When Saul Polo stood up in Quebec’s National Assembly last week to denounce the Prime Minister’s comment on the decline of French spoken at home, he struck a chord.
Polo, the Liberal MP for Laval-des-Rapides, said Francois Legault had hinted that the newcomers are a threat to the very survival of the French language in Quebec.
“The moral contract of immigration never included the language spoken at home,” Polo said Thursday, demanding that Legault reverse his statement that French would be under threat because of the proportion of Quebecers speaking it at home. .
“When are we going to be Quebecers enough for him?”
Simon Jolin-Barrette, the new French Language Minister, responded that the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government protects and promotes French.
The government’s overhaul of the Charter of the French language, Bill 96, received royal assent that day. It comes as Legault reignites an old and contentious debate over whether the province should have more powers over immigration.
Ahead of the fall provincial elections, the Premier appears to be positioning himself and his government as defenders of Quebec nationalism, contrary to more progressive and inclusive approaches.
Critics say using the notwithstanding clause to create laws that override fundamental rights has created a coercive policy that doesn’t align with how Quebecers see the future of their province.
A heavily criticized clause in the law requires refugees to learn French within six months of arriving in Quebec, after which they can no longer access most public services in another language.
“All the indicators are red,” Jolin-Barrette said, implying that the situation is close to crisis.
But recent studies published by the Quebec office of the French language (OQLF) and Statistics Canada show that the use of French in the province has increased in recent years.
While it is increasingly common to speak French in addition to one or more other languages, the number of people in Canada who use French as their main official language has fallen from 7.7 million in 2011 to 7, 9 million in 2016, according to Statistics Canada. The bulk of this increase occurred in Quebec.
Between 1977 — when the Language Charter, known as Bill 101, was passed — and 2015, the percentage of French-schooled students whose first language is not French rose from 20% to 90% .
For Richard Marcoux, director of an observatory based at Laval University that studies the demography of Francophones around the world, people’s first language and the one they speak at home are not effective means of measuring the vitality of ‘a tongue.
“It has no impact,” Marcoux said. “I have friends at home who speak French, English, Spanish, Arabic, Wolof.”
The OQLF defines Francophones as people whose first language is French, a measure that could indicate a decline for years to come due to the low birth rate and the aging of the Quebec population.
Although about 77% of Quebecers list French as their mother tongue, 94% speak it well enough to have a conversation, according to the OQLF.
The observatory, for its part, defines a francophone as anyone who can carry on a conversation in French. According to this measure, there are 322 million French speakers worldwide. According to the OQLF’s definition, Marcoux said, there are only about 60 million Francophones in the world.
“This idea of Louisianization, I completely disagree with that. It makes no sense,” he said, referring to Legault saying Quebec could become like the Cajun state in the United States, where only about 2% are French-speaking, if he did not restrict non-French-speaking immigrants.
Marcoux says that in the 1970s, Bill 101 was justified, given the predominance of English in North America, but that closely monitoring what languages are spoken in Quebec homes today does little to protect French.
Speak more than 2 languages
Polo, the Liberal MP, was born in Colombia and moved to Quebec at the age of six in the winter of 1982. He learned French in a class for newcomers and in September he went to school in full time in French.
The charter had been passed four years earlier, which meant that Polo and all newcomers to the province had to be educated in French until the end of high school. Polo did his primary, secondary, college and university studies in French. At home with his parents, he spoke Spanish, but Polo says he is more fluent in French.
“When my son was born I decided it was important for me to pass on (Spanish) to him, to share with him,” Polo said in a recent English interview.
Her son, now 13, is trilingual and goes to school in French. Legault called Polo’s situation “an anecdote,” but the increase in the number of children being educated in French and therefore regularly speaking French suggests otherwise.
The province may still be getting used to the idea of being responsible for the so-called integration of newcomers since Bill 101, said Pierre Anctil, historian and professor at the University of Ottawa.
“It’s a big shift in perspective for Francophones to see themselves as the host community for immigrants,” said Anctil, who recently starred in a documentary about the shift from left-wing nationalism to right-wing in Quebec by the journalist Francine Pelletier entitled Battle for the soul of Quebec.
Prior to Bill 101, the province’s English-speaking community was the host community, as they shared the rest of Canada’s belief that the country was “empty” and needed to be populated to create an economy, Anctil said. The Anglophone community also saw an advantage in increasing its numbers, since it was a minority within a minority.
The influence of France
Both positions are colonialist towards the indigenous peoples who already lived in the territory – a specialist in the facts, according to Nathalie Batraville, is often absent from the public conversation.
Batravile, an assistant professor at Concordia University’s Simone de Beauvoir Institute, said the current government is appealing to old fears of “the other.”
The CAQ’s Secularism Act, Bill 21 and Bill 96, both provide for extensive use of the notwithstanding clause, allowing them to override fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“This fundamental rights violation is always directed at a group marked as other,” said Batraville, who grew up speaking French with her Haitian parents.
“There’s a sense of national identity that’s really fostered around that kind of coercion and exclusion.”
Batraville says legislating such personal aspects of life, like language and the way people dress, is a form of systemic racism that the government justifies with the idea of protecting a national identity.
Daniel Béland, director of McGill’s Institute for the Study of Canada, says some of the policy employed by the Legault government may be influenced by trends in France, where concerns about globalization have translated into laws strict on immigration and secularism, but also have stifled economic growth.
Mass media and a spike in immigration from France to Quebec over the past decade have created deeper ties between the two nations, Béland said.
“There is this kind of transatlantic connection which is also an intellectual connection,” he said.
The role of colonialism
For Morgan Kahentonni Phillips, Bill 96 sounds familiar. She was one of hundreds of students from the Kanien’kehá:ka community of Kahnawake who left their high school on September 6, 1978, after their parents refused to apply for a certificate of eligibility for the teaching English. .
As a result, they created a high school that the community would control and called it Kahnawake Survival School. At school, students learn Kanien’kéha and study English as a second language.
Cree, Inuit and Kanien’kehá:ka leaders have all called for exemptions to Bill 96, but have been met with near silence by the CAQ government.
“We are struggling to reclaim and revitalize our own languages,” Phillips said. “It’s going to set everyone back.”
Kenneth Deer, who helped create Survival School, says Kahnawake has worked in all kinds of ways to revitalize Kanien’kéha without forcing people into it, including offering parents the choice between an immersion school and an English school with Kanien’kéha as matter.
“We rely on people’s pride and sense of personal responsibility,” Deer said. “We see all of this as an extension of colonization, where they impose a European language on our people.”
Social justice and nationalism of the 1960s
Malcolm Reid, who wrote the 1972 book The Sign Criers: A Literary and Political Account of Quebec Revolutionary Nationalismcovered the left-wing nationalist movement extensively as a young journalist in the 1960s.
This was after the death of Maurice Duplessis, ending nearly two decades of his conservative leadership tinged with strict Catholicism. Quebec would soon experience a massive rejection of the Church’s role in the affairs of state, now known as the Quiet Revolution.
“The desire for more social justice was growing,” Reid said over the phone. “At that time, it was not in contradiction with the affirmation of the Quebec identity, of the particular qualities of Quebec whose heart and soul are the language.
But things are changing. Reid – whose children’s book Hello Gado! was recently adapted into a film by an artist from Quebec — it is impossible to say whether this desire for social justice and independence will prevail again or not. Instead, he offered some wisdom.
The Quiet Revolution itself, Reid said, was a big surprise.
“And I think there will always be big surprises, some terribly appalling, some terribly disheartening. But in my life, it’s been a mixture of big exciting surprises and big appalling surprises.”