can feel like our government’s provincial and municipal branches forget about their anglophone denizens until it is time to chastise them.
While I believe that the French language should be upheld in all public Quebecois businesses, I question whether we should be handing out fines to small, often immigrant businesses for signage which doesn’t respect often impenetrable rules.
In truth, we punish instead of help. The problem with our language laws isn’t that they exist, but that they don’t allow for leniency. Will the $5 million granted to the OQLF by the CAQ last year help support the French language, or will it just turn the anglo population even further against franco counterparts? Perhaps, this money should be used to help companies hire or train translators to better follow the (incessant) rules.
Better yet, inject the $5 million into Quebecois media! The case for preserving French Canadian culture would be much more compelling to anglophone citizens if they were given the chance to appreciate it more. We should be channeling our inner Bon Cop, Bad Cop, and working to make our anglophone population feel included. After all, both communities are an important, historical part of Quebec.
I am not calling for the erasure of anglophone culture, or the assimilation of all anglophones. I also don’t think that the Quebecois instinct to preserve a historically threatened culture is overreaction. There has to be a balance. Bilingualism, for example, can only be an asset. Why not lean into this idea and work on improving both French education in English schools, and English education in French schools? The PQ fears that too many francophone students opt to go to English schools, and attempts to suppress students’ choices in an attempt to preserve. Instead, we should work with schools to create better French programs, to support small French communities in English higher education, or even to improve English programs at French universities (allowing students to study their program of choice in their native language while still improving coveted language skills).
The English and French have been at war in Quebec for as long as anyone can remember. When you’re privy to both worlds, it’s disheartening to hear each spew hateful opinions without leaving any space for a critical thought. Prejudices have held down both peoples for generations, and no one seems to want to push them aside. As an English-speaking francophone, I say it’s time to at least try. Failure to do so is a failure to embrace multiculturalism, to include minorities, and to be, well, Canadian.
Image via ville.quebec.qc.ca