What We Choose To Remember

Bloc-Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet provoked a viral reaction last month with his interview for La Presse Canadienne about Montreal and the ROQ (rest of Quebec). Blanchet lamented that Montreal is different from the rest of Quebec, that it is becoming ‘at best bilingual and possibly trilingual’ and that he is ‘extremely anxious’ that the two worlds are spinning into separate orbits.

I agree with Blanchet’s concerns about growing polarization but I do not share his analysis of the problem or its solutions.

Quebec’s low birthrate is a fact shared with most western democracies. If the cradle can’t supply workers, then immigration must. To complexify the issue, the 21st Century has been a period of mass migration. Unprecedented numbers of foreign workers and refugees in European countries have boosted anti-immigration parties. As I wrote in my October column, one of the motivations for Brexit was to gain control of UK borders to prevent foreigners from taking complete control of London.  Canada’s record numbers of immigrants have also congregated in large cities where they can find work.

Urban/rural tensions go back at least as far as Aesop, who wrote his fable about town mice and country mice circa 600 BC. Urbanites have always been different from their rural cousins.

Remember the first summer of the pandemic, when it was difficult to cross borders? Quebec became the number one vacation destination for Quebecers. Hordes of tourists descended on the Gaspé Peninsula. They partied, made noise and left behind piles of garbage. Their behaviour was barbarian, ergo they must be Montrealers! Were the invaders speaking barbarian languages? Not that anyone reported. Were the invaders flaunting ostentatious barbarian symbols? Nothing that appeared in any of the photos. According to all reports, they were regular Francophones de souche. Aesop could have written a wry, insightful and hilarious fable about the clash of cultures.

Blanchet is right to feel anxious about the increasingly polarized and hostile state of Quebec politics. A fringe of Montrealers is suggesting that we should declare an independent city-state. Meanwhile a fringe in the regions is promoting two referenda: one to separate Quebec from Canada and another to separate it from Montreal. These propositions could be dismissed as harmless rhetorical posturing but they respond to real vexations. A growing number of people in the regions have been encouraged to believe that Montreal has been taken over by foreigners.

Part of the explanation is that large numbers of Francophones de souche left Montreal for north and south shore suburbs. The data on downtown Montreal schools shows a similar trend, with immigrants enrolling in public schools while their francophone neighbours are more inclined to choose private schools. Something is happening here and it is worrying, but it is not fair to blame it all on immigrants.

Quebec is not going back to the days of large families for the descendants of Nouvelle France.  Immigrants are not to blame for Quebec’s low birthrate; they are the solution. And Quebec is not going back to a time when most people were unilingual. Immigrants are willing to learn French but they are also – to paraphrase Blanchet’s fear – ‘at least bilingual and probably trilingual.’  Young Francophones are also increasingly bilingual. This reality is irreconcilable with the fantasy that all of Quebec’s social problems will be solved when everyone speaks French.

Exhibit A – The 2020 Gaspésie invasion. Country mice and city mice all spoke the same language, but failed to communicate. Exhibit B – Back in the blissfully-remembered days of francophone homogeneity, the only thing Quebecers loved to hate more than les maudits Anglais was les maudits Français.  George Bernard Shaw captured this dynamic in his quip that, “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.”

After Régis Lebeaume stepped down as mayor of Quebec City a couple of years ago, he spoke with remarkable candour about “the need for Quebec leaders to publicly advocate acceptance of others, which they are reluctant to do because this subject is not politically profitable.” He added, prophetically, “The disagreement between the Metropolis and the ROQ is unhealthy and toxic. It allows nationalist political parties to play on intolerance to win elections.” Too bad Lebeaume did not speak up until after he retired.

Blanchet’s anxiety is justified, but insufficient. We need politicians with the courage to speak out and take action now, while they are in power, before city mice and country mice – recent arrivals and old stock, unilingual and multilingual – forget they are inter-dependent.

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]

Related Posts