Guy Rex RodgersWhat We Choose To Remember

Is Quebec on the verge of becoming Louisiana north? Is the English-language a threat to Quebec? Are people who speak English a problem? Are recent immigrants more of a problem than ‘historic Anglos’? Is bilingualism a Trojan horse? Are bilingual Allophones a bigger threat than bilingual Anglos?

If you answered yes to three or more of those questions you have no trouble understanding Bill 96 and the proposed revisions to the federal Official Language Act. If these questions do not make a lot of sense to you the recent language uproar has been increasingly confusing and disturbing.

Linguistic demographics are complex when citizens are multilingual, and Quebec is extremely complex linguistically. There are many different ways of counting multilinguals: mother tongue, first official language spoken, language(s) of education, language(s) of work, language(s) spoken at home, primary language of the soul, and ancestral language of cultural survival. The last two are not officially recognized categories but they play a key role in Quebec’s language politics.

The complexity of our linguistic situations makes it difficult to agree on metrics or their interpretation, let alone to propose solutions. A few facts are incontrovertible.

Fact #1. French is a minority language in North America. This is not new. French-speakers were dramatically outnumbered at the ‘Conquest’ (20 English-speakers in North America for each French-speaker) and the linguistic imbalance is worse today (45 to 1).

Fact #2. Quebecers are increasingly bilingual. From 25% half a century ago, the number of bilinguals in the 2021 census is nearly 50%. Many jobs require a knowledge of English. Most academic papers are written in English. More young Francophones find English-language culture entertaining and believe that speaking English increases their career opportunities. Immigrants who learn French also learn English.

Fact #3. Bilingualism can be additive (good) or subtractive (bad). The subtractive version causes deterioration of a first language if the second language is dominant and more attractive. French is a minority language in North America. English is the highly attractive global lingua franca.

Frédéric Lacroix, an influential authority on language, has written several books to prove that the situation in Quebec is catastrophic. Lacroix’s solution to the problem of subtractive bilingualism and ‘défrancisation’ is simple. “Quebecers must speak French at all times, in every situation and in all circumstances, with all compatriots from all linguistic backgrounds and with every institution, public and private. With no exceptions!”

René Lévesque wanted French to be the official language of Quebec and encouraged Anglos to use French for public discourse but did not expect them to renounce English in their private lives. Lévesque wanted Allophones to adopt French as their official language but did not discourage them from retaining their mother tongue or learning other languages, including English, and he had no problem with young Francophones becoming as fluently bilingual as he was.

It is a fact that 46.4% of Quebecers are bilingual. All indicators point to a future that is increasingly bilingual. René Lévesque’s Bill 101 recognized Quebec’s complexities and its competing priorities of seeking to protect French while remaining open to other languages. It accomplished many of its goals because most of us supported it. The questionable measures of Legault’s Bill 96 – expecting immigrants to master French within six months and empowering authorities without warrants to seize computers to search for illegal use of English – are divisive and likely to do more harm than good. Far worse is Bill 96’s presumption that Anglos and immigrants will not support Quebec’s French language and culture without heavy-handed coercion. This is a serious error whose costs will far outweigh the benefits.

Guy Rex Rodgers was founding Executive Director of the English Language Arts Network (ELAN) and recently returned to filmmaking. You can reach Guy at: [email protected]