Will bilingualism doom the Liberals in Québec?

Bill 14 Protest,

One month ago, on the popularity of premier Pauline Marois’s push to enact a ‘secular charter of values’ (la charte de la laïcité) that would ban the wearing of religious symbols, including the Muslim hijab, it seemed like the sovereigntist Parti québécois (PQ) was headed for a huge victory on the basis of ‘cultural’ values that, for once, had little to do with Québec independence or with the status of the French language in the province. Quebec Flag IconpngCanada Flag Icon

Two weeks ago, that conventional wisdom was upended, as the PQ’s star candidate Pierre Karl Péladeau and Marois spent days speculating about a potential independence referendum and how Québec might separate from Canada and still retain the Canadian dollar and open borders with the rest of Canada. The sudden return of the independence debate to the campaign agenda seemed to scare many votes into the arms of Philippe Couillard, the new leader of the Parti libéral du Québec (Liberal Party, or PLQ), which has been out of power for barely 18 months after nearly a decade in power.

Now, after the final debate among the four main party leaders last week, Couillard’s comments in defense of bilingualism have shifted the debate once again to yet another controversial issue — the proper role of the provincial government in promoting French and/or English within Québec.   

Last Thursday night’s debate was vastly different from the previous debate. Whereas Marois took much of the heat in the first debate, Couillard received more criticism in the much feistier final debate — likely because polls increasingly show that the Liberals have not only recaptured the lead from the PQ, but that it could win a majority government.

Amid all the sniping, however, Couillard’s comments about bilingualism stand out:

“Bilingualism isn’t a threat,” he said. “Knowledge of English is indispensable.”

To American ears — or, possibly, to Ontarian or British Columbian or Albertan ears — that shouldn’t be controversial. But in many regards, the French language debate is even more fraught than the referendum debate, because it’s not as hypothetical as an independent Québec.

The province’s 8 million citizens comprise a tiny island of French speakers within a sea of 341 million (mostly) English speakers in the United States and Canada. Without the Québec government’s interest in protecting the French language, English might easily overrun French as the language of Québec commerce and industry, putting the province’s native French speakers at a disadvantage in North America’s French-speaking heartland.

Within Québec, 78% of the population primarily speaks French and  just 7.6% primarily speaks English (around 0.8% are natively bilingual, and around 12.3% speak primarily something other than English or French).

For Couillard to win the April 7 election and become Québec’s next premier, he has to win at least a respectable showing among the Francophone community — polls show that the Liberals win between 70% and 80% of the province’s Anglophones, but that Couillard had been narrowing the PQ’s longstanding advantage among Francophones, many of whom don’t favor independence but who still feels threatened by the encroachment of English within Québec.

During the debate, François Legault, the leader of the center-right Coalition avenir Québec (CAQ), which occupies a hazy space between the PQ’s separatism and the PLQ’s federalism, used the opportunity to attack Couillard, arguing that he was ‘hesitant’ to defend French and that the Liberal leader is ‘incapable of defending Québec values,’ a charge that Couillard called insulting.

But sure enough, the CAQ released an internal poll conducted by CROP showing that, among Francophone voters, the CAQ is on the rise (though there’s been an odd lack of polls in Québec since last Thursday’s debate, especially given that the election is next Monday). Polls throughout the campaign have shown that the CAQ will struggle to retain its support from the 2012 election.

Marois, not surprisingly, started bashing Couillard as well during the debate:

“I’m flabbergasted to hear Mr. Couillard tell us that there is no problem with the French language in Quebec,” said Marois.

But Couillard doubled down on the comments even after the debate, defending the values of bilingualism in a way that even former Liberal leader and premier Jean Charest — a staunch federalist who spent little time on French language legislation in Québec — did not:

“We absolutely want to protect our identity, our language,” he said, during a speech at a hockey arena. “But it has nothing to do with the fact that we want to give our children the chance to learn another language. Is there a parent in Quebec that doesn’t want their child to learn another language? No.”

In political terms, it seems like an error for Couillard to have continued to discuss bilingualism over the weekend. He made it clear that he believed that the provincial government should continue to protect the French language, but that bilingualism — for both native French and English speakers — is an asset in a globalized economy.

It’s not the first time that Couillard has stood by a controversial position on principle — though polls show that Québec voters largely support the Marois government’s ‘charter of values,’ Couillard has attacked it as discriminatory and unwelcoming.  

 Montréal is perhaps the best example of bilingualism in Canada — around 56% of its residents speak both French and English. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it’s home to Québec’s largest Anglophone community and it’s a Liberal stronghold.

The current language debate dates back to 1977, when the first PQ government of premier René Lévesque enacted La charte de la langue française (the Charter of the French Language), popularly known as Bill 101, which established French as Québec’s national language, and established wide-ranging rights to Québec citizens. The charter has been amended several times throughout the years, including a significant expansion in the 1980s by Liberal premier Robert Bourassa.

Today, Bill 101 provides that the Québecois have a right to French-language civil administration, health and social services, public utilities and other government departments. It also enumerates the the right of workers to use French, the right of consumers to be served in French, and the right of students to receive education in French (at least from kindergarten through secondary school). In particular, the mandate that all commercial materials, from menus to signs to product labels, be written in French, has caused significant controversy throughout the years — English may be listed alongside French, but not in a way that’s more prominent than French. The Office québécois de la langue française, derisively referred to as the ‘language police’ outside Québec, is responsible for implementing French language policy.

In the years following Bill 101’s enactment, the number of native English speakers in Québec declined, as it became increasingly difficult to find English-language schools or an Anglophone business community. Bill 101’s passage probably facilitated Toronto’s rise as the indisputable financial capital of Canada, a status that had previously belonged to Montréal. By the late 1970s, however, Toronto was very much on the rise, with or without the French language charter.

Marois’s government came to power with plans to amend the French language charter through the proposed Bill 14. The legislation would have strengthened Québec’s French language rights by:

  • mandating French as the official language of businesses with 26 or more employees;
  • giving the provincial government the right to evaluate bilingual municipalities every decade and revoke bilingual status if the Anglophone population drops below 50%;
  • reducing the exemptions from mandatory French-language education; and
  • giving language inspectors much more power to gather evidence of charter violations.

Last March, though, Québec was ridiculed in the international media when language officials attempted to ban the word ‘pasta’ on an Italian restaurant menu in Montréal — and, for good measure, cited the owner’s use of the Parisian French steak frites instead of the Québécois French biftek. With a minority government, Marois and the PQ simply didn’t have enough votes to pass Bill 14, and they quietly dropped the push to enact later in 2013, turning instead to the secular values charter instead.

Marois has pledged make another push to pass some version of Bill 14 if she wins another term in power. On the campaign trail this week, Marois blamed the last Liberal government  for a decline in the French language and framed the PQ as the party best suited to protect Québec’s unique language heritage:

“During the nine years under a Liberal government, we saw a decline of the French language, particularly in the Montreal region,” she said.

While Marois acknowledged there’s nothing wrong with being bilingual, Marois said Quebecers must stand up for their right to speak and work in French.  “If you want to be bilingual, I agree with you as a person. But as an institution and as government, I think the official language of Quebec is French and we don’t have to be bilingual in our institutions,” she said.

Meanwhile, Couillard continues to argue that Marois will start planning a referendum as soon as the PQ wins a majority government. Marois, not helping matters, has pledged not to hold another referendum until after consultations and until ‘Quebeckers are ready for one,’ hardly a clear response. Polls show that most voters don’t want Québec to hold another plebiscite on independence.

That means the rest of the campaign — and Monday’s election — will come down to a poisonous debate over cultural issues. The Liberals hope to scare enough soft sovereigntists away from giving the PQ a majority government, the péquistes hope to scare enough Francophones away voting Liberal by alleging Couillard’s hidden Anglophone agenda, and Legault and the CAQ hope to win over voters now turned off by both the independence and language kerfuffles.  

Photo credit to Canadian Press/Graham Hughes.

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