André PratteMy View of Our Montreal

The Montreal Canadiens’ new captain, Nick Suzuki, recently explained that he had few opportunities to improve his French since he arrived in the city because «we seldom need to use it» in Montreal. This is basically the argument that was made, to much controversy, by Air Canada’s CEO Michael Rousseau. According to Mr. Rousseau, the fact that an Anglophone can spend years in Montreal without having to learn French is «a testament» to the city.

I agree with Messrs. Suzuki and Rousseau on that score: Montreal is a very diverse, tolerant and easy-going city. English speakers can live most of their lives here without needing to use the language of the majority. Moreover, on most occasions, French speakers in retail stores, restaurants and other places of work will gladly switch to English when exchanging with a person with limited knowledge of French (“Bonjour!/Hi!”).

“We can and should preserve and promote French in Montreal

without infringing Quebecers’ fundamental rights…” – André Pratte

The latest census data, released in August by Statistics Canada, show a significant decline of French as the first official language spoken on the island of Montreal, from 60,8% to 58,4%. English has increased its share from 28,4% to 30,6%. Those numbers created quite a stir in Quebec’s nationalist circles, with calls for the CAQ government to go even further than bill 96 in restricting Anglo rights and privileges in the province and reducing the number of immigrants.

Such measures would be ill-advised. We can and should preserve and promote French in Montreal without infringing Quebecers’ fundamental rights or capping the number of immigrants at a level that will hamper our prosperity and our diversity. Indeed, safeguarding French should be a responsibility shared by all Montrealers, whatever their origin, cultural or linguistic backgrounds.

Montreal needs to remain a French city. A French city where English speakers enjoy historical rights, and can thrive, be educated and cared for in their own language, for sure. But a French city nonetheless. If Montreal were to become legally and factually bilingual, there is no doubt that, because it is so attractive for immigrants and for many francophones, English would quickly progress and become the majority language on the island.

Moreover, the city’s French character, with a strong English component, is what makes Montreal unique. Therefore, we all have an economic, political and cultural interest in preserving that characteristic.

French speakers should be at the forefront of the efforts to promote their language. They should demand that their provincial government significantly improve its policies to assist and incite newcomers to learn French. Although in recent years, francization budgets have been increased, much more remains to be done, especially for French courses before immigrants come to Quebec and courses in the workplace. Recently, a successful, 20 years old French learning program at Montreal’s Peerless plant was cancelled because the Quebec government stopped subsidizing it. How does that make sense? Quebec’s “capacité d’intégration” could be multiplied if the government and Quebecers really put their heart into it.

“I dream of a province where rights-infringing measures are lifted.” – André Pratte

However, francophone Quebecers should not only rely on the government to preserve French, as they have done too often. This is too easy and often ineffective.

First, francophones should strive to speak correct French, with as few anglicisms as possible, and an accurate grammar. This will sound silly to many, but a language not well spoken is not attractive in the eyes of others. If we, French speakers, do not respect our mother tongue, how can we demand that newcomers do so?

Second, we should get rid of this habit of immediately switching to English the minute we meet a person who does not master French. Often, the person in question would enjoy the opportunity to practice their French. Understandably, they are a bit shy. Instead of being impatient, as we tend to be, we should encourage and help them.

Meanwhile, English-speaking Montrealers should do their best to speak French as often as possible. In most cases, their French is very good and they already do use it regularly. But in other cases, anglophones are understandably timid. They need to overcome that shyness. The only way to perfect one’s language skills is to use it at each opportunity.

Anglo leaders such as Rousseau and Suzuki should be curious enough to get out of St-Lambert, the West Island or downtown, and get to know the other solitude, improve their French, set the example. Air Canada et the Canadiens, as all respected Montreal-based institutions, should require their leaders working in Quebec to be as fluent as possible in both official languages.

I have always been an idealist. Naïve, some would say.

I dream of a province where rights-infringing measures are lifted.

More specifically, I dream of a Montreal where both the French and the English communities see it as their collective and personal duty to preserve the metropolis’ unique, French culture.

I dream of a Montreal where both communities are curious enough about each other to learn the other’s language and build relationships with people of all origins and cultures.

I dream of a Montreal where French speakers will fight to preserve their mother tongue not by asking the government to restrict people’s fundamental rights, but by themselves promoting a modern, dynamic, and correct French.

I dream of a Montreal where Michael Rousseau and Nick Suzuki will not need to be “forced” to learn and practice their French, but will spontaneously understand the social requirement and the personal advantages of doing so.

“I dream of a Montreal where both communities are curious enough about each other to learn the other’s language…” – André Pratte

If we strive to make those dreams come true, Montreal will become even more original, diverse, attractive and peaceful than it is today. We will set an example for the world. Let us make this our goal.

The Honourable André Pratte is a Senior Fellow, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa. Former La Presse Chief Editorial Writer. Independent Senator from 2016 to 2019.