PQ leader Jean-François Lisée gives closing remarks at the PQ Policy convention in Montreal, September 10, 2017. Christinne Muschi / MONTREAL GAZETTE
Attitudes on language in Quebec are shifting. The party that has been most successful in positioning itself as defender of the French language is now well out of step with the public. It signalled this past weekend it won’t be going on the offensive.
Language policy (or lack thereof) resulting from this Parti Québécois convention in particular is significant, most notably because of timing: This year, Quebecers have been inundated with media content and events commemorating four decades of the Charter of the French Language (Bill 101), culminating in the Aug. 26 anniversary of its adoption by a PQ-led National Assembly.
The response from Quebecers could be described as a collective shrug.
As the disproportionally nationalistic chattering class pontificated on the mythology of successful language policing, there was little palpable citizen-driven celebration of Bill 101; certainly no clamour to reinforce language laws.
The main event for French language hobbyists, a Saturday afternoon rally outside the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) headquarters featuring political and union leaders, drew 150 people.
According to a Léger poll conducted last month, 60 per cent of Quebecers (and 53 per cent of francophones) are now in favour of relaxing Bill 101 to grant easier access to English primary and secondary schools. Judging by the previous PQ leader’s observations about shifting demographics, this number should only increase.
Being a language hawk in Quebec in 2017 is becoming a thankless and, frankly, embarrassing endeavour.
Hawks who’ve proven themselves to be perennially ineffective advocates for these issues have resorted to what they would probably describe, if the insults were in English, as “Quebec-bashing,” chastising the citizenry for inaction. One sovereignist thought leader, Mathieu Bock-Côté, epitomized that desperation by recently characterizing Quebecers as engaging in “collective suicide.”
In response to these nihilistic missives, Journal de Montréal columnist Denise Bombardier wrote to her hawkish colleague what could be described as an intervention column: “Contrary to what you write, in pain, I suppose, Quebecers are not tired of existing. … What will you do in 30 years if this trouble you express through excessive and caricatured remarks still troubles you?”
By then, a generation of multicultural francophone leaders will have long-buried the hawks’ already-obsolete arguments. Last weekend’s PQ convention was a key opportunity to promote hawkish policy, but brought them only more heartache.
A motion to expand Bill 101 eligibility rules to daycares and CEGEPs (a lingering PQ threat that never materializes) and another in favour of unilingual commercial signage were defeated.
One motion that did pass would see the next PQ government implement cutbacks to popular English-language CEGEPs (their increasing popularity is fuelled by francophone and allophone students seeking to improve their English). However, the party would simultaneously increase funding for English courses at French-language CEGEPs; a positive sign, of sorts, that the stigma attached to the teaching of English could be fading.
PQ leader Jean-François Lisée undoubtedly stunned and confused some Péquistes by promising to “transform francophone CEGEPs so that people are certain they can properly learn English.”
“We can’t inspire respect (for the French language) while excluding the other,”
The convention wasn’t all good news for proponents of diversity. The PQ did reiterate its support for a Charter of Values-like dress code that would ban religious symbols worn by at least some public-sector employees.
That decade-old religious accommodation debate is stale, but those revolving around language are mercifully inching closer to the brink of relevance.
It will be difficult for any Quebec government to completely abandon linguistic nationalism, and difficult for hard-line nationalists to accept why that needn’t affect the vitality of the French language. But the wings of language hawks have been clipped, and that is a relief to non-francophone Quebecers who sometimes feel like prey.
Dan Delmar is a political commentator and managing partner, public relations with TNKR Media.
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