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.

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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