You can’t “suck and blow” at the same time, goes the proverb.
Premier François Legault gets very enthusiastic when discussing big plans for Quebec’s economic future. Shortly after creating the Coalition Avenir Québec, he unveiled his grandiose vision for a “Quebec Silicon Valley” along the St-Lawrence River. Last month he was beaming at the announcement that Sweden’s Northvolt would be building a multibillion-dollar electric vehicle battery plant near Montreal, creating thousands of jobs. He frequently discusses his important challenge of reducing the economic disparity between Quebec and Ontario.
But the same François Legault then turns around and potentially sabotages those very economic goals.
Last week, his French language minister, Jean-François Roberge, and Pascale Dery, the higher education minister, announced Quebec will dramatically increase tuition for non-Quebec students who attend universities here — effectively to deter them from coming to English universities.
Roberge said the influx of these students is one of “the reasons for the decline of the French language” because it increases the amount of English spoken on Montreal streets. (By contrast, students from Belgium and France, for example, are exempt.)
Exclusionary or punitive nationalist policies like this don’t mesh well with economic growth. But, as expected, the recent byelection victory of the hardline Parti Québécois in Jean-Talon riding seems to have motivated the Coalition Avenir Quebec in the battle for nationalist one-upmanship. Never mind that this latest measure won’t do anything tangible to promote the French language. Attacking English or weakening minority community institutions gives political satisfaction to language hardliners in the sorry, zero-sum-game of language politics. But only temporarily. We’re sure to hear more exaggerated anecdotes about the anglicization of Montreal before long.
The tuition announcement was only a teaser for the CAQ’s “action plan” on the future of French, to be unveiled next month. So, what’s next?
Roberge, in evoking English being spoken on the streets, is stepping on a slippery slope. Will the Coalition Avenir Quebec next impose an extra fee in Montreal hotels for tourists from the U.S. to keep them away and thus off the streets? Will it oblige municipalities on Montreal Island to raise property taxes for anglophones, to send them packing so that they don’t spread the pandemic of English? Will it legislate fines for stores where friendly clerks utter “Bonjour-Hi”?
From Bill 96 and exclusionary immigration policies to these tuition hikes and who knows what next, one thing is clear: These sorts of measures harm our international reputation, deter researchers, students and others from coming here, and encourage youth to look elsewhere. This only worsens our crippling labour shortage. Who will fill those Northvolt jobs?
And our economy will start to shrink. It’s been determined that students from other provinces and countries who study at Concordia and McGill alone contribute $520 million annually to Montreal’s economy, not including tuition.
All this can only widen the economic gulf between Quebec and Ontario. Montreal isn’t even in Toronto’s rear-view mirror anymore.
Legault must recognize and accept that some English — the international language of trade and commerce — is inevitable in a modern metropolis like Montreal, and necessary to help economically sustain other regions of Quebec where French is wall to wall.
In launching his Silicon Valley of the north vision, which relies heavily on synergy with universities, and their research vocations, Legault specifically refer to Université de Montréal and McGill. “Quebec already has two universities among the top 100 in the world,” he said. “We need to build on that and increase funding. Particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, areas where the economic future of all industrialized societies lies.” Interesting!
Legault must make better choices between his economic aspirations and exclusionary politics. Otherwise, he risks perpetuating irreversible damage to Quebec’s economy.
Robert Libman is an architect and building planning consultant who has served as Equality Party leader and MNA, as mayor of Côte-St-Luc and as a member of the Montreal executive committee. He was a Conservative candidate in the 2015 federal election. twitter.com/robertlibman
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