Loi 96: A Zero-Sum Game

June 28, 2022 § Leave a comment

The government of Québec has passed Loi 96, an insanely restrictive language law designed to incapacitate Montréal. Montréal has, in recent years, been Anglicized, or at least it seems that way. Anecdotally, I hear more English across the city in the past few years than I ever have, and not just in the traditional areas of downtown, the sud-ouest, or NDG, but also in Rosemont-Petite Patrie, Parc Ex, Villeray. But it’s not just French and English you hear on the streets of Montréal. In all reality, the city has become incredibly diverse in recent years, and now it is common to hear pretty much any language you can imagine on the streets of the metropole. And this is concerning to the rest of the province, clearly. As it is, the relationship between Montréal and Québec is uncertain; roughly half of the province/nation’s 8.5 million people live in the Montréal sprawl. It is a very large, multicultural, multiethnic, and multilingual city. The rest of Québec, not so much. It is more than predominately French-speaking and white. Immigrants tend to flock to the big city, or the suburbs of Ottawa, as this is where economic opportunity is greatest.

Montréal, though, has nearly died before. In the wake of the Parti Québécois winning power for the first time in 1976, Anglos and business left Montréal in a terrifying wave. For most of Canada’s history, Montréal had been the predominant city, and while it was already fading by 1970, with Toronto assuming the mantle, the wake of 1976 saw an exodus. Corporations left for Toronto, Calgary, and Vancouver. So did the people. My own family was part of this exodus. We left for, first, Toronto, in winter 1978 before ultimately making our way west to British Columbia in 1980. The result for Montréal was devastating. A walk down rue Sainte-Catherine or the rue Saint-Denis in the 80s was depressing in that every other store front had an ‘À Louer’ sign on it, and it was no different on other arteries and side streets. Montréal had the highest unemployment rate for an urban centre in Canada for most of the 1980s and 1990s.

Meanwhile, there was a massive amount of instability in the province/nation, provoked by fears of the intentions of the openly separatist PQ government. The first referendum on Québec sovereignty in 1980 ended in a defeat for the aspirations of Premier René Levésque and the PQ. But this ushered in a decade-and-a-half of language laws (most notably Loi 101) and constitutional wrangling between the UK, Canada, its provinces, and its population. Canada’s constitution was patriated from the UK in 1982, but Québec never ratified it. An attempt at a conciliation in 1990, the Meech Lake Accord, was doomed to failure due to an inability of the framers to account for the indigenous. A second attempt in 1992, the Charlottetown Accord, went down to defeat in a national referendum. And then the second referendum on Québec sovereignty was held in 1995, which resulted in a much narrower defeat for Premier Jacques Parizeau and the PQ. In the aftermath of the defeat, Parizeau declared that the sovereigntists lost due to ‘money and the ethnic vote,’ making clear that he felt Anglos and Allophones (as those who are neither Anglo or French are called in Québec) did not belong.

In the aftermath of that second referendum, some certainty returned to Québec, as the PQ refused to consider another referendum under successive premiers Lucien Bouchard, Bernard Landry, and Pauline Marois. As a result, Montréal came back to life, and at one point in the early 21st century was the fastest growing city in Canada. The economy has come roaring back, the ‘À Louer’ signs disappeared and Montréal was once again a vibrant multicultural city.

But, at the same time, the sovereigntist movement, which had begun on the left in the 1960s, began drifting right, and try as Landry and Marois might, they could not, ultimately, stem the tide of the right, and the PQ faded into irrelevance at the same time it was attacked on the left by the ride of Québec Solidaire (which is still a tiny party). Indeed, the Coalition pour l’avenir du Québec, or CAQ, led by former PQ cabinet member, François Legault, stormed to power in 2018 in a landslide victory, signalling the completion of the right-ward turn of the sovereigntist movement.

In the wake of 1995, sovereigntists made an attempt to rebrand themselves to make their vision of Québec more inclusive, welcome to Anglos and Allophones. Those days are over. Legault and the CAQ are very clear who their constituents are and who they govern for. Loi 96 is an obvious example of this.

Interestingly, the CAQ does not have a lot of support on the Île de Montréal, nor in the larger Montréal sprawl in general. On the island, only the two most eastern ridings, Pointe-aux-Trembles and Bourget, swung CAQ, and only one riding in Laval, Sainte-Rose, and one on the south shore, Taillon followed suite. Indeed, Montréal and its sprawl are the power bases of both the federalist Parti Libérale and Québec Solidaire.

So it is interesting that Legault’s Loi 96 is designed to strangle the English language. I am an Anglo, yes. But I do not tend to side with Anglos in the language politics of Québec. Montréal is a French city. Québec is a French province/nation. I argued myself into a nationalist (though not separatist) position in reading for my comprehensive exams for my Phd, I have been unable to escape that spot). There are roughly 400,000 Anglos in the city of 4.25 million. You can do the math.

But. Loi 96 is different. Its attacks on English-language government services, education, and health care are a very real threat. Its insistence that immigrants will get all of six months to learn French before all services are in that language is also a very real threat. But even more than that, what Loi 96 will do is kill Montréal. Already employers are talking of pulling out. I was back home last week, and even Le Devoir, the nationalist Montréal newspaper, was attacking the government for this law, which it sees as going too far. The CBC reports today that Montréal’s vibrant video-game industry is at risk, this despite the fact that the largest of these employers, Ubisoft, is French. It is only going to get worse, as Legault seeks to destroy the city.

There will be a provincial election this fall. But I don’t see many reasons to be optimistic. The CAQ is running around 40% in the polls, which is up 3% from 2018. The Liberals are below 20%, and now the Conservatives are in the running as well, around 17%. And, of course, due to the genius of the men who created the Canadian Constitution in 1982, we have the notwithstanding clause, which allows governments to override the Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Loi 96 violates both, but Legault has enacted the notwithstanding clause.

Of course, what he also seems to be risking is in killing Montréal, he will kill Québec’s economy, which will hurt everyone. Politics. A zero sum game.

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