Defence of French, Defence of a Society

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Defence of French, Defence of a Society
A translation of "Défense du français, défense d’une société ", in Le Devoir, May 26-27, 1988,
by John Richards which originally appeared in Inroads 7, 1998
and was online through the Web site of
Québec's Ministère des Relations internationales for a while

Léon Dion, political scientist
How did causes and effects get so tangled up? Our brothers, francophones outside Quebec, have lost confidence in us to the point that some among them have labelled [Quebec constitutional minister] Gil Rémillard and Premier Bourassa "traitors", while they themselves have become the objective allies of Quebec anglophones? And what unjustifiable provocations have fed the recent rise in anglophone indignation towards us francophone Quebecers?

What set of unfavourable circumstances has rekindled the insensitivity, if not hostility, of many Canadian anglophones towards Quebec? Following the efforts at reconciliation of the Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (1963-1971) and the Pepin-Robarts Task Force (1977-1979), anglophones had become a great deal more receptive. What events have exhumed, in the United States, anti-Quebec prejudices of another age?

How do we make sense of the fact that, 10 years after having laid the foundations of a durable linguistic peace in Quebec and having legislated on official languages at the federal level, some now insinuate that either or both of these measures were the product of chauvinistic minds, minds tending even to fascism — when the authors of these legislative initiatives thought they were gradually eliminating long-standing injustices towards French.

Among a certain number of Quebecers themselves, signs are emerging of a guilty conscience as to whether they are morally justified in adopting the protective measures they felt necessary simply to survive as francophones on this continent. Would Quebecers adopt anti-democratic procedures, would they transform themselves into vengeful opponents of Quebec anglophones? Yes, all that is plausible, but is it the case? Such accusations are so serious that any reasonable mind would want to examine them carefully to determine their validity.

Is it necessary to invoke an evil genie who is maliciously trying to reopen old wounds among different groups over their respective visions and identities, wounds that we — wrongly I fear — thought were closed forever?

On the other hand, should we challenge certain public individuals who, like sorcerers’ apprentices, would spread confusion while pretending to smooth the bumps in the road to compromise?

Let’s be reasonable. Let’s dwell on the second and more probable explanation.

The responsibility of public personalities

I fully realize that public personalities are subject to multiple and contradictory pressures. Despite the dilemmas they face, we who elect and support them have a right to expect that public personalities possess, beyond their legitimate ambition to exercise power, the ability to adopt measures that are fair for all.

Admittedly, the problems that assail them are complex and the sources of conflict numerous. Whenever the question arises of defining the political and constitutional status of Quebec, one always finds the same principal protagonists: on the one hand, those who continue to promote the independence of Quebec and who no doubt will become more numerous and militant following Jacques Parizeau’s return to the stage; on the other hand, federalists, who persist in dividing themselves into two opposing camps according to whether they advocate a strong federal government or a Quebec government enjoying a large measure of autonomy.

These fundamental and, so far, irreconcilable conflicts are at the root of most of the problems currently facing us: the Meech Lake Accord, the impact of free trade with the United States, the means of welcoming and integrating refugees and immigrants, the question of commercial signs language, the appropriate way to treat francophones outside Quebec, etc. Unfortunately, many of those with responsibility in these areas obfuscate or have shown themselves incompetent : Premier Bourassa, who bristles at the thought of passing into history as having failed to " protect and promote " French, acts as if he hopes others — notably the Supreme Court or else the passage of time — will decide for him ; in promising everything to everybody, Justice Minister Herbert Marx has lost the confidence of many and his most noble gesture henceforth would be to resign.

In adopting, in his 1987 annual report, the Trudeauist version of Canada, D’Iberville Fortier, the commissioner of official languages, was just displaying legitimate personal convictions. But he displayed a lack of foresight in ignoring the passions he was going to precipitate by writing this sentence, whose final words he himself later judged to be imprudent: " But the health of French, in Quebec or elsewhere, surely depends on the weight of its demography, on its cultural vitality and its own power of attraction, rather than on the humiliation of its rival".

In his way, I know ex-Prime Minister Trudeau wishes Quebec well. But by making extreme statements about his native province before the Senate committee on the Meech Lake Accord (on March 30, 1988), he did not enhance his stature: "We have examples in history where governments become totalitarian because they act in terms of race and send others to concentration camps."

Such acts and statements by public personalities at the highest level trigger the hateful propositions concerning francophone Quebecers of J.M. St.-John and many others. These gestures, together with the Senate’s rejection of the Accord as approved and the hesitant waltz of the federal Liberals, provide the seven provincial premiers [beyond Quebec and the two adjacent provinces] with a rationale for blocking or delaying adoption of the Accord by their legislative assemblies. Together, they legitimize Saskatchewan (one of the three provinces which, in addition to the House of Commons, has up to now endorsed the Accord) in its cool reception of the Supreme Court decision requiring the province to translate its laws into French and to offer services in French in its courts for those who request them.

Let’s not commit the error of omitting from this list of public personalities the wily leader of the Parti Québécois, Jacques Parizeau, who, for the moment, is carefully studying the terrain like the good strategist he is. He is quite ready to profit from the situation if events turn out as he hopes — in other words, if events turn out badly.

Nor must we omit — albeit this fear is premature — the danger that extreme radicals, despairing of the democratic process to advance their cause, could resort, as others have done before, to violent means. They would be, given the peaceful nature of our population, the first victims of such tactics.

French is the integrating principle

The goal must be that French be considered a means of communication, the medium of expression which should permeate Quebec. Appearing before the parliamentary committee on the Meech Lake Accord at the National Assembly last June, I insisted, above all, that the French language was the integrating principle of Quebec society. To forsake this principle would be to weaken the very foundations of this society. In a recently published book, I expressed this as: "[It is] less in other themes than in the French language that we find the specificity of Quebecers. Given the conditions in which they exist in North America, language is at the heart of their existence as a unique society."

Citing pessimistic observations about our national imagination (among poets, novelists, singers, dramatists), I asked myself in this book whether our language can, not merely survive, but express what we are becoming on this continent and whether it can "name" the realities emerging every day. These realities jostle each other and often deprive us of the leisure to assimilate them according to our nature.

I admit that I worry, not because I doubt the ability of French, as a language, to adjust to new contexts, even new contexts from outside, but rather because we believe ourselves — quite wrongly — able to guarantee the future by simple legal texts. Any legal formula, no matter how watertight it may be constructed, would be insufficient to the extent that it isolated the language of the society which feeds it, or, still worse, pretended to better protect the language by being silent about its prospects...

We must consider the protection of our language not as a means of seeking glory, but as a duty imposed on us. René Lévesque, as Premier, expressed this duty when Bill 101 was adopted as the Charter of the French Language: "It is humiliating for a majority to have to legislate to protect its language."

In a "normal" situation, the general will, in other words a strong popular sentiment, dispenses with the need for compensatory linguistic legislation. Such legislation is rendered superfluous by active, constant and convergent support from the local culture, the economy, the education system, the system of health and social services, international relations and, of course, the world of politics and law. In contemporary Quebec the connection between language and society is not sufficiently solid to persuade me to dispense with a protective law and constitution.

It is precisely this conception of language, as being indissociable from society, which led me to oppose the expression "distinct society". The authors of the term intentionally left it without definition in the Meech Lake Accord last June. I was of the opinion — and I think that events are proving me right — that, given the nature of Canada, the French-speaking authors of this Meech Lake text might once again be frustrated by their anglophone colleagues. Beyond partisan loyalties and the play of friendships, real or feigned, how can we believe that the premiers — hesitant, divided over the meaning of the text, harassed at times, some of them coming to the end of their electoral mandates — were suddenly going to admit what English Canada has always ignored: that Quebec constituted in the strict meaning of the term a "distinct society"? It was difficult enough to believe this in New Brunswick and Ontario, where francophones are relatively numerous and territorially concentrated; what could be expected from the other provinces where French counts for almost nothing? English Canada has, up to now, only been able to recognize provinces, and to a certain extent regions, a Canadian "mosaic", but never, never "two societies" or "two nations". To do so would have permitted it to understand finally what we mean by "distinct society". It would have been necessary, this time, to have specified our position as it was defined and hammered out in the blue pages on the first volume of the Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism.

Toward solutions

The best proof possible of the existence of an intimate bond linking language to society is the large number of political problems flowing from it. On these matters it is crucial to find solutions, or at a minimum, reasonable compromises for all the parties concerned.

A first matter concerns the free trade agreement with the United States. While I am in favour of this treaty, I am astonished that to date there has been very little consideration of it from two perspectives: the strengthening of the federal government that it may entail; and its consequences for the French language. The Meech Lake Accord poses a second question. One of the unforeseeable turns in politics is that many of those who objected to the terms of the Accord, notably because of the ambiguity of the expression "distinct society" — and I was among them — today judge that if this agreement is not preserved in its present form by all responsible governments, there could follow a serious tremor with, once again, its epicentre in Quebec, leading even to a new outburst of the desire for independence. If English Canada rejected these five most reasonable of Quebec’s proposals, in spite of pressing and urgent exhortations from Premier Bourassa and Gil Rémillard, it would be foolhardy to expect everyone to remain calm and that, after such an affront, Quebec would capitulate and sign the 1982 Constitution. This Constitution leaves, in essential aspects, Quebec at the mercy of the other provinces and even of some future improvident Quebec government.

Given this state of affairs, one can understand the ruses of Robert Bourassa as he tries to induce recalcitrant provinces to honour their word: thus, he minimizes the refusal of the Premier of Saskatchewan, Grant Devine, to submit fully to the Supreme Court’s order that Saskatchewan’s laws and courts recognize French. Bourassa fears that other Premiers see in the Accord yet another law whose effect is to "shove French down their throats".

The English-speaking provinces’ distrust — fortunately less and less pronounced — of the Meech Lake Accord and of certain clauses of the 1982 Canadian Constitution flows from the difficult situation faced by francophones in seven of the Canadian provinces. Is it reasonable to ask the Supreme Court to make judgements based on constitutional provisions, on the supposition that the translation of laws into French in these provinces and the creation of means to use French in their courts will significantly contribute to the improvement of the lot of francophone minorities?

I think the Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism displayed more wisdom. It concluded that — 75 years after the suppression of Article 23 of the Manitoba Act — it would be an illusory act of reparation to demand that Manitoba translate its laws into French and impose French in the courts. Given the massive demographic and social evolution in favour of English, the Commission was realistic and recommended instead a series of concrete measures designed to sustain francophones in the English-speaking provinces in their battle to survive and flourish in their native language: creation of bilingual districts; creation of "maisons de la culture" with the best available French materiel as meeting places; an emphasis on education in French and on the responsibilities of CBC and the National Film Board; financial, technical and human aid from the provinces, from Ottawa and from Quebec; etc.

The Commission recommended that these measures be adapted to the individual conditions of each province. In Saskatchewan, for example, the census counted only 32,726 francophones spread around the province and only 8,980 who said they still spoke French at home. Such a tragic situation, let it be said bluntly, affords honour neither to anglophone Canadians nor to our francophone ancestors in both the federal and Quebec governments; nor does it afford honour to contemporary francophones. Francophones amount to only 5 percent of the Canadian population outside Quebec; only three percent of Canadians outside Quebec say they still speak French at home. Putting aside all ideological considerations and particular conceptions of the country, what can we do today that would really help those who are trying to avoid the fatal decline of these francophone minorities?

As for Quebec, its principal Achilles heel resides in the attitudes and behaviour of Quebec anglophones and allophones towards French. These groups, in different ways, pose questions about the present and future demographics of francophones and the treatment of immigrants. These groups are responding to a sense of loss: they were, in their own minds, members of a majority, and have now become, in effect, members of a minority. (Here I am borrowing terms from Gary Caldwell.) However, in my opinion, this last statement must be placed in its proper context. It is true that the proportion of anglophones declined from 15 to 10 percent between 1971 and 1986. But, since 12 percent of Quebecers say they speak English at home, English remains a language of assimilation even in Quebec. Besides, despite Bill 101, 70 percent of allophones do speak English at home.

I had applauded at the creation of Alliance Quebec. I saw in this group of anglophones, both by their training and by the fact they belonged to the rising generation, representative spokesmen for those who intend to remain in Quebec and who believe they can do so while preserving their English language and simultaneously integrating into the francophone community. I saw them as valuable intermediaries between anglophones and the majority of francophones who judge their presence to be a great advantage for Quebec. Equally, I saw them as partners in our efforts to integrate allophones while respecting the allophones’ cultural strengths; I even saw them as interpreters of our future projects to the English-speaking provinces and to the United States. Unfortunately, after the positions taken by Alliance Quebec against Bill 101 and the Meech Lake Accord, I am instead forced to see in them the representatives of the radical opponents of all attempts at rapprochement between anglophones and Quebec as it has evolved since 1960, and as it is likely to evolve from now until the end of the century. Alliance Quebec would greatly enhance its stature among francophones and numerous anglophones if they revised their mandate; otherwise, the only participants in the discussion will soon be independantistes obstinés and reactionary anglophones.

In this context, an inevitable question — Premier Bourassa’s nightmare since his election — is about to burst on the scene: the language of commercial signs.

Here are the cruel basics of the problem: to tell the truth, it is a problem only in the Montreal region, where roughly one-third of Quebec’s population is concentrated, two-thirds of its economy is concentrated, and four-fifths of its non-folkloric culture. What’s more, the Montreal region represents the only real centre for integrating immigrants to Quebec. No other city in the world — Paris, London, New York, Tokyo, Brusselles — is comparable to Montreal linguistically. Ah, if only it was a question of Chicoutimi or Rimouski — it would be easy then to permit English signs! And if it was only Chinese, Greeks, Italians or Turks, the city would become attractive by encouraging public expression in their respective languages! But, with English the language of 97 percent of the inhabitants of this continent, would it not be suicidal to permit English signs? Would it not compel francophone businesses, for competitive reasons, to erect signs in English? And then the heart of Montreal would become at least bilingual, and even English.

I am not withdrawing anything I wrote above about the cultural and material richness that an active English presence brings to Quebec. And I respect completely the acquired rights of anglophones — rights that I would like the National Assembly to guarantee in perpetuity. At the same time, I withdraw nothing from the amendment I proposed to the parliamentary commission on the Meech Lake Accord: "The protection and promotion of anglophone institutions in Quebec will be subject to the principal and essential priority of the French language."

As for the language of signs, after much reflection, I consider that a fair solution should contain the following elements: any sign identifying commercial, industrial and financial buildings must be exclusively in French on the exterior facade; on the other hand, bilingual signs (in English or another language) will be allowed inside these buildings, in order to inform the non-francophone clientele about the nature of the products for sale, provided that such bilingual signs not be visible from the exterior and that French be predominant relative to any other language, in terms of location and space. I think such a solution should be well received by the great majority, provided it is considered in the very particular context of Montreal.

The future of French in Quebec and of the society as a whole raises a great many questions far more challenging than the language of signs. There are so many uncertain internal and external factors. I often reproached René Lévesque for trying to enclose "nationalism", by which I mean proposals for the future of francophone Quebec, within one party, the Parti Québécois. Very early, after 1968 and especially after 1976, all original non-partisan ideas were stifled in Quebec. Both Premier Bourassa and Jacques Parizeau will have to understand that it is normal for their parties to welcome intellectuals and the young. Similarly, both the Liberals and the PQ are duty bound to stimulate the formation of study circles, discussion groups and journals. It is important that all the questions preoccupying us today, and all the questions that will arise tomorrow, be examined inside the political parties of course, but equally outside them by individuals free from partisan allegiance and who are motivated exclusively by a search for real solutions. One rarely finds these real solutions in party conventions and programs; these solutions demand a sustained examination. Only in this way will it be possible to break the straitjacket of our present worm-eaten [vermoulou] nationalism, so that finally an appropriate patriotism emerges. Or, if you wish, an appropriate nationalism emerges, one adapted to the conditions in which Quebec’s destiny will be played out in the 21st century.