François Legault CAQ Quebec

Photo by Jacques Boissinot, The Canadian Press

François Legault and the CAQ continue to legislate for a Quebec that no longer exists

“Legault is operating a full-scale scare campaign about the fragility of the French language, using tired clichés about anglophones and outdated statistics about allophones.”

As public debates continue around Bill 96 and French-language protection in Quebec, the thing that strikes me the most about the CAQ’s approach to language legislation is its perhaps willful lack of comprehension of Quebec’s current linguistic reality. 

François Legault seems intent on operating a full-scale scare campaign revolving around often exaggerated and inaccurate claims about the current fragility of the French language, tired clichés about Quebec’s English-speaking community and outdated statistics about allophone immigrants’ language transfer to French that never seem to tell the full story. 

In simple terms: the CAQ continues to legislate for a Quebec that no longer exists. 

Louisiana on the horizon

Legault claims that if Quebec doesn’t take even more control of its own immigration, it will soon be on its way towards becoming another Louisiana. Nothing could be further from the truth. With close to 80% of all Quebecers having French as their mother tongue and with current Statistics Canada numbers confirming that more Quebecers than ever are communicating in French, the comparison with Louisiana is absurd. 

Louisiana only ever had a small base of French speakers and, in sharp contrast to Quebec, where French enjoys official status and where every young newcomer is directed straight into the francophone school system, French was banned as a language of instruction in Louisiana. The comparison has been lambasted by most (including franco-Louisianians and experts of Louisiana history) for being a baseless assertion. Even if certain pundits and politicians insist French is in free-fall, Quebec’s Bill 101 has been a success, with an overwhelming majority of new Quebecers evolving into French speakers. 

My home, my business

But the goalposts keep changing and these projected declines are often very ethnically driven. Now, instead of aiming to ensure that the public face of Quebec is French, and the common language spoken in public is French (Bill 101’s very reason for existing), Legault’s government has shifted its attention to what language people speak at home even though many reputable demographers like sociolinguist Calvin Veltman will tell you that this is not an accurate indicator of the French language’s vitality. 

This manufactured linguistic crisis is problematic for many reasons. Aside from scapegoating immigrants and allophones for their mother tongue, this crisis is also based on faulty numbers. While the government likes to use outdated data to justify its policies, stating that only 55% of allophone immigrants end up adopting French as their go-to language, statistics for those who’ve arrived in Quebec after 2001 point to a different (and consistently upwards) trend; a linguistic transfer closer to 75%, which means that more and more allophone immigrants are choosing French over English. 

Incomprehension of linguistic plurality 

When Premier Legault says he intends to monitor the language people speak at home as a measure of the French language’s vitality, he not only betrays his lack of understanding of language acquisition, but also fails to understand the plurality of many Quebecers’ lives today –particularly in Montreal. He doesn’t understand the percentage of marriage across linguistic lines in this city, how many allophones and anglophones are speaking French alongside their other languages at home while raising French-speaking kids. He doesn’t understand that integration sometimes takes two or three generations, and that in many cases the children of immigrants will be the ones to eventually master and use French predominantly. He doesn’t understand and appreciate that allophones, too, want to speak and maintain their mother tongues.

In the 2007 documentary Les Enfants de la loi 101, by Italian-Quebec filmmaker Anita Aloisio, Tihana, a Croatian-Quebecer who works for Quebec’s immigration ministry says, “I think in Croatian, I speak to myself in Croatian, I speak to my parents in Croatian, I dream in Croatian, I even speak to my cat in Croatian, but it doesn’t prevent me from living in French and being happy about living in French.” 

Perhaps some language zealots would want us to also dream in French, but last I checked government doesn’t control that aspect of our lives. 

Perpetuating clichés about non-francophones

I don’t know of any allophones and anglophones in today’s Quebec who stubbornly refuse to learn French. I have no doubt a few still exist, but they’re a dwindling minority. Outdated images of an “anglophone elite” that looks down at their French neighbours or of allophones who irrationally cling to their own linguistic ghettoes are, for the most part, outdated clichés used to push buttons and easily scare a majority that understandably worries about its language’s fragility. 

The English speakers who were vehemently against Bill 101 took the 401 to Toronto and the ROC decades ago. Their kids have kids of their own by now. Yet Legault and company are still sitting around evoking their memory as if they continue to be haunted by them, creating legislation to tackle people and attitudes that left the province ages ago.

The majority of anglophones and allophones who remained in Quebec and learned to speak French — who sent their kids to French immersion, who continued their lives here with the complicit understanding that the face of Quebec would now be officially and predominantly French — somehow continue to pay for the sins of the ones who are no longer here to even incur the slightest of inconveniences. 

For every anglophone who obnoxiously insists they be served in English while ordering a coffee, there’s their evil French-speaking twin berating a new immigrant behind a cash register of a minimum-wage job for not having mastered the French language quickly enough to their liking.

But, thankfully, they’re both annoying exceptions. 

We continue to waste far too much media attention on exceptions, allowing politicians to capitalize on anecdotes, distracting us from issues like healthcare, education and the economy, issues that Quebecers of all linguistic backgrounds are most concerned by. 

Montreal not buying what the CAQ is selling 

When Premier Legault is heard on a hot mic saying, “Only the West Island is complaining about Bill 96,” he reveals he’s operating from outdated clichés straight from his childhood in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue when both linguistic communities operated largely in isolation from each other. That’s no longer the case, no matter which Montreal neighbourhood you walk through.

It’s the reason why support for the CAQ’s divisive rhetoric is lacking in Montreal. Fear-based arguments don’t work as well when our daily reality easily disproves these narratives. The minute you step out your door, you’re surrounded by French-speaking allophones and anglophones. Most Montrealers also understand it’s perfectly normal to hear English and many other languages spoken in Canada’s most trilingual city. 

It’s why Legault’s party barely won any seats in Montreal. The CAQ may have “avenir” in its name but most of us don’t recognize ourselves in Legault’s backwards parochial protectionism, in this Quebec he claims to be so proud of but which he insists should constantly be afraid of its own shadow.

How, when statistics clearly show more French than ever is spoken in Quebec and more Quebecers than ever can communicate in the French language, are some consciously choosing to focus on and fret about a measly minority that perhaps chooses not to? To willingly place that kind of oversized emphasis on such a minor number is a choice. 

A deliberate, political choice.

Vigilance within today’s reality 

As Quebecers, we can and should engage in debates about how much or how little we want the government encroaching on our lives and decisions, and how we can best protect and promote the French language, but scapegoating Quebecers for their mother tongue or distorting stats to paint a picture of Quebec that no longer exists isn’t the way forward. 

We’re no longer living in the 1950s, the ’60s or the ’70s, and neither should our government. Bill 101 has unequivocally changed the face of this province and allowed French to emerge as the common language, no matter how many other mother tongues one continues to hear in a city as multilingual as Montreal. As a result, the politics of grievance no longer resonate with younger Quebecers the way they once did. 

The Quebec of 2022 is vibrant, increasingly diverse, increasingly plural, enriched by its immigration, and remains and will continue to remain predominantly and proudly French. Premier Legault should come visit. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis here.