Allison Hanes: What an awful 2023 for anglos in Quebec

If Quebec’s linguistic minority was unsettled by the passage of Bill 96 last year, 2023 was a whole new obstacle course of aggravation and outrage.

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Did you feel your long-dormant inner “angryphone” stirring in 2023?

It’s probably an unfamiliar feeling for most English-speaking Quebecers after a quarter-century of linguistic peace between the Two Solitudes. But since Premier François Legault came to office five years ago, language tensions have been rising as his government chips away at minority rights.

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The adoption of Bill 96, the law to strengthen French, left many anglophones uneasy that we’d been turned into second-class citizens in 2022. But that was nothing compared to the passive-aggressive snubs and gratuitous outrages of 2023. English-speakers may now be furious enough to own the old diss so frequently used to minimize our concerns.

The community went to court two years ago to defend our constitutional right to manage and control our own schools after Bill 40 attempted to abolish elected school boards and replace them with service centres like it did on the French side. An injunction kept English boards in tact pending a final ruling.

But before the judge had ruled on Bill 40, the government embarked on a new round of education reform, which vowed to usurp even more powers from French and English schools alike. Bill 23 gives the Education Minister the authority to appoint the directors general of school boards and service centres and overrule their decisions. The English community warned once again that this was an infringement on the right to manage and control our own schools.

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At the 11th hour, before Bill 23 was adopted in December, Education Minister Bernard Drainville offered an exemption from several problematic clauses for English schools — a welcome reprieve. But it only came after a lot of pressure, underscoring the extent to which the rights of the English-speaking community are an afterthought.

If there was a bright spot in 2023, it was the hotly anticipated Bill 40 decision itself. Quebec Superior Court Justice Sylvain Lussier upheld and reinforced minority language education rights. He also admonished the government — in French, no less — that it has a duty to respect and protect constitutional rights, rather than pretending to listen before running roughshod over them anyway.

The ruling was an important moral victory for the English-speaking community. But it was short-lived. The Legault government of course chose to appeal.

An awful 2023 for anglos in Quebec
Opposition to Bill 96 included this rally in N.D.G. on November 19, 2023. Photo by John Kenney /Montreal Gazette

Anglophones didn’t know whether to laugh or cry in June when several parts of Bill 96 finally came into effect. New warning labels appeared on government websites and phone lines, from the City of Montreal to the Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec, stipulating who is entitled to services in English.

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Those who are allowed include Quebecers who have already been receiving them, immigrants who have been here less than six months, Indigenous people and anyone surfing the web from outside the province. Those who don’t fall into those categories were expected to avert their eyes — not that it’s likely any disqualified francophones would be on the English websites or pressing 2 for anglais in the first place.

This was the “honour system” Minister of the French Language Jean-François Roberge established, whereby the state would accept the “good faith” attestation of anglos that we are entitled to services in English. It was certainly better than the indignity of having to produce an eligibility certificate to get a building permit or renew a driver’s licence.

The absurd vetting created feelings of stigma and suspicion.

More significantly, these changes provoked bureaucratic excesses, both farcical and enraging. A son had to pay to have his father’s death certificate — issued by the Quebec government itself in English — translated into French in order to settle an outstanding estate matter. A woman was hung up on for trying to sort out a medical coverage issue with the Régie de l’assurance maladie du Québec in English, because apparently health insurance doesn’t qualify as health care. And young people over 18 who have the right to English education, but in good faith did their schooling in French, are now being denied eligibility certificates, which are now.  needed to apply to English CEGEPs and prove status.

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As if the repeated incursions on minority rights by the Legault government weren’t bad enough, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberals decided to throw English-speaking Quebecers under the bus, too.

Bill C-13, an update of the Official Languages Act, was adopted, containing references to Quebec’s Bill 96, which elevates the French Language Charter above the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and pre-emptively shields the law from court challenges using the notwithstanding clause.

Though the Trudeau government has called out the provinces for resorting to the constitutional override, it tacitly endorsed its use in Bill C-13. And the federal law essentially upended the long-standing equality between the English minority in Quebec and francophone minorities elsewhere in Canada.

The few elected officials who objected to these contradictions and conundrums were unfairly pilloried as being anti-French — such is the lowly status of anglophones these days that it’s not politically correct to defend us. Former cabinet minister Marc Garneau ended up retiring. Mount Royal MP Anthony Housefather cast the lone vote in the House of Commons against C-13 — and was later stripped of his parliamentary secretary duties by Trudeau.

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Back on the home front, a major reform of the health system made it easier for the soon-to-be-created Santé Québec to remove the bilingual status giving certain hospitals the right to serve patients in English. Health Minister Christian Dubé said the clause was an oversight and introduced an amendment to lessen, but not avert, the blow. Then closure was invoked and Bill 15 was rammed through the National Assembly, so who knows what other nasty surprises lurk.

Meanwhile, the McGill University Health Centre has been conducting its board meetings in mainly French these days, to the chagrin of some patient advocates. So the slow erosion of access and belonging to our own institutions is underway anyhow.

An awful 2023 for anglos in Quebec
McGill University president Deep Saini, left, and Fabrice Lebeau, deputy provost (student life and learning), on Dec. 14, 2023, reacting to the Quebec government’s decision to proceed with tuition hikes and require students at English-language universities to meet French-language requirements to graduate. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

But the most notable and egregious broadside occurred when the government announced plans to double tuition for out-of-province students at Quebec universities from $9,000 to $17,000. Legault was warned by everyone, from the business community to the rectors of French universities to mayors, that this would harm the enrolment, finances, recruitment and academic excellence of McGill, Concordia and Bishop’s — not to mention Montreal’s economy, the labour market and Quebec’s reputation.

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The rationale — that this would somehow funnel more money to Quebec’s under-funded French universities — was quickly exposed as bunk as applications for next year from the rest of Canada plummeted.

The rectors of McGill, Concordia and Bishop’s came up with a counterproposal to ensure 40 per cent of their students graduate with an intermediate level of French — a reasonable and constructive offer.

But Legault found a way to exact even more pain. The government raised tuition for “non-Québécois” students to $12,000 and imposed a requirement that the universities guarantee 80 per cent of their graduates complete their degree with intermediate competency in French — or face financial penalties. So Quebec now plans to charge out-of-province students about 33 per cent more than the national average while saddling them with additional expectations and punish the universities for failing to meet these unrealistic benchmarks.

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There’s an exemption from the tuition hike and the sanctions for Bishop’s, but McGill and Concordia are now on the road to ruin, after this deliberate attack on English institutions.

What’s next? Look for the Legault government to crack down on English vocational training in 2024, even in the midst of a labour shortage, especially in the trades.

English-speaking Quebecers readily accept that French is the common language of Quebec and that it deserves protection. Anglophones don’t want to be aggrieved by every little thing the government does to promote French. But we’re sick and tired of these efforts always coming at the expense of our own rights, getting shamed, blamed and scapegoated for the decline of French, and being treated as the most spoiled minority in the world for daring to stand up for ourselves.

We just want to return to peacefully coexisting with our francophone friends and neighbours — like we were before the populists started stirring up trouble with identity politics.

Aren’t we Quebecers, too? Aren’t our institutions Quebec institutions?

The Legault government’s constant contempt and divisive tactics are not only forging a whole new generation of angryphones but provoking waves of needless despair.

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