2021-10-09 16:03:16 French Language Laws Renew Rift With Quebec’s English Speakers

French Language Laws Renew Rift With Quebec’s English Speakers

MONTREAL, QUEBEC — Since opening an English-only bookstore in Montreal last year, Aude Le Dubé has had several unwelcome visitors each month: irate Francophones, sometimes draped in Quebec flags, who storm in and berate her for not selling books in French.

“You’d think I’d opened a sex shop at the Vatican,” Ms. Le Dubé, a novelist from Brittany, France, and a huge F. Scott Fitzgerald fan, remarked.

Ms. Le Dubé, on the other hand, is concerned that opposition to businesses like her De Stiil bookshop will grow stronger. A new language bill proposed by the Quebec government would cement French as the dominant language in Quebec, potentially undermining businesses that rely on English.

Small and medium-sized businesses would face more stringent regulations to ensure they are operating in French under the legislation, which builds on a four-decade-old language law and is expected to pass in the coming months, including raising the bar for companies to justify why they need to hire employees with a command of a language other than French. Language inspectors in the government would be given more authority to raid offices and search private computers and iPhones. Furthermore, the number of Francophone Quebecers able to attend English-language colleges would be severely limited.

In Quebec, a former French colony that fell to Britain in 1763, language is inextricably linked to identity. Today, French-speaking Quebecers are a minority in North America, where their language is challenged on a daily basis by English-dominated social media and global popular culture.

French is already the official language of the government, commerce, and the courts in Quebec. The French must predominate in commercial advertising and public signs. In addition, children from immigrant families are required to attend French schools.

The new bill has sparked outrage among the province’s English-speaking minority and others, who claim it aims to create a monocultural Quebec in a multicultural Canada and violates human rights.

The language debate is especially heated in Montreal, a swaggering cosmopolitan city with a sizable English-speaking minority. The provincial government passed a nonbinding resolution a few years ago calling for shop attendants to replace “bonjour hi” — a common greeting in bilingual, tourist-friendly Montreal — with just “bonjour.”

Quebec Premier François Legault has stated that the new law is “urgently required” to prevent the decline of the French language in a Francophone province. “I have nothing against English Quebecers,” he explained.

Others argue that the legislation is necessary in a world where English has such a strong pull.

However, opponents of the bill argue that stigmatizing bilingualism will be detrimental to Quebec. “Language should be a bridge to other cultures,” said Ms. Le Dubé, whose bookshop is in Montreal’s Plateau-Mont-Royal neighborhood, which has a large Francophone community, street art, and hip cafes.

To protect the bill from potential legal challenges, the government has used a constitutional loophole known as the “notwithstanding clause,” which gives Canadian governments the authority to violate certain constitutional rights, such as freedom of religion or expression.

Quebec’s quest to preserve French has resonance in other countries, including the United States, where more than 20 states have enacted laws in recent years to make English the official language, despite the proliferation of Spanish.

In France, the Académie Française, a rarefied body that protects the French language, attempted to outlaw certain English words such as “hashtag,” though it later backtracked. For its part, Quebec’s language agency has allowed “grilled cheese” to enter the lexicon but prefers “courriel” to “email.”

Its supporters argue that the bill is necessary because bilingualism is increasing in Quebec workplaces. They cite a 2019 study by the French language protection agency, which found that the proportion of workers exclusively using French at work fell from 60% to 56% between 2011 and 2016.

According to Alain Bélanger, a demographer at Quebec’s Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique, a graduate research organization in Quebec City, the future of French in the province was jeopardized, particularly among second- and third-generation immigrants, who invariably switched to English.

“This law is required to help correct this imbalance,” he said.

In recent hearings on the legislation, Louise Beaudoin, who served as minister of language for the Parti Québécois, a nationalist party, said that the bill did not go far enough and could not be moderate and reasonable “given the state of French in Quebec.”

Bilingualism should be viewed as a benefit, not a threat, according to opponents of the bill, who accuse Quebec’s government of attempting to eliminate English and other minority languages.

Shady Hafez, an Indigenous advocate and doctoral student in sociology at the University of Toronto from a Quebec-based Indigenous community, criticized the measure as tone-deaf. He claimed that it completely ignored other marginalized cultures, including Canada’s large Indigenous population.

“Quebec saying, ‘We need you all to speak our language,’ is a continuation of the project of building a one-culture state,” he said. Referring to historical efforts in Canada to eradicate Indigenous languages such as his native Algonquin, he added, “We should prioritize preserving our own oppressed languages — not French.”

According to Alex Winnicki, co-owner of Satay Brothers, a popular Asian street-food restaurant, the bill’s regulations will stymie small businesses that are already being impacted by the pandemic. He’d like to put a “Satay Brothers” sign outside his restaurant, which is currently unmarked.

“A new sign would cost around $10,000, and I don’t want the language police breaking down my door,” Mr. Winnicki, the son of Singaporean and Polish immigrants, explained.

Furthermore, in multilingual Montreal, where hip-hop artists mix English and French and many residents switch between French, English, and mother tongues like Mandarin and Arabic, he called the idea of the government effectively policing language use in daily life “ridiculous.”

Companies must justify their need to hire employees who are fluent in a language other than French, according to the bill. Its supporters are concerned that a bilingual person will be hired over one who only speaks French, putting Francophones at a disadvantage.

Michel Leblanc, president of the Montreal Chamber of Commerce, stated that he did not want a situation in which a restaurant had only one bilingual waiter who was summoned every time an American tourist appeared. However, he emphasized the importance of language protections, given that French is spoken by a minority in Canada.

However, some, including Mr. Leblanc, are concerned about the bill’s economic implications. During a recent legislative committee debate on the bill, he emphasized that English was the international business language and that the bill could harm Quebec’s economy. After the passage of a previous landmark language bill in the late 1970s, Montreal saw an exodus of Anglophones and businesses to Toronto.

Lower Canada College, an elite English-language private school in Montreal, principal Christopher Shannon, warned that the bill threatened to reduce enrollment and make Montreal a less appealing place for world-class talent to settle. According to the bill, foreign nationals who are temporarily residing in Quebec cannot send their children to a private English school like his for more than three years.

“This bill has the potential to turn Montreal into a backwater,” he said.

Ms. Le Dubé, the English bookshop owner, explained that as a native of Brittany, where the Breton language declined rapidly in the twentieth century due to French persecution, she understood all too well the importance of preserving a nation’s language.

“Why can’t different languages coexist?” she quickly added.

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French Language Laws Renew Rift With Quebec's English Speakers