Guy Rex RodgersWhat We Choose To Remember

I was surprised last month by a documentary film – A London Lost: The Death of an English City – which made the remarkable claim that London is no longer English because it has been invaded by foreigners. The film’s lament was familiar to anyone living in Quebec in the era of Bill 96.

After the post-war baby boom, London and Montreal both experienced plummeting birth rates, which necessitated increased immigration to maintain the labour force. To accelerate integration, Quebec created Bill 101 to oblige all immigrants to be educated in French. Language optimists believe that Montreal has never been more French since Louis XV traded Nouvelle France to the British in return for Martinique and Guadeloupe. Pessimistic proponents of Bill 96 claim Montreal has never been at greater risk.

A few facts. In 1860, Londoners spoke English. A century later, 97% of Londoners were still English-speaking Brits. As recently as 1991, 80% of Londoners were ‘indigenous’ British, but the 2021 UK census revealed that only 37% of Londoners were old stock Brits while 63% were immigrants. The shift from 3% immigrants (1961) to 63% (2021) took place within a single lifetime, leaving older Brits bewildered and fearful.

Now let’s turn our attention to Montreal. In 1860, fewer than 50% of its citizens were French-speakers. In 1960, Francophones on the island of Montreal had increased to 65%. What is the situation now? It depends which demographer or demagogue you trust. Best-case scenario, 90 % of Montrealers speak French, a remarkable success story for French language and culture. Worst-case scenario, fewer than 50% of Montrealers are ‘mother tongue’ French-speakers.

The producers of A London Lost claim that they rarely hear anyone speak English on the streets of London. Their explanation is that immigrants have no respect for local culture, do not learn the local language, and even those who learn English persist in speaking other languages on the streets and at home. These complaints echo Jean Boulet, CAQ Minister of Immigration before last year’s election, grumbling that “80% of immigrants go to Montreal, do not work, do not speak French or adhere to the values of Quebec society.”

Immigrants do not arrive in London ignorant of Shakespeare, the Beatles or Harry Potter. Most are fans. Immigrants may arrive in Quebec with no knowledge of Michel Tremblay, Beau Dommage or Passe Partout but most of them find French language and culture attractive. Typically, first generation immigrants learn as much of the new language as they need in order to work and navigate daily life. Their children are educated in the local language but continue to speak their ancestral language at home. It can take three generations before immigrants speak the language of their new country at work, on the streets and in their homes. Quebec has long feared that French language and culture are not as attractive for immigrants as English, although one of the biggest obstacles to integration in the 1950s and 60s was that the Catholic Church refused to accept non-Catholics into its schools, pushing immigrants into the Protestant system where they were educated in English. Bill 101 defused the demographic time bomb by obliging all immigrants to be educated in French. Immigrants are surprised that the new generation of language pessimists see them as a threat because of their foreign mother tongue, despite the fact that French is the language they use professionally and socially. Many bilingual Anglos are also indignant to be classed as threats to Quebec because of their foreign mother tongue, which is the language they speak at home.

If Quebec knew its own history, it would remember that the Canadiens Français who went to work in the textile mills of New England maintained French schools and continued to speak French for a century until the generation of Jack Kerouac. Quebecers are proud that their ancestors resisted assimilation for so long and many consider it a tragedy that they finally became unilingual Americans.

Immigration is not an invasion; it is a mutually beneficial collaboration. And bilingualism is not rejection of the local language; it is a pragmatic adaptation. It is absurd for old-stock Brits to imagine that their language – English – is of no interest to immigrants. Pessimism about French language and culture in Quebec, although easier to comprehend, is equally wrong.  And it alienates the ‘foreigners’ that language pessimists so desperately want to integrate.

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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