The English Language and Montreal
January 8, 2014 § 8 Comments
An interesting oped appeared in the Montreal Gazette today. It was written by a guy, Nicholas Robinson, who teaches Japanese in Montreal, an expat American who has been there for the past 30 years. He is critical of the Anglo community of Quebec when they kvetch about not getting service in English, whether at the hospital or on the STM. He says that learning French is just as essential to living in Montreal as learning Japanese is to living in Kyoto.
I tend to agree, the fact of the matter is that Quebec is a French province and Montreal is a French city. Last time I looked at census data, just a shade under 600,000 Quebecers identified as Anglos, as defined by speaking English as their mother tongue. That’s 7.7% of the population of Quebec. The largest group of Anglos live in and around Montreal, where 16.8% of the population is Anglo. Statistically, that’s a sizeable minority. And yet, most Anglos, at least in Montreal are at least functionally bilingual.
Robinson goes on to argue that “the French speakers of Quebec have been incredibly tolerant of the anglophone “community,” and a vast swath of them have gone to the immense trouble of learning English — when they don’t have to at all.” I also tend to agree here, though I will note something based on my experience of teaching CÉGEP for 6 years. I would say that somewhere between 40-45% of our students at my Anglophone CÉGEP were francophone, some of whom did not have great English-language skills upon entering the school. But their reason for wanting to go to CÉGEP in English (they often went onto French-language universities) was simple: English is the dominant language in the world today, and is the lingua franca of global business (I would also add that about 70% of my students wanted to get degrees in business or related fields). So there are practical reasons for Quebec’s francophones to learn and speak English.
But, as you might expect, the comments in response to Robinson’s missive are, well, predictable. And vitriolic. They include exhortations that he remove himself from Quebec and “go home.” But the first comment I saw was perhaps the most instructive of all. The commentator lambasts Robinson and notes that Canada is a bilingual nation. And Quebec is a province of that bilingual nation. That much is true.
But. Quebec is not bilingual. In fact, there is only one officially bilingual province in Canada: New Brunswick, though Ontario and Manitoba will also provide services in French to their population. Moreover, despite the fact that, say, British Columbia is a province in a bilingual nation, good luck getting anyone to speak French to you in Vancouver. Canadian bilingualism functions in reality a lot more along the Belgian model: insofar as it exists, it’s regional. Canada has something called a “bilingual belt” that stretches from New Brunswick along the St. Lawrence River valley to Eastern Ontario. Within this belt, you will find a sizeable amount of the populace that can speak both English and French, and you’ll also find some bilinguality in Manitoba. Aside from that, though, forget it.
So, in reality, the Anglophone population of Quebec and Montreal, as Robinson notes, has it relatively good. An Anglophone in Montreal can get an education in English, and healthcare in English, and there is a robust Anglo media in the city. And, I might add, while I can speak French, when I had to deal with the government of Quebec, I tended to at least try to get service in English, in large part because I, like many Anglos, don’t trust my French all that much. This was especially the case when dealing with Revenu Québec or the Ministère de la Santé et les services sociaux. Much to my surprise, this was never a problem. I always got responses in English. A francophone in Toronto gets none of that.
Having said that, Montreal has a robust Anglophone community because it has jealously protected itself and its “rights”, especially since the rise of the Parti québécois’ first government in 1976 and Bill 101 in 1977. But that doesn’t mean that Robinson doesn’t have a point.