Allison Hanes: Quebecers are inclusive and bilingual, despite the government

The Two Solitudes share a strong sense of belonging, polls show, in the face of attempts to divide people based on language.

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With the rights of the English community recently under attack by the Quebec government, one might expect anglophone Quebecers to be feeling alienated in their own province.

With all the handwringing over the decline of French in Quebec, one could be forgiven for expecting francophones to be resentful toward English.

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But contrary to the punitive language policies and divisive identity politics that have been so prevalent, recent polling shows that the Two Solitudes are actually in step when it comes to their sense of belonging, positive interactions with each other and pride in their increasing bilingualism.

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The Léger Marketing poll of 1,000 Quebecers conducted for the Association of Canadian Studies back in September offers a snapshot of cordial relations during turbulent political times.

For instance, two-thirds of the English-speaking Quebecers surveyed said they feel they are part of the Quebec nation. Three-quarters of francophones agreed that anglophones belong to the nation, as did 92 per cent of allophone respondents.

Jack Jedwab, the president and CEO of the Association of Canadian Studies and the Metropolis Institute, said although talk of the Quebec nation is commonplace, the concept is open to interpretation.

Some anglophones may think of “nation” as a country rather than a political or sociological construct and thus equate it with support for sovereignty. This, more than recent events, may explain slightly lower rates of affiliation. However it is defined, the vast majority of English-speaking Quebecers are nevertheless invested.

“That’s a very dominant theme in political discourse here, that reaffirmation that Quebec is a nation. And so I think it’s had that effect on anglophones, that ‘We need to be included, we are part of that nation,’ whatever it implies,” he said. “My sense was that English-speaking Quebecers don’t want to feel excluded. … So if Quebec is going to frame issues in terms of who is part of the nation and isn’t part of the nation, then English-speaking Quebecers are going to say, like they did in the survey, ‘We’re part of that nation.’ And francophones, for the most part, also say (anglophones are) part of the nation.”

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The high levels of belonging as many English speakers feel their language and institutions are being targeted also speaks to the strength of those ties — no matter the prevailing political winds.

“Some may feel that that’s out of line with some of the gestures the government takes, that make a lot of anglophones feel like they don’t belong to the Quebec nation,” Jedwab said. “But rather than expressing that, they’re saying ‘We do belong, we are part of that nation.’”

Similarly, populist resentment is not reflected in the attitudes of most francophone Quebecers. To some extent that may be due to the fact French speakers are unaware of or unaffected by measures that have angered the anglophone community, like new restrictions on who can access public services ushered in by Bill 96.

“I think more francophones are separating out the legislative measures that have been adopted and the ways in which they affect our sense of belonging or not, and the sense that francophones have of Quebec as a nation, which is an inclusive vision,” Jedwab noted.

Since the survey was conducted, francophone Quebecers did back the English-speaking community in contesting damaging tuition hikes for out-of-province students that would disproportionately harm McGill, Concordia and Bishop’s universities. With its very survival threatened, the whole community in Sherbrooke rallied around Bishop’s and helped it win a partial reprieve from the higher fees.

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And business groups, the rectors of most French universities, students and ordinary Quebecers decried the proposed doubling of tuition for students from the rest of Canada while supporting the three institutions’ offer to ensure 40 per cent of their graduates master an intermediate level of French. The results of this show of solidarity were mitigated, with the government ultimately deciding to raise fees to $12,000 from $9,000 and impose the requirement that 80 per cent of their students graduate with intermediate knowledge of French. But the support was heartening nonetheless.

It has become easier to blame English and English speakers for the slide of French — even as more anglophones use the language and more francophones become bilingual.

“If you look at downtown Montreal, the government seems to be increasingly concerned with what they call the spread of English in downtown Montreal, hence they’re justifying some of their measures with McGill and Concordia on that basis, because in Sherbrooke it doesn’t seem to be as much of a threat any more. But on the ground, people’s behaviours and their interaction in the two languages operates in a parallel universe to the government vision of bilingualism,” said Jedwab. “The government is hesitant to suggest that its measures are addressing the threat of bilingualism and rather prefers to identify the threat as being English, because bilingualism is popular with Quebecers — francophones, anglophones and allophones alike.”

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The 2021 census showed the 68 per cent of Montrealers whose mother tongue is English are bilingual, as are 54 per cent of native French speakers and 53 per cent of allophones.

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The Léger survey found an overwhelming 97 per cent of anglophones and 96 per cent of allophones regularly encounter French speakers. Meanwhile, 45 per cent of francophone respondents interact often or sometimes with anglophones, even more frequently in Montreal where the rate is 58 per cent.

“The survey shows the more people have contact with each other — and they do because they are able to communicate across those language lines — the more it supports and enhances bilingualism and the more that becomes important to our identity as Montrealers,” Jedwab said. “It’s almost like there’s a parallel universe: the one in Montreal where people increasingly interact across language lines, value bilingualism, become increasingly bilingual, are very comfortable with that, and the government — which is very uncomfortable with it in terms of using it to justify its legislation — will say this about English, not about bilingualism.”

There may be room for improvement on both sides, with anglophones polled rating their French skills as superior to francophones’ English abilities — and vice-versa.

But despite using language as a wedge, politicians are not turning the Two Solitudes against each other.

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