Opinion: There is a glimmer of hope for 2024 despite Quebec's divisive government

The Quebec Community Groups Network notes that anglophones aren’t alone in calling out destructive government policies.

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As we close the door on 2023 and enter 2024, we look back on a brutal year for Quebec’s English-speaking community — one filled with frustration and difficulty on both provincial and federal fronts, leaving many of us more exhausted and discouraged than we have felt in decades.

But even as institutions our community built are under siege and the use of our language is viewed by some as a mortal threat, the stubborn optimist in me finds a glimmer of hope looking ahead.

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Allow me to explain why.

For one thing, all bilingual municipalities complied with the new requirement to reaffirm their linguistic status under Bill 96. No one got caught out by its tight timing.

For another, in addition to English media playing a stronger leadership role in difficult times, important voices in francophone media have begun to pay more attention to the anglophone community and in some cases have shown support. This is likely due in part to the English-speaking community’s expression of a view that is tough but measured, non-partisan, and positive whenever possible.

In the thick of contentious issues, we are finding and expressing common cause with Quebecers who share our concerns about a crumbling health and social services network and an education system under immense stress. Both are largely held together by the extraordinary efforts of individuals who, often despite government strictures, try to help as many people as quickly and completely as they possibly can. Never was so much owed to so few.

Common cause is important, and I hope the seeds of better understanding between the solitudes have been planted. As a community, we must now find ways to nourish them.

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Out of necessity, the political climates in Quebec and Ottawa remain the English-speaking community’s preoccupation. We wish it weren’t so, but if the community were to abandon its advocacy efforts at both levels, it would do itself harm. Many pieces of legislation in the National Assembly and the House of Commons affect English-speaking Quebecers’ lives.

These include:

  • The delayed effects of Bill 96 that have yet to be fully felt, as well as those of the revised federal Official Languages Act (Bill C-13);
  • The Quebec government’s appeal of a court victory on Bill 40 — legislation aimed in part at eliminating English school boards;
  • Court interventions on the constitutionality of Bill 21 restricting the display of religious symbols, of which the Quebec Community Groups Network is a part;
  • A last-minute, unprecedented amendment dropped into Bill 15, the massive reorganization of the health and social services network, that could threaten access to English services.

One major piece of work the Coalition Avenir Québec government had promised for autumn, but has yet to appear, is an action plan for the protection and promotion of French. We expect cultural and media issues will be at its heart, and the consequences for the English community could be significant. Demands for more powers now in Ottawa’s hands are likely, as is a continuation of the drumbeat that unless drastic measures are taken, French will disappear.

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This drumbeat powered two frightful moves the CAQ government made late last year: the addition of the last-minute Bill 15 amendment and the outrageous manoeuvrings on tuition that will severely punish and damage Quebec’s English-language universities.

The government has treated ensuing protests, petitions, and the concerns of mayors, the business community and leaders of francophone universities as so much unimportant noise. (This is much the same as the government’s reactions to previous criticism, such as the unprecedented warning from six former premiers regarding Bill 15.) It is an insulting response, as well as an ignorant one.

The government’s chaotic university tuition plan had immediate negative effects. Applications to McGill and Concordia from out-of-province students plunged, and there were hiring freezes, budget cuts and dark mutterings from a leading credit rating agency. Both universities quickly established scholarships for students from other provinces to offset a $3,000 tuition hike the government is imposing, while they struggle to find ways to meet a new demand that 80 per cent of out-of-province undergrads, including international students, achieve intermediate fluency in French. The universities have spelled out clearly how this will be impossible; the government has promised penalties if they fall short.

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In the heated debate over the fate of three of Quebec’s universities — McGill, Bishop’s and Concordia — nasty remarks were heard from the premier and some ministers about hearing too much English on the streets of Montreal thanks to too many English-speaking students. They are careful not to say the same of U.S. tourists.

English-speaking Quebecers have begun to talk again of not feeling welcome in their own province, and some commentaries in the francophone media have only bolstered those feelings.

Whether in casual talk or legislation, actions have consequences. That is something this government does not seem to understand, even after five years in power. If ministers are making such hateful comments and policy deliberately, they are acting in a more divisive and destructive manner than any other Quebec government in living memory. Teachers and health-care workers could say the same thing.

The CAQ government continues to employ blunt instruments to achieve its command-and-control agendas and strategies on multiple fronts, while trying constantly to appease what appears to be an evaporating nationalist political base.

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This gets us back to the year ahead. Given the record, it’s hard to imagine how 2024 will see significant change in the way the government operates. Once muscle memory is established, it’s hard to change it.

So the QCGN and the English-speaking community must continue to watch closely and speak loudly when required.

In addition to the list above, together we will watch to see if Quebec pursues French Language Minister Jean-François Roberge’s nod of agreement with Bloc Québécois hardliner Mario Beaulieu that Ottawa should divert minority-language funding from the English-speaking community and funnel it to francization efforts.

We will remind provincial and federal levels of government that they are required by law to include representatives of the English-speaking minority of Quebec when they discuss funding agreements that affect our community.

Many of the government’s destructive and discriminatory decisions have attracted widespread criticism from both French- and English-speaking Quebecers. It has been heartening to see other Quebecers ready to call out governments’ egregious excesses. Building upon points of agreement, instead of focusing on points of divergence, will not only go a long way toward strengthening bonds between Quebecers — it will also make it harder for our governments to impose divisive programs and policies.

Eva Ludvig is president of the Quebec Community Groups Network. 

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