Toula Drimonis: French can unite, but the CAQ chooses division

As the government’s failings in education, health care and housing pile up, so do its efforts to use language as a wedge and deflection tool.

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Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante’s recent declaration that French should be a unifying link rather than a source of contention had me nodding in agreement. I’m tired of watching the Coalition Avenir Québec government use language as a weapon to stir up anger, fear and division among Quebecers who simply want to protect their mother tongue without the histrionics.

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Since forming government, the CAQ seems to have gone out of its way to exploit Quebecers’ linguistic and cultural insecurities and often legitimate fears about the fragility of the French language within North America’s anglonormativity. As the government’s failings in education, health care and housing pile up, these efforts only seem to be increasing as a deflection tool.

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In a world of round-the-clock news and shrinking attention spans, the politics of distraction — manufacturing outrage on wedge issues and pushing buttons for easy gain — can be winning strategies for governments that don’t have much of a track record to stand on.

Premier François Legault has long vaunted that French is his No. 1 priority, but too often his “protection” of French has been limited to attacking minority groups and anyone who doesn’t agree with or vote for him. So far, the CAQ has blamed immigrants, asylum seekers, out-of-province university students and temporary foreign workers. Even English speakers and their darn anglicisms endanger French, he said, scolding young francophones in remarks in which he unintentionally used … English.

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Immigrants who don’t speak French are “suicidal” for Quebec, even though Quebec’s illiteracy gap is widening in the regions because labour shortages are so dire young people are quitting school to enter the workforce. Immigration could be part of the solution. Instead, the government insists on treating non-French speakers as existential threats.  

Temporary foreign workers, whose presence the CAQ government increased five-fold to keep up with labour shortages and artificially maintain low annual immigration quotas, also “contribute” to Quebec’s “anglicization”.

In a new low, a report issued by CAQ-appointed French language commissioner Benoît Dubreuil recommended non-francophone asylum seekers in Quebec be distributed across the country to protect the language. Non-French speaking asylum speakers represent 0.5 per cent of Quebec’s population. That’s the group we’re going after now?

Scapegoating people fleeing violence, genocide or war, and creating a tenuous link between their presence and the state of the French language, is protecting French?

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To protect a language, one needs to do far more than just blame others for not yet speaking it. One needs to invest in teaching it. And yet, when the government — under immense pressure from a public sector strike — finally allocated more money to long-underpaid teachers, it also warned Quebecers it will mean a bigger deficit for the province, almost apologizing for the investment.

So money for education — the primary way you protect and promote French — is a hefty expense the government was forced to incur, while spending billions on Big O repairs and millions on hosting pre-season NHL games are referred to by the same politicians as “investments in tourism and recreation.”

Education and francisation remain the key. Attacking immigrants, asylum seekers, anglophones, students or even Montreal’s mayor because she disagrees with you only serves to divide and deflect responsibility.

Legault’s accusation that Plante “doesn’t care about French” is absurd. It’s just another way to derail legitimate criticism (including, by the way, by the government’s self-appointed expert committee) that attacking Quebec’s long-standing English institutions and Montreal’s economy is no way to protect a language.

It’s impossible to use French to unite Quebecers while politicians continue weaponizing it as a stick with which to beat on, terrify and shame French-speaking Quebecers into believing non-francophones don’t speak it, don’t wish to learn it, or don’t love it. That rhetoric only instils fear and a scarcity mindset that leaves people feeling combative and anxious, rather than confident and proactive.

It’s a losing proposition.

Toula Drimonis is a Montreal journalist and the author of We, the Others: Allophones, Immigrants, and Belonging in Canada. X @toulastake

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