Guy Rex Rodgers

When the train runs off the rails of reality, you’re in for a wild and bumpy ride.  Quebec is increasingly a land where fears and fantasies chart the course.

Back in the 70s, Quebec’s language and culture were in serious trouble for reasons I examine in my documentary film What We Choose To Remember. The political response was to pass a law declaring French the official language. Quebec was then, and still is, far more bilingual than Canada. The federal Official Languages Act (1969) was an aspirational fantasy that had as little impact making Canada a bilingual nation as Bill 101 (1977) had in making Quebec unilingual. The influence of English has steadily increased, as has the percentage of bilingual Quebecers, and yet language zealots cite the law to ‘prove’ that Quebec is not bilingual.

A more recent example is Bill 21, which declares secularism a fundamental Quebec value. In the late 18th century, France fought a bloody revolution to create a modern, secular society. During the Reign of Terror, revolutionary authorities confiscated Church property, exiled 30,000 priests and killed hundreds. Denis Diderot allegedly proclaimed, “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”

Meanwhile Nouvelle France went in the opposite direction and became one of the most religious societies in the world, and Quebec was still deeply religious within living memory. The 21st century love affair with secularism is not the expression of a fundamental value, deeply-rooted since time immemorial.  Bill 21 would be incomprehensible to generations of devout Catholics turning in their graves.

Today’s example of a legal fiction boldly takes on the internet. Last year, Quebec’s Minister of Culture commissioned a study on Cultural Sovereignty in the Digital Era. Quebec is not alone struggling with the decline of traditional media (print, radio, TV) and the rise of social media.  Local culture (music, literature, theatre) is also overwhelmed by global content, much of it free.

Democracy cannot exist without an educated and informed electorate.  Who will educate the public about local issues if not local media? If they disappear, who and what will fill the information void? Local culture is equally important.  Writers, singers, actors and visual artists tell the stories that make us unique, that give us a sense of belonging to a community rooted in a particular place.

How does Quebec propose to deal with the very large, real and urgent problem of Cultural Sovereignty in the Digital Era?  The Committee recommended altering Quebec’s Charte des droits et libertés de la personne to guarantee the right to digital content. On the surface this is absurd.  If access to internet content is a fundamental right, what next? Will the National Assembly respond to the climate crisis by making White Christmases a fundamental right?

The more closely the proposal of the Digital Sovereignty Committee is examined, the stranger it gets. Canada spent two years analysing the same problem, seeking ways to ensure visibility and viability for Canadian media and culture. Other countries have also defended their local media and culture. Spain defended its primary culture as well as minority-language Basque and Catalan cultures.

Our Digital Sovereignty Committee members lamented how young Québécois are losing interest in French-language TV, films, books, games and even music. Their strategy, with full support from the Minister of Culture, proposes to solve the problem by defending language rather than culture. This strategy conveniently eliminates any need for Quebec to defend minority-language cultures, like English, but risks leaving local French-language culture defenceless against a flood of imported product.

English Canadians and Australians have learned from bitter experience that a vast ocean of English-language content drowns local media and culture.  Like the sailor in Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ dying of thirst while surrounded by ‘water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink’; no amount of salty global content can replace fresh local news and culture.

Of course, there is no guarantee that force-feeding youth on local culture will make them love it, but a serious strategy would invest in creation, production, distribution and discoverability right here where we live.  It would not rely on hoping a new ‘right’ will alter reality. Or the fantasy that commodified ‘language’ is a substitute for culture.

Giving snow-making machines to all Quebecers to ensure a White Christmas would be a foolish climate strategy, but not irrational.  At least the strategy would follow the rails of reality from a diagnosed problem to a guaranteed solution.

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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