Bonne fête à la charte de la langue française!

May 31, 2017 § 1 Comment

Bill 101 is 40 years old this year.  For those of you who don’t know, Bill 101 (or Loi 101, en français) is the Quebec language charter. It is officially known as La charte de la langue française (or French-Language Charter).  It essentially establishes French as the lingua franca of Quebec.  For the most part, the Bill was aimed at Montreal, the metropolis of Quebec.  Just a bit under half of Quebec lives in Montreal and its surrounding areas, and this has been the case for much of Quebec’s modern history.  Montreal is also where the Anglo population of Quebec has become concentrated.

When Bill 101 was passed by the Parti québécois government of René Levésque in 1977, there was a mass panic on the part of Anglophones, and they streamed out of Montreal and Quebec, primarily going up the 401 highway to Toronto.  My family was part of this.  But we ultimately carried on further, to the West Coast, ultimately settling in Vancouver. At one point in the 1980s, apparently Toronto was more like Anglo Montreal than Montreal.

Meanwhile, back in the metropole, nasty linguistic battles dominated the late 1980s.  This included actual violence on the streets.  But there were also a series of court decisions, many of which struck down key sections of Bill 101.  This, in turn, emboldened a bunch of bigots within the larger Anglo community, who complained of everything, from claiming Quebec wasn’t a democracy to, amongst some of the more whacked out ones, that the Anglos were the victim of ethnocide (I wish I was kidding).

But, in the 30 years since, much has changed in Montreal.  The city settled into an equilibrium.  And I would posit that was due to the economy.  Montreal experienced a generation-long economic downturn from the 1970s to the 1990s.  In the mid-90s, after the Second Referendum on Quebec sovereignty failed in 1995 (the first was in 1980), the economy picked up.  New construction popped up everywhere around the city centre, cranes came to dominate the skyline.  And then it seeped out into the neighbourhoods.  By the late 90s/early 2000s, Montreal was the fastest growing city in Canada.  It has since long since slowed down, and Montreal had a lot of ground to catch up on, in relation to Canada’s other two major cities, Toronto and Vancouver.  But the economic recovery did a lot to stifle not just separatism, but also the more radical Anglo response.

aislin-bill-101

2013 editorial cartoon from the Montreal Gazette.

Last week, the Montreal Gazette published an editorial on the 40th anniversary of Bill 101.  It was a shocker, as the newspaper was central to the more paranoid Anglo point-of-view, even as late as the mid-2000s.  But, perhaps I should not have been surprised, as it was written by eminent Montreal lawyer, Julius Grey.  He is one of the rare Montrealers respected on all sides.  At any rate, Grey (who was also the lawyer in some of the cases that led to sections of Bill 101 being invalidated), celebrates the success of the Charte de la langue française.  It has, argues Grey correctly, led to a situation where, in Montreal, both French and English are thriving.  He also notes that there is much more integration now in Montreal than was the case in the 1970s, from intermarriage to social interaction, and economic equality between French and English.  Moreover, immigrants have by-and-large learned French and integrated, to a greater or lesser degree, into francophone culture.  Many immigrants have also learned English.

But the interesting part of Grey’s argument is this:

On the English side, dubious assertions of discrimination abound. It is important for all citizens to be treated equally, but often the problem lies in the mastering of French. The English minority has become far more bilingual than before, but many overestimate their proficiency in French, and particularly when it comes to grammar and written French. By contrast, francophones tend to underestimate their English.

In other words, speaking French is an essential to life in Montreal.  And Anglos, I think, are more prone to over-estimating their French-language skills for the simple fact that it’s common knowledge one needs to speak the language.

Grey goes onto make an excellent suggestion:

These difficulties could be eased by the creation of a new school system, accessible to all Quebecers, functioning two-thirds in French and one-third in English. Some English and French schools would exist for those who do not wish to or cannot study in both languages, although most parents would probably prefer the bilingual schools.

However, this would never fly.  The one-third English does not bely the demographics of the city (let alone the province, and I really don’t see the point of learning English in Trois-Pistoles).  The urban area of Montreal is around 4 million (the population of Quebec as a whole is around 8.2 million).  There are a shade under 600,000 Anglos in the Montreal region, largely centred in the West Island and southern and western off-island suburbs.  That means Anglos are around 15% of the population of Montreal.  The idea that Montreal is bilingual is given lie by these numbers.

Nonetheless, there is merit to this argument of an English-language curriculum in Quebec’s public schools (including in Trois-Pistoles).  Like it or not, English is the lingua franca of the wider world, and global commerce tends to be conducted in that language.  There is also the fact of the wide and vast English-language culture that exists around the globe.  One of the things I enjoy about my own partial literacy in French (one that has certainly been damaged by not living in Montreal anymore) is the access to francophone culture, not just from Montreal and Quebec, but the wider francopohonie).

For any group of people or individual, there is a lot to be learned from bilingualism (or, multi-linguality).  In Montreal (and Quebec as a whole), it could ensure that the city’s economic recovery in the past two decades continues.  Along with this economic recovery has been a cultural renaissance in the city, in terms of music, film, literature, and visual arts.  It is a wonderful thing to see Montreal’s recovery.  And I want it to continue.

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