Montreal’s South Asian English-speaking women are full-fledged Quebecers, too

“Bill 96’s narrower definition of who is considered an English-speaker means that close to half a million Quebecers who are more comfortable receiving healthcare or legal communications in English are no longer legally permitted to do so.”

One of the consequences of cultural and political debates in Quebec almost always being seen through the prism of the French-English conflict is that the province’s English-speaking minorities are often erroneously perceived exclusively as a monolith by Quebec’s French-speaking majority. When you say “English-speaking,” many in the province routinely and solely equate the term with descendants of Lord Durham or Quebecers of British origin — predominantly white folks residing in Westmount or the West Island.

In fact, Quebec has had generations of English speakers from a wide diversity of ethnic and religious backgrounds, and over a quarter of Quebec’s English-speaking community — which overwhelmingly resides in the Montreal region — comes from visible-minority groups. 

Members of immigrant groups who acquired English before French are also part of Quebec’s English-speaking community, even though they’re not classified as “historic anglos,” a term first used in 2019 by the CAQ government when it introduced Bill 96 and further restrictions on access to English-speaking services. Although vaguely defined and still a source of much confusion, the term usually applies to Quebecers who’ve undergone their schooling in English. 

What Bill 96’s narrower definition of who is considered an English-speaker has, however, accomplished is that close to half a million Quebecers who are more comfortable receiving communications about their healthcare or legal services in English are no longer legally permitted to do so, creating additional challenges for them. Yet, like most of Quebec’s English speakers and allophones, they have strong ties to this province even while fighting for their rights and their presence to be recognized. 

Québécoises à part entière, tabarnouche!

Dr. Dolores Chew

For women in Canada’s official language minority communities (French speakers in the rest of Canada and English speakers in Quebec), language issues often “intersect” with those linked to other social and identity markers besides language. During the 91st Annual ACFAS (Association francophone pour le savoir) Conference, recently organized by the Quebec English-Speaking Communities Research Network (QUESCREN) and the Canadian Institute for Research on Linguistic Minorities (CIRLM) at the University of Ottawa, a panel on intersectionality and community action fundamentally highlighted some of these challenges for Quebec’s South-Asian women. 

The panel, cheekily entitled “Women of South-Asian origin: Québécoises à part entière (tabarnouche!) at the South Asian Women’s Community,” featured presenters Dr. Dolores Chew, a founding member of the South-Asian Women’s Community Centre (SAWCC) as well as a history and humanities instructor at Marianopolis College and research associate at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute of Concordia University, and Dr. Mela Sarkar, who teaches at McGill with an area of expertise in applied linguistics as well as second language acquisition and pedagogy. During the panel, they spoke about how they identify as full-fledged Quebecers, even if different in many ways from the French-speaking majority, and spoke further on the topic in an interview with me.

English speaking because of British colonization 

“I was raised Roman Catholic,” says Dr. Chew. “My grandfather is Chinese, and I grew up in post-colonial India as an English speaker. I learned Bengali and I learned Hindi, but I spoke English. As South Asians, we are small numerically in Quebec, but we have linguistic and religious diversity. It’s not just Tamils or Bangladeshis or Pakistanis. We have Muslims, Christians and Sikhs in the community. Legislation like Bill 21 and Bill 96 affected many of us.”

Women of South Asian origin have been present in Quebec, mainly Montreal, since the 1960s. The SAWCC has served successive waves of immigration from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka since 1981, with Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Gujarati, Tamil and Bengali most often spoken. If English is the common language, it’s not as an affront to French. Two hundred years of British imperialism and economic exploitation have meant that in South Asia, English is often the lingua franca.

Even though these groups are diverse in terms of languages and religion and ethnicity, they are often lumped together as South Asian, often recognized neither as English speakers nor as fully integrated Quebecers. 

“South Asia is way more diverse than Europe,” says Dr. Chew. “If you said, ‘That person from Sweden and that person from Sardinia are both European so they must be really similar, you would be wrong. And you are equally wrong if you say any two South Asians are the same.”

Both women say that the francophone majority recognizing and understanding a ‘minority within a minority’ is important to ensuring all Quebecers can be supported. Services specifically catering to minority communities can certainly help.

SAWCC: sisterhood and solidarity

South-Asian Women’s Community Centre picnic

Founded in 1981, the South Asian Women’s Community Centre was created when a group of nine South Asian women of varying ages in Montreal met to discuss the lack of an organization that met the needs of women from their specific backgrounds. There was a growing population whose cultures and languages weren’t represented or understood and were unable to access what was available to them.  

“It was initially a struggle,” says Dr. Sarkar. “People like well-known Quebec feminist Madeleine Parent were instrumental in opening the Fédération des Femmes du Québec (FFQ) to a wider membership and bringing South Asian women in, bringing Filipino women in, engaging in a rapprochement with Femmes Autochtones du Québec, which defends the interests of Quebec’s Aboriginal women. Madeleine was amazing, she loved us, and we loved her, and she told the FFQ time and time again to let us in and to listen to us.”

The community has both Muslim and Sikh women who have been discriminated against with Bill 21. In 2019, the Centre issued a public statement opposing the legislation. “If the government truly wants to demonstrate its secularism, neutrality and commitment to gender equality it should focus instead on eliminating systemic racism in public institutions,” it read.

From the get-go, the collective saw SAWCC as a movement to empower immigrant women and help them ease their transition into Quebec society. The centre has been part of the front line of feminist struggles in alliance and solidarity with all Quebec women from all backgrounds.

Canada’s South Asian community has been in the country since 1897, when Punjabi Sikh soldiers arrived in British Columbia while transiting from India to the U.K. In recent years it has become the largest visible minority, followed by Chinese and Black Canadians, with most living in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta. 

While the South Asian population is expected to grow in Quebec (169,000 projected by 2031), only 6% of the community currently resides here, representing approximately 1% of the population. As a result, Quebec’s South Asian community has received limited attention in comparison with other minority groups, even though it, too, has been affected by recent Quebec legislation. 

Bill 96 concerning to the community 

“Access to healthcare is a real concern of mine,” says Dr. Chew. “I’m getting old, and I fear that at some point in my life, the person treating me may not be able to speak to me in English or may misinterpret the law as we recently saw with a presentation for parents of English-language students with disabilities only conducted in French, because the employee misunderstood the application of Bill 96.”

The Bill 96 requirement to only receive services in French after six months is problematic, according to Dr. Sarkar. “Many women arrive here as spouses, are usually at home with children and don’t have the same opportunities to pick up the language quickly,” she says. “If you call us and we can’t offer you the services you’re trying to access in a language other than French, it defeats the purpose of what we’re trying to do at the centre to help them navigate their concerns. How does this help women in need or in crisis?”

As a second-language acquisition and pedagogy expert, Dr. Sarkar says that even someone privileged and with access to very good second-language courses would not be able to communicate successfully after six months. 

“We’ve been complaining about this since the beginning,” she says. “There’s no way six months is enough time, no matter how gifted you are at language-learning. This requirement is almost like a weird form of aggression. It makes some people choose not to come here or move away as fast as they can.”

It’s especially punitive considering most immigrants’ linguistic transfer to French eventually happens. “Because our kids are Bill 101 kids,” says Dr. Chew, “the common language at summer camp is French and our camp counsellors all must speak French. The children, whether they come from Tamil backgrounds or Bengali backgrounds, often speak to each other in French.” 

Who gets to call themselves a Quebecer? 

Dr. Mela Sarkar

Both women point out that despite identifying proudly as Quebecers, they’re often not seen as such.

“The ambiguous definition of what it means to be ‘Québécois’ is not going away anytime soon,” says Dr. Sarkar. “If you say, ‘Je suis Québécoise,’ some people will say, ‘Mais oui, tu vis ici, tu parles français, tu es Québécoise.’ But there are a lot of people who’ll say, ‘Hold on, you’re not white, and your ancestors didn’t speak French,’ and so the definition of Québécois, which is only the descendants of the first colonists, is very present in people’s minds and that is the very informal and ingrained definition that many have. The kids in our summer camp were born here, they’re Québécois, but some would say they’re not.”

“To some, Quebecers have to look a certain way, speak a certain way,” says Dr. Chew. 

Both women emphasize the importance of Quebec’s majority understanding that linguistic and cultural diversity are very much a part of Montreal’s reality today. 

“I was born in Calcutta,” says Dr. Sarkar. “My mother was a Ukrainian-Canadian from southern Manitoba, My father was born in what is currently Bangladesh. I’m essentially a Toronto anglo who moved here. English is my first language. I don’t speak any South Asian language well, I speak a little Bengali, I speak French much better.”

Dr. Sarkar believes that healthy pushback against those who would doubt her Quebec credentials is necessary. “If you’re someone like me,” she says “when people say you’re not Québécoise, I stand my ground and assert that I am. You have to be tough-skinned and tough-minded.”

“Tied in with this question of language,” says Dr. Chew, “there’s also often ignorance of the history of colonialism. If people are coming from Bangladesh or India and their common language is English, it’s because of colonialism. They’re not speaking English to be anti-Quebec or anti-French.”

Tackling a Quebec that’s changing

The trick to overcoming challenges, both women insist, is to give people the support that they need so that they feel like they belong. “It takes a community,” says Dr. Chew.

The centre continues to be a great source of strength for both of them. “It’s the oldest of its kind in Canada and in the U.S.,” says Dr. Chew, “and very unique in that we don’t only provide services, we do advocacy work, we present briefs to the government on these issues. We’ve been members of the FFQ for many years and our input is valued.”

The idea, however, that Quebec is changing with immigration is of concern to some. “Demographic change is creating fear that we’re going to lose ‘our Quebec.’ There’s this ahistorical notion that culture is somehow static,” says Dr. Chew. “Languages and cultures evolve. Culture cannot be fossilized.”

“In my discipline of applied linguistics,” adds Dr. Sarkar, “there’s something we call the ‘monolingual mindset.’” This is the deep conviction that it’s normal to speak one language and abnormal if you speak more than one, even though having more than one language is the reality for most of the world’s population.”

The fact that people speak more than one language doesn’t endanger their ability to speak French, according to Dr. Sarkar. “For some people, if you speak English, that means that you don’t speak French, or you don’t speak it well. But people can be fluently bilingual, trilingual, quadrilingual. None of the languages are damaged by the presence of other languages. But the monolingual mindset doesn’t see that. It’s very hard to overcome.” 

Both women worry that language is too often politicized here. “You can mask all societal ills with the mantra ‘protection of the French language,’” says Dr. Sarkar, “and ostensibly rally the troops behind you while you’re cutting back on services and implementing austerity measures and neo-liberal policies.” ■

May is Asian Heritage Month, honouring the lives and contributions of people of Asian origin in Canada — including those who have immigrated from South Asia, Southeast Asia, West Asia and Central Asia. To find out more about the South Asian Women’s Community Centre in Montreal, please click here. For information, the trailer and the complete schedule of the 13th edition of the Montreal South Asian Film Festival, which features over 50 movies, many award-winning, from nine countries in a multitude of languages, taking place May 24 to June 2, please click here

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.