Free Choice, Demographics And Language

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Almost a year ago, Jonathan McLeod wrote an article entitled “Szechuan Taco Poutine”, wherein he discussed Quebec’s language laws and the concerns many francophone Quebecers have about assimilation and the loss of their culture and language. He further wrote about how, if demographics and free choice lead to the abandonment of French in favour of English and another language, that signifies that French is not that important to Quebecers. On that basis, he criticizes Quebec’s language laws, and the separatist parties that support them, as bigoted. This charge is frequently repeated in other parts of Canada, and even to a certain extent in Quebec itself.

I’m curious, then, as to what critics of Quebec’s language laws feel about the aggravation some English-speakers feel about multiculturalism and what they see as immigrants who refuse to integrate into society. In the United States, polls have said that it’s essential for immigrants to learn to speak English, and there is a debate over whether the U.S. should require immigrants to speak good English before they’re allowed into the country. In the United Kingdom Home Secretary David Blunkett says that immigrants ought to speak English in their homes, and other critics now decry multiculturalism as having divided Britons and kept many immigrants segregated from a common culture. Here in Canada, Ezra Levant has made some of the same critiques, even as people in Richmond, British Columbia, express frustration over commercial signs that are written in Chinese only.

Free choice and demographics are frequently used as arguments against the language laws of Quebec. But what happens, then, if free choice and demographics end up displacing English, or if immigrants decide not to speak English when they come here? What should be done if times change so that the pull of Spanish becomes stronger? Should long-settled residents just accept it as a sign of changing times, or would they be justified in imposing regulations specifically enshrining English similar to what Quebec has already done?

From everything I’ve seen, every society ends up favouring certain languages as the regular ones it conducts its social business in. In Mexico, for instance, it is Spanish. In the U.K., it’s English. Here in Canada, it’s English and French. Where do countries draw the line when it determines which languages it accords specific status to in its courts, its schools, its government services, and so on? Obviously, no society has the resources to provide services in every language all the time. Inevitably, there’s going to be one or a few that people need to speak if they expect to get on in the country as residents. If I were to move to Mexico, for instance, and begin raising a family there, would I have a right to demand all my kids’ schooling, and all my government services, in English?

Chantal Hebert, in a rebuttal to Bill 101 critic Maxime Bernier, pointed out that the attraction of English is so much stronger than that of French in North America, with up to 80% of newcomers to Quebec did their schooling in English, without being able to French. In an insightful video describing how they came to support separatism, a number of Quebec immigrants talked about how many immigrants are federalists because they don’t know much about Quebec’s history, although that started to change once they actually learned more about the province they’d chosen as their new home. They readily admitted that some separatists were racists, but that there were also racist federalists, too. Certainly the likes of Mordecai Richler, who was so lauded in the rest of the country, rarely bothered to take a careful look at the Quebecers he spent so much time criticizing, or trying to understand things from their point of view, as Pierre Joncas points out in this e-mail exchange.

The point I’m going for here is that the Quebec language situation isn’t necessarily as different from what’s going on in the rest of Canada or other English-speaking countries as many people seem to think. The main difference with Quebec is that the situation is more pronounced, given French’s lesser status in North America. Certainly they are wrestling with the same questions we are. Is demanding that English be the main language in our society that much different than Quebec mandating French as its majority language? And how will we react if demographics change and Mandarin or Spanish end up increasingly displacing English? Should we just accept it?

Don’t get me wrong in all this. I think Quebec would be much better served with putting more positive emphasis on French, the advantages that come with it and its historical role, rather than spending time on idiocy like Pastagate and trying to keep people from wearing head coverings on soccer fields. I also recognize that most immigrants do an admirable job of integrating into Canadian society and learning our national languages. Indeed, while we have established societies and identities, multiculturalism has a valuable role to play in showing how our established societies and values continue to grow and evolve, and how immigrants have made their own historic contributions to Canada, whether it be the Asian communities in B.C., the African communities in the Maritimes, or wherever else. They have just as much right to call themselves Anglophone or Francophone Canadians as anyone of British or French ethnicity.

My main goal here, as I mentioned before, is that the concerns Quebec has over changing demographics and the implications for its society are not unique to la belle province. We should also consider how these implications are playing out in places with English-speaking majorities, and how we would react if free choice and demographics were to affect English.

This article was originally published in August 2013 for the now-defunct Canada Commons blog, reflecting on how the concerns expressed by the Franco-Québécois about demographics and language are quite similar to those expressed by Anglophones in Canada and elsewhere.