Last week, French-speaking Ontarians got to watch representatives of the province’s four main political parties face off in a televised debate in advance of the June 2 election. Though francophones account for less than 5 per cent of Ontario’s population, the debate was a basic show of respect toward the official-language minority, whose cultural survival in the anglophone melting pot that is North America remains an continuing struggle.
Sure, it might have been nice if the leaders of the Progressive Conservatives, Liberals, New Democrats and Greens had themselves been able to debate in the language of Molière. But like most Ontarians, none of them is bilingual, so they needed surrogates to step in for them.
Still, that was better than having no debate in their language at all, which is what Quebec anglophones are facing as their province prepares to go to the polls in October. Coalition Avenir Québec Premier François Legault this month declined an invitation from English-language broadcasters to participate in an election debate in the language of Shakespeare, saying he would not have time to prepare for one during a busy campaign. Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon spurned the invite because he said that French is Quebec’s only official language. Faced with the two leaders’ refusals, the debate organizers cancelled the event.
About 9 per cent of Quebeckers count English as their mother tongue while, for almost 14 per cent or 1.1 million people, it is their principal official language. Most of the issues that matter most to them are the same ones that preoccupy francophone voters. But many others are specific to them. Beyond the lack of basic courtesy shown toward them by Mr. Legault and Mr. Plamondon, Quebec anglophones have good reason to feel forsaken.
Since winning power in 2018, Mr. Legault has squandered what little goodwill he once managed to build among Quebec’s anglophone community. His attempts to abolish English-language school boards and force English schools to ban teachers from wearing religious symbols have been so far stopped by lower-court rulings, but he has shown no willingness to compromise. Even a Le Devoir editorialist labelled as “petty” his decision to cancel a $100-million expansion at an English-language junior college that his government had previously approved.
With the Quebec National Assembly’s adoption this week of Bill 96, which aims to strengthen protection for the French language in Quebec, Mr. Legault has again thrown anglophone voters under the bus to bolster his nationalist credentials in advance of the election.
While the new language law overreaches in several ways, particularly in pre-emptively invoking the notwithstanding clause and allowing for warrantless searches by the language police, it is not the existential threat that some English-speaking critics make it out to be. It may in fact prove to be more of a paper tiger than a law with teeth. The CAQ’s bark is worse than its bite, and the new law is likely to end up being engulfed in its own contradictions.
That’s because its most controversial clauses – such as one requiring the state to communicate with new immigrants in French only after a six-month grace period – are likely to prove unworkable and go unenforced. Besides, the law contains specific exceptions for reasons of health, safety or natural justice. And the on-the-ground reality has long shown that, when it comes to the accommodation of English in Quebec, exceptions are often the rule.
Rather, it is how Mr. Legault has governed that has left Quebec anglophones feeling angry. The Premier regards the English-speaking community as an inconvenience, rather than a historical partner with francophones in the province’s development. He has been ungenerous and, yes, petty toward them. He knows he does not need their votes to win the next election. Indeed, he knows that any softening of his stand on anglophone rights might even cost him seats in French-speaking Quebec. Hence, the phony language war of which Bill 96 is the product.
Language peace is a two-way street, however, and anglophone Quebeckers are still perceived by their French-speaking compatriots as a spoiled linguistic minority uninterested in the preservation of French. English-Quebeckers still consume astonishingly little Québécois culture, and, outside a few pockets of the province, live separately from the French-speaking majority. Most may claim to be bilingual, but their definition of bilingual is, well, different from mine.
A Quebec Liberal Party proposal to amend Bill 96 to require students at English-language junior colleges to pass three general curriculum courses taught in French caused an uproar among parents and educators because they feared too many anglophones would fail. The amendment was dropped in favour of a less stringent one. But the incident was revealing in what it said about the true state of bilingualism in English Quebec.
Still, the onus is on the Premier to be bigger than all this. Mr. Legault has consistently failed the test.
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