They say that nothing is certain in this world but death and taxes. And, if you live in Quebec, you can also add contentious language debates to that.
Last week a simple tweet by the OQLF recommending people and businesses use “à emporter” instead of “take-out” got the fireworks started again. The tweet itself was nothing special. Part of the OQLF’s mandate is to promote the proper French terminology, as I alluded to in a column a few weeks ago.
The optics, of course, weren’t great, as restaurants are struggling in this pandemic economy. At first glance, the tweet was analogous to a man drowning and someone from the OQLF standing on the shore and yelling, “You should try swimming, and if you use the butterfly stroke, make sure to call it ‘la nage papillon.’”
It was inevitable that Quebecers of all linguistic backgrounds would chuckle at the timing. Particularly, when, in my experience, “take-out” is rarely used by anglophones and allophones, but routinely used by francophones.
Miffed by the controversy, La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé wrote about “English privilege,” as if Quebec’s anglophones are a majority community by virtue of the language that they speak. As if they, too, aren’t also a minority within a minority, currently terrified for their rights, their schools and their place in a Quebec they also helped build. Quebec anglophones are routinely seen as one and the same with anglophones in the ROC who neither live here nor understand Quebec. They are not. The status of the English language should never be equated with the status of Quebec’s English-speaking communities.
A “phantom opponent”
Montreal Gazette columnist Brendan Kelly was right to voice his opposition (on Twitter) to Lagacé fighting “a phantom opponent – the privileged anglo who is violently opposed to Bill 101 and government support for the French language.”
It’s simply not true. The vast majority of anglophones and allophones living in Quebec support measures to protect the language — some of them more actively than some of you would think. I decided to speak with some of them.
The anglophone MNA who proposed a motion that went nowhere
It’s been a year since Liberal MNA Greg Kelley tabled a motion to give all Quebecers access to free French classes. What has happened since this motion was tabled, particularly since the CAQ says it’s a defender of the French language? Nothing.
One could argue that a global pandemic has affected our government’s current priorities, forcing it to shift gears to focus on health, but the CAQ is preparing tougher language legislation as we speak. So, why has the progressive and inclusive motion of a member of the National Assembly been literally ignored?
I asked Kelley if there was initial resistance to his motion.
“No, it received a very positive reception,” he told me. “Everyone voted for it, including then interim leader of the PQ, Pascal Berubé, and the CAQ minister in charge of language, Simon Jolin-Barrette, who told me that it was a ‘great idea,’ but that they were working on things for their legislation.”
Since then, crickets.
Kelley isn’t sure if his motion will find its way into the CAQ’s new language legislation, but he worries about a potential punitive side and whether English-language services (particularly for health and social services) might be limited only to some anglophones.
“Will there be an attempt to restrict access to English services?” he asks. “How do you implement this? Who is a ‘historic anglo’ and how do they prove it? How do we prevent some civil servants from taking liberties with this legislation and abusing it?”
Kelley’s major concern is the older English-speaking population, which wants and has a legal right (as a language minority) to be served in their language, especially seniors needing medical care. Kelley’s concern reflects the concerns of older anglophones and allophones, the pre-Bill 101 crowd, who speak French poorly and are worried they will face declining health and sickness unable to have access to healthcare in their mother tongue.
A need for more progressive solutions
“We need to start having different, more progressive discussions on language, here in Quebec,” he says. “I sometimes get tired that we don’t look for more progressive solutions. Everyone who lives in Quebec and wants to stay here wants to master French. It’s not an easy language, so why not give people more access to tools? It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game.”
Kelley agrees that language is often seen as a wedge issue in the province and the media sometimes plays into it, vilifying Montreal, which he doesn’t find fair.
“If you look at Montreal’s official flag, you’ll see the Indigenous, English, French, Scottish and Irish symbols,” he says. “That’s not by accident. It communicates that since Montreal’s founding, we have always been a diverse city right from the beginning. When I hear people say, ‘Montreal is only French,’ I can’t accept that as true because historically it’s just not true.”
The anglophone who filed OQLF complaints
An anglophone from New Zealand may not be who you would think of as being the typical person filing an OQLF complaint, but Hamish McConnochie has filed two so far.
He moved to Montreal two years ago and works as a consultant for one of the city’s top-tier accounting firms. McConnochie took evening classes back in New Zealand and went to French school while living in London to perfect his French. He’s proud of mastering the language. Only problem? When he speaks it in public, many Quebecers immediately switch to English.
“I find it offensive,” he tells me over the phone. “I put a lot of effort into improving my French, I know they can understand me, I continue speaking in French, and yet they routinely switch to English.”
McConnochie was so frustrated by French-speaking service personnel switching to English that he decided to file an OQLF complaint on two separate incidents and let the establishments know.
“Bill 101 protects everyone’s rights to be served in French,” he says. “So I did what was legally my right.”
Both complaints were filed in January of 2020. The OQLF sent him letters informing him that they were opening files on the complaints, but he hasn’t heard anything since. In contrast, when he made a complaint with the federal government regarding a lack of French at an airport, his complaint was treated immediately.
“When service people switch to English or ask me if I’m speaking French ‘to practise my French,’ it’s insulting. I already speak French and I don’t go to these places to get comments on how I speak it!”
When asked if he considers Kelly’s motion for free French classes a good idea, McConnochie says he does “in theory,” but doesn’t believe the current system would be able to cope with something like that.
“It would be hard to implement,” he says. “In my experience, the current system feels partially fragmented, like it’s been contracted out. Better collaboration is needed. Websites and information are often hard to access.”
The face of younger Quebec anglophones
Noah Sidel is a born-and-raised anglophone Montrealer. Soon to be 40, he’s the very definition of a Bill 101 kid. He finds himself often frustrated by these stale debates.
“I listen to Radio-Canada and CBC daily,” he says. “When I read Martineau or listen to Dutrizac, they’re still fighting my dad’s generation. It’s a generation that’s still emotional about Bill 101. You start a conversation with them, and they immediately go from ‘plats à emporter’ to exploding mailboxes. I get it… If you only look at [the legislation] as a tool of oppression and have been calling the OQLF the ‘language police’ for the past 40 years, you’re going to remain in a permanent state of victimhood. But that’s not my reality or the reality of younger anglophones in the province.”
Sidel, who’s the father of three young children, looks forward to them being bilingual and perhaps multilingual.
“For every angry Bock-Côté column, I know an older anglophone who’s equally angry and doesn’t have a column,” he says. “But all these people are stuck in the past, fighting old battles. We actually benefited the most from Bill 101,” he says of the anglophone community.
“If anything, the only part of Bill 101 I don’t understand is how francophones gave up their right to send their kids to a school of their language of choice, but the legislation doesn’t offend me personally.”
Sidel believes that it’s important to support measures to protect French, but to also be open to acknowledging what the issues really are. “Is French really declining on the island of Montreal because of so-called English supremacy, like certain pundits like to put it, or because of taxation and demographics and francophones leaving the island for the suburbs?”
Pundits stuck in the past
Sidel sees most of the current language debates instigated and misconstrued by columnists and pundits stuck in the past. “Some folks are still fighting on the Plains of Abraham,” he says. “Post-Bill 101 francophone kids are much more secure in their linguistic identity because their parents already won the battle. They can be open to new cultures because they feel secure in their own identity and aren’t constantly worried that they will be assimilated — something that older generations of francophones are still struggling with.”
A CAQ supporter (yes, not all Quebec anglophones vote Liberal…), Sidel believes in the pragmatic aspect of learning French. “If you don’t look at the issue emotionally, why would anyone living here refuse to learn French? Bill 101 works. It made Quebec much stronger, allowed us to become much more rooted in our society here and forced an older generation to come to terms with that.”
Sidel supports Kelley’s motion for free French classes and considers the idea “excellent,” but questions why they should even be necessary.
“Quebec-born students shouldn’t be able to coast through French classes if the quality is good,” he says. He hopes that the quality of French currently being taught is better than it was when he was in school 20 years ago.
Less tension, more communication
As a post-Bill 101 anglophone Quebecer, Sidel doesn’t relate to many of these debates at the forefront of both French and English media. He doesn’t recognize his Quebec in them.
“I play hockey with a lot of people from all over Quebec and there’s not one person below 50 who doesn’t have sufficient knowledge of both languages to get by. It’s simply a lie that francophones outside Montreal don’t speak English or that anglophones in Montreal don’t speak French. The reason there is less tension with younger Quebecers is precisely because we communicate.”
Sidel believes that most anglophones fully accept Bill 101, but often reject the OQLF as a tool of oppression. “That’s partly the OQLF’s fault,” he says. “They have to stop doing dumb things like ‘Pastagate.’ They need to use the OQLF as a tool, not a weapon. But, then again, they come out with perfectly benign suggestions for language usage, like a substitute for ‘take-out’ and they get ridiculed, so they can’t win…”
Garber: “Language is a very generational issue”
Mitch Garber also agrees that the OQLF has often failed to reasonably apply the law. “In the same way the cops shouldn’t give you a ticket for driving 102km in a 100km zone, language inspectors should give businesses a warning first. Their job should be to promote, not to police.”
Garber is known to most French Quebecers as the successful businessman on the French-language version of The Dragon’s Den, Dans l’Oeil du Dragon. A fully bilingual Montrealer, the 56-year-old routinely tweets on language issues and can often be seen criticizing certain Quebec pundits.
“The language issue is a very generational issue in Quebec,” says Garber, reached by phone. “We have a whole group of people from 40 to 80 years of age who, through no fault of their own, didn’t benefit from Bill 101. But just about everyone who lives in Quebec now is here voluntarily. Most that didn’t want to live in this environment would have already left.”
Like every anglophone and allophone I know, Garber believes that knowing how to speak French is an absolute asset – both culturally and financially. He attributes French-English tension to two things: a) history, basically, an older generation of anglophones who are bitter because they feel French was forced upon them, and older francophones who remain bitter because they were forced to speak English, and b) Québecor opinion columnists whose subject and tone is always contentious because they work for a media conglomeration focused on Quebec separation.
“People read these pundits,” says Garber, “and think that they represent the thoughts of all Quebecers. That’s not how young Quebecers feel about systemic racism, about French-English relations in this province… that’s perhaps how a 60-year-old pundit feels about them…”
Looking to younger Quebecers for inspiration
For investment reasons, Garber spends a lot of time on popular social media platforms like TikTok and he sees first-hand how young francophone Quebecers love their language and culture.
“Some videos get 200,000 clicks in the first 12 hours,” he says. “The Quebec hashtag on TikTok receives 4 billion views in a year. In the meantime, you have some media pundits struggling for relevance. There is a lot of relevant content out there. Just because older Quebecers don’t know about it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
Garber believes there’s a real hunger for good quality French content and it’s up to us to give it to them.
“You’re not going to preserve French culture by force,” he says. “Laws are there to protect French, but you can’t force the younger generation not to be bilingual or not to be interested in other things. If you want to ignore this entire streaming world, go right ahead, bury your head in the sand. But you need to provide relevant content and you need to acknowledge that good content already exists.”
How do you motivate people?
Regarding efforts to promote French in this province, Garber isn’t interested in more punitive measures. “The question is simple: ‘How do you motivate people?’ People are often motivated by tax credits. Why can’t we use the internet to our advantage and produce a great series on French learning?”
Garber likens it to an online course. “If you pass the test, you get a tax credit,” he says. “Teaching grammar to older people or guilting younger people isn’t going to work, but incentivizing people to pass a course that’s entertaining will produce many more Quebecers functional in French, and isn’t that ultimately the goal?” ■
According to Statistics Canada, 71 per cent of English-speaking Quebecers are bilingual, up from 68 per cent in 2011. That number jumps to 80 per cent between the ages of 18 and 34. An impressive 94.4 per cent of Quebecers of all linguistic backgrounds are able to have a conversation in French, making Quebec Canada’s most bilingual province and Montreal Canada’s most trilingual city.
Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.