Language And Immigration: From Quebec To English Canada

(Left: Shutterstock/eXpose; Right: Shutterstock/alexiskopje)

I’m currently reading Claude Ryan’s book Regards sur le fédéralisme canadien (A look at Canadian federalism), which describes Ryan’s perspectives on Canadian federalism and Québec’s place in it. Ryan was the leader of the Liberal Party of Quebec from 1978 to 1982, and was one of the provincial leaders of the NO forces in the 1980 Quebec sovereignty referendum. He would later serve as a Cabinet minister in the Robert Bourassa government from 1985 to 1994, after which he retired.

One of the most interesting passages in Ryan’s book was his description of how the Bourassa government updated Quebec’s language laws to conform to a 1988 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that declared various parts of the laws unconstitutional. Ryan discusses the widespread support among French Quebecers for their province’s language laws. Much of this support stemmed from the popularity of English among many of the immigrants who came to Quebec after World War II, and the more general sense among French Quebecers that French was often ignored or given short shrift in many parts of the province. Hence the widespread appeal of Bill 101 and the language laws that followed it among Quebecers.

Quebec’s language laws have long been a target for criticism among Canadians living outside the province, who view French Quebecers as infringing on the freedom of speech of others. While this view is understandable in and of itself, I wonder how the critics of Quebec’s language laws feel about the various movements in the United States to make English that country’s only official language. It’s part of a more general feeling among many people in Canada, the U.S. and the United Kingdom who feel that their communities are going too far in trying to accommodate immigrants who don’t speak English well, without demanding that those immigrants make more of an effort to integrate into the new society they live in. Just Google the words “immigrants should speak English” and you’ll get an idea of what I’m talking about.

When so many English-speaking communities strongly support requiring new arrivals to speak the language of the majority population, you could just as easily argue that these communities are restricting the immigrants’ freedom of speech. Why, then, is Quebec criticized for doing the same thing in requiring its citizens to learn the language of the majority? Would the critics of Quebec’s language laws also oppose English-language requirements in other provinces or the U.S.?

Quebec is in something of a unique position in North America, in that its French-speaking majority is a minority on the English-speaking continent. The French-speaking majority also has other minorities living within Quebec itself, most notably its Aboriginal and English-speaking minorities. Hence la belle province has had to figure out both how to maintain its francophone character and accommodate its own minority. This has been one of the major reasons why francophone Quebecers like Claude Ryan have been calling for their province to be recognized as a “distinct society” in the Constitution.

Not that this necessarily means that French Quebecers necessarily have anything against English-speakers in Quebec, either. In his academic days, long before he ever became in politics, a young Stéphane Dion asserted that so long as French was secure, the vast majority of French Quebecers had no problem with specific exemptions and exceptions for English-speaking Quebecers or other linguistic minorities in the province. If anything, support for separatism fell Such special measures are not unique to Quebec, either-since 1912, New Mexico has given Spanish a special status in its state constitution.

The growing controversy in the English-speaking world over how English-speaking provinces, states and countries should accommodate immigrants are similar in many ways to the debates Quebec has had for decades. The U.S., the UK and Canada’s English-majority provinces are now faced with the same issues. As English Canadians decide how to address the problem, we should remember the criticisms we’ve directed at Quebec over its language laws, and our current attitudes to those same language laws.

Sources Cited:

Dion, Stéphane. “Explaining Quebec Nationalism,” in R. Kent Weaver (ed.), The Collapse of Canada? Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1992, pages 77–121. See in particular pages 91, 96 and 118–199.

Ryan, Claude. Regards sur le fédéralisme canadien. Montréal : Les Éditions du Boréal, 1995. See in particular pages 87–98.

This article was originally written in March 2012 for the now-defunct Canadian Commons blog. It discusses the challenges Quebec faces as the only part of Canada where the French minority is dominant, and parallels this to the controversies in other parts of Canada and the U.S. in integrating immigrants.

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Jared Milne

Jared Milne

Passionately devoted to Canadian unity. Fascinated by Canadian politics and history. Striving to understand the mysteries of Canada. Publishes every few weeks.