Guy Rex RodgersWhat We Choose To Remember

Quebec’s summer festivals, street fairs and block parties create opportunities to speak with casual acquaintances and total strangers. A number of Francophones have asked me how Anglos are feeling about Bill 96. They have been surprised that many of us feel a stinging sense of betrayal. I explain that we spent decades respecting the spirit of Bill 101, improving our French, using French as our public language and having our children educated in French. The reward for our effort was Bill 96, which declares that Quebec’s language and culture are threatened by people whose mother tongue is not French. The CAQ cleverly framed the debate so that Francophones hear, “Our language and culture are threatened” and agree. Non-Francophones hear, “You are a threat to Quebec” and disagree.

Regrets about the politicization of language for electoral purposes have been immediately followed by justification for strict language laws. “We are a minority in North America. Our language and culture are threatened.” The existential threat has been around a long time. Bill 101 addressed pragmatic issues such as economic inequality. In 1961, unilingual Francophones earned 10% less than unilingual Anglos and 17% less than bilingual Anglos. Public uproar stirred the government to pass strict language laws. Half a century later the tables have been turned, with unilingual Francophones earning 10% more than unilingual Anglos, 8% more than bilingual Anglos – and a whopping 36% more than French-speaking Allophones. This new economic inequality is ignored by today’s government.

The second most common justification for Bill 96 is language of work. Zealots presume that oppressed workers are increasingly denied the right to speak their mother tongue, and must be defended by stricter laws. The example of a situation that requires strict new laws in the workplace is always the same – “When an Anglo enters the room, every one is forced to speak English.” Elsie Lefebvre, a panelist on TVA’s La Joute recently invoked the myth of the Super Anglo to justify Bill 96.  She said, “Many people tell me, ‘In my workplace, two Anglos joined the team, and now everyone speaks English!’”  What power do these Super Anglos have to force an entire team to capitulate to their language?

Every time I hear this story of the Super Anglo mesmerizing Francophones colleagues with the supernatural powers of a Pied Piper, I imagine a concert at the Francofolies Festival. An American tourist has bought a ticket to experience the local culture. She asks the usher for help finding her seat, in English – and something extraordinary happens. Concertgoers who overhear the tourist immediately switch from French to English. The contagion rapidly spreads through the entire audience and when the curtain rises, the musicians burst into song – in English – and everyone sings along!

One possible explanation for the Super Anglo phenomenon is that Quebec’s Francophones are extraordinarily welcoming to outsiders. This is part of the explanation for ‘bonjour-hi’. My kids ask if it bothers me that clerks switch to English the instant they hear my accent. I find it puzzling when I am speaking fully-functional French that someone replies to me in English, but I presume they are being courteous. Maybe this is what is happening in work places all around Quebec? But if the motivation is courtesy, why so much griping?  If clerks choose to speak to me in English I do not expect to hear them kvetching as I walk away, “Another damned Anglo denying us the right to speak French!”

Elsie Lefebvre concluded her case for strong government intervention by lamenting, “When people get up in the morning to go to work, they don’t want to have to act like language police!”  She applauded Bill 96’s strong intervention by real language police to end the tyranny of Super Anglos.

Gaétan Barrette, who was a panelist on the same TVA La Joute episode, proposed a simpler solution. When Barrette encounters a Super Anglo clerk, contractor or colleague, he continues speaking in French, courteously but firmly. In his experience “The vast majority of Anglophones – and the data support this – will accept communicating in French.” What? Even Super Anglo will speak French when exposed to a dose of courtesy kryptonite?  If only things were so simple in real life…

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]

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