Allison Hanes: Can the Two Solitudes become allies and find common language?

The dominant narrative has caused immigrants, allophones and minorities to feel stigmatized, while anglos are fed up at seeing their rights eroded.

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It’s taken as gospel in Quebec these days: the French language is in decline.

Premier François Legault uses the precarious status of French to justify draconian measures like raising tuition for out-of-province students to the detriment of English universities or pre-emptively using the notwithstanding clause to shield Quebec’s beefed-up language laws from court challenges.

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It would be “suicidal” for Quebec to increase immigration levels, Legault has said. Quebec’s language and culture are at risk of “demographic drowning” from a rising tide of newcomers, pundits lament. The Bonjour/Hi greeting is a sign it’s impossible to be served in French in downtown Montreal. And on and on.

This dominant narrative has caused immigrants, allophones and minorities to feel stigmatized, while anglophones are fed up at seeing their rights eroded and institutions attacked. The result: Quebec is more polarized today than it has been in decades in large part over the undisputed assertion that French is under threat from all sides.

But what if this premise is flawed, or at least more nuanced? What if we’re looking at the wrong indicators or at a narrow subset of data that obscures the full picture?

A book published last fall calls for a re-examination of the assumption French is on the wane in Quebec, in hopes of developing a clearer understanding of how the situation is evolving, discerning where the language is most vulnerable and developing constructive solutions.

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Le français en déclin? Repenser la francophonie québécoise should be required reading for all Quebecers — regardless of their background — from the premier on down.

The brainchild of respected demographers Jean-Pierre Corbeil, Richard Marcoux and Victor Piché, the volume is a collection of analyses, studies, essays and research by nearly three dozen of the most important thinkers on the subject of language in Quebec.

The book is a response to the deteriorating political dynamic. It calls for Quebecers to move from the pessimism and defeatism that have characterized the language debates of the past few years and instead launch a new reflection, discussion and dialogue about the future of French — our common language — to bring us together rather than tear us apart.

Because that, said Corbeil, a professor in the department of sociology at Université Laval and a researcher for l’Observatoire démographique et statistique de l’espace francophone, is the best way to ensure the vitality of French in Quebec.

“A new way of looking at things is needed and that, to me, is the only way that we’re going to arrive at solutions to the challenges surrounding the fragility of French, which we’re always going to have to work on together,” Corbeil said in an interview. “The protection of French in Quebec will not happen without Quebec anglos, without newcomers, immigrants. And right now, we have the impression that it’s only Quebecers of French-Canadian origin who have the duty to protect French.”

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While there is no doubt French is, and always will be, vulnerable in a sea of North American English, Corbeil said some of the statistics used to foretell its demise are curious. What language immigrants or allophones speak at the dinner table is not a real barometer of their ability to speak French outside the home, whether at school or work, while shopping or at the park.

Plus, this focus on the language spoken at home relates to the private sphere, even though Quebec’s language laws, from Bill 101 to Bill 96 (now Law 14), only cover the public domain.

Hand-wringing over the diminishing demographic weight of mother-tongue French-speaking Quebecers is futile because it ignores the drastic drop in the birth rate among Québécois de souche that followed the Quiet Revolution and disregards the progress among immigrants and allophones gravitating toward French — or the growing bilingualism of anglophones.

And concern over the rise of English in the workplace also conflicts with Quebec’s economic objectives. In global industries like artificial intelligence, tech, video gaming and aerospace, knowledge of English is an asset, but not necessarily the language spoken around the water cooler.

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These are just a few examples of material re-examined in the book.

Corbeil calls it a “re-centring,” a rethinking of “the idea that the Quebec Francophonie is changing, it’s in transition, it’s more and more diverse.”

“There are people who get up in the morning and listen to the radio in English, then speak Arabic over breakfast. Then they go out and get a coffee in French and at work they use French. So there, we must recognize that the Francophonie is more and more diverse. We must protect it and vaunt it, but we have to move away from an ethnic definition of la Francophonie, so that it’s an open Francophonie.”

Far from being greeted as positive news, however, the book has ruffled some feathers.

“Not everyone is happy with this book. For them, it’s a bit like I’m committing an affront by not accepting the predominant narrative, that of a catastrophe foretold, this idea of the Louisianization of Quebec, the demographic drowning, etc.,” Corbeil said. “There are those who wear rose-coloured glasses and there are those who wear dark glasses, and at this moment there are more and more on both sides.”

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The fact the compendium lays out diverse viewpoints from multiple experts, rather than the opinion of one or two authors, makes the findings harder to dismiss out of hand.

This Thursday, the Quebec Community Groups Network is joining forces with the Gazette and the Notre Home Foundation to host a conference on the book. I have been tapped to animate a panel with Corbeil and two other contributors to Le français en déclin.

Jean-Benoît Nadeau, an author and journalist for many publications, including L’actualité, writes about broadening the definition of who qualifies as a francophone in Quebec today and describes five categories. Mario Polèse, a professor emeritus at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique, ponders the prevalence of spoken English in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, the neighbourhood he has called home for more than 40 years. 

At first glance, it may seem an odd match for anglo organizations to sponsor a conference on a French book. The QCGN led the charge against Bill 96 for infringing on the rights of the English-speaking community. But contrary to preconceived notions, the group is not against protecting French.

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The free event will be bilingual and is open to all communities, said Sylvia Martin-Laforge, director general of the QCGN. The goal is to build bridges to move beyond some of the recent chasms.

“What we want is to show the diversity of opinion around English and French but also nuanced perspectives to counter the hyperbole,” she said. “We’re hoping to shape it to be a conversation that has resonance with majority and minority communities across Quebec, that we can find things that we can work on together.”

If language hawks were dismayed with the book’s refutal of their contentions about the demise of French, anglophones shouldn’t necessarily expect full vindication. There are truth bombs for both sides. The book raises questions about the responsibilities toward French that go hand-in-hand with the rights and services safeguarded by the English-speaking community.

But maybe shaking everyone out from their traditional postures is a prerequisite for resetting increasingly bitter language politics.

“We need some breakthroughs,” Martin-Laforge said. “This conference and what could come of it going forward could provide a place for common ground. Not just common language — common ground.”

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The current polemics over language and identity in Quebec have unfortunately and unnecessarily excluded anglophones, allophones and immigrants at a time when francophones need allies.

“Maybe, instead of having anglophones on one side, and, in brackets, francophones on the other, we should start working together on searching for solutions that are constructive, on the fact that we have to work together to valourize, protect and promote French, and also recognize that francophone Quebec is not only those descended from French Canadians. It’s not just those who speak French most of the time at home. The relationships people develop with French can be multiple, diverse, can take time,” Corbeil said.

“Perhaps the challenge is to redefine the ‘nous Québécois.’ Who are all these ‘Quebecers who are very diverse?’ I think this has to be integrated into a dialogue between groups and not just by one side or another.”

Let those conversations begin.

[email protected]

AT A GLANCE: The conference takes place at Centre St. Jax from 5 to 7. p.m. Thursday. The event, which is free, will also be streamed online. Participants must register in advance at tinyurl.com/4jynhk2r.

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