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Five Myths About Québec’s Language Laws

Early 2013 saw the resurrection of an issue most of us Quebecers wish we could bury alongside Céline Dion’s unsullied youth: The so-called “language wars” of Canada’s outsider province.

by Isa Tousignant
May 13 2013, 3:24pm

This bizarre image arrives via WikiMedia Commons.

On April 25, 2013 hell froze over. Either that, or the human race stepped one millimeter closer to enlightenment, which is just as unlikely. Barack Obama released a drug policy reform that called the war on drugs a “counterproductive, inefficient, and costly” waste of time. After decades (and decades) of failed strategies, indiscriminate violence and mass imprisonments, a light bulb switched on, a big “duuuuh” escaped from his parted lips and a ludicrous legislative episode was (at least) partially closed. If only Pauline Marois had the same sense.

The public enemy numéro un of the Quebec Premier—and many more before her—is a lot less fun than drugs, obviously. Early 2013 saw the resurrection of an issue most of us Quebecers wish we could bury alongside Céline Dion’s unsullied youth: The so-called “language wars” of Canada’s outsider province, pitting poor, downtrodden French against brutish, domineering English since 1977. On December 5, 2012, the Parti Québécois introduced Bill 14, a 155-point amendment to Bill 101 that has got so much shit hitting the fan that we can’t see our hands in front of our faces. So let’s clear this aforementioned shit up—starting with five myths about Québec’s language laws.

Myth 1: They’re about language

When a whole country and its media machine mobilizes against the word “pasta” on a restaurant menu, it’s not really about the word “pasta.” I don’t doubt that the very agents of the Office de la langue Française, who were on the Buonanotte case, are chill enough to just point and nod when ordering food on their vacay to Italy. The issue here is about power: minority and majority. Francophones in Quebec feel isolated. They are fighting a mighty dragon, maybe not for their life, but for their sense of identity and distinction. The Parti Québécois, in power for the first time in a long time, is in a minority government. Their power is slight; their voice seeks might. Issues like this, which haven’t failed to get a rise out of international media every one of the six times Bill 101 has been amended since its inception, are a great way to get attention.

Myth 2: They’re just PQ posturing

“The PQ is trying to reassure its separatist base of its seriousness as a defender of Québécois identity,” wrote Hillary Brenhouse, from Time, on April 8. And though I’d love to point the finger at angryphone editorialists at large and say the language wars are media-hyped prejudiced alarmism, they’re not. Brenhouse is right: when the PQ climbs onto the roof and starts shouting, they’re doing it to galvanize their audience. Bill 14 isn’t just strategy, it speaks to people. Many in francophone Québec, from the 20something hipster editors of Montreal magazine Urbania to ancient separatist chansonnier Gilles Vigneault, still see anglos as the Other, the oppressor, the white dudes in apartheid-era South Africa. French is a beautiful language—way prettier than English. Where English is all direct and forthright and short and blunt, French is long-limbed and complicated and likes to wear bows and curlicues. It’s a boon to know it, not a burden. Francophone pride is justified—it’s just misguided in its methods.

The 1995 Referendum results. via.

Myth 3: They’re forcing French down our throats

Yes, Bill 14 flies in the face of human rights. Everyone in the world should be allowed to speak whatever bloody language they well want—in the workplace and in private. But ultimately, learning a language is a good thing. Here in Quebec there are government programs that will teach you French for free. If you’re born here and never learned French, you live in a bubble. Pop it. If you were born elsewhere and chose to settle here, remember the cultural curiosity that led you to where you’re at. Absorb your environment. That’s all that French is—a plus. When the National Post’s Barbara Kay writes that “What Bill 14 is essentially designed for is to elevate the wish of francophones never to speak a language other than French – even the other official language of Canada – to a human right on the same level as the right to medical care," it sounds ludicrous. But just flip it: what’s defensible, really, about being unilingually anglophone? The most contested points of Bill 14 are that it would force kids into French schools, force French into more workplaces and force municipalities to conduct affairs in French. These are not offensive ideas. You can still speak English all you want. What’s wrong about all this is the forcing, not the facts.

Myth 4: They’re going to oust the anglos

Much ado is made about the potential of an exodus. But these are outdated ideas based on the referendum of 1995. These are not those days. The only thing that might convince people to relocate would be the separation of Quebec from Canada. And though the PQ’s misguided belief is that the slim majority of voters who dared give them a chance will grow, what they don’t know if that in the last election, the choices were so stomach churningly dreadful that a whole whack of fence dwellers like me voted for them. It was in the heat of the moment, like a drunken hookup: the Liberals’ corruption stuck a stench on them on all levels of government; the ADQ and CQA merging was so goddamn confusing; the student protests were in the air and if there’s anything the PQ is great at capitalizing on, it’s a sense of unrest. They said the right thing at the right time. “Bill 78 is unconstitutional!” said Marois. She was all doe eyed and cute, and we took her home. But then we woke up andwent “fuuuuuck.” Nothing clears the cobwebs like divisive nit picking like Bill 14. We feel judged and unloved and forced to commit to something we were just flirting with. None of us allophones, Anglophones, or aliens will ever leave our homes—we’ll just kick the PQ out and throw her panties down to her out the window.

Myth 5: They work

Bill 101 was established in 1977—36 long years ago and still, more and more native Quebecers are learning multiple languages, more and more people are moving here without learning French, and fewer and fewer people ever, ever have the intention of separating from Canada. Legislation isn’t working; it’s time the Parti Québécois, and Francophiles in general, take a different tack. Putting someone in jail for smoking crack doesn’t mean they won’t do it again the second they’re out. Arresting one drug dealer just means more business for the next guy. Guantanamo Bay shows you can’t cane people into doing what you want. French is fly, hot, fine, and sexy to whisper in a lady’s ear—there are plenty of reasons to want it in your life. Becoming a fascist and marching your way through restaurants on Montreal’s lower St-Laurent with a whip and a magnifying glass is pretty much the dumbest way you can try to seduce someone into swallowing your native tongue.


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