Was anybody in the mood to gear themselves up for a possible language war just as we start to recover from a devastating pandemic? No? Well, thanks to the CAQ government, that’s what Bill 96 has the potential to ignite with its divisive policies likely to pit the anglophone and francophone communities against each other.
This is such a terrible shame. We have made such progress in this province. The majority of anglophones who remained after the great exodus surrounding the original Bill 101 language reform accept and even encourage strategies to protect the French language and community. It’s come at a cost. Unilingual English speakers on average are poorer and more under-employed statistically compared to their French counterparts, but most of us have worked hard to learn the language and encouraged our kids to go to French schools — never in history have more Quebecers been able to communicate in French; StatsCan puts that number at 95 per cent.
There are myriad ways to protect the French language and culture that are not coercive and punitive to Quebec’s minorities. But, as Quebec’s English-language advocates have pointed out, it’s like none of this counts: Bill 96 disregards fundamental human rights and freedoms, and treats the anglophone community like second-class citizens.
The local threat is immediate. Chelsea is a shining example of how the Two Solitudes have come together and found an organic (as opposed to legally prescriptive) way to work together in both official languages — such harmonious collaboration should be celebrated. Instead, Bill 96 threatens to strip Chelsea of its bilingual status.
Besides the obvious injustice of denying a person access to services in a language they understand, cutting all English communications with residents would be hugely damaging to public participation and civic engagement — and boy are Chelsea’s anglos involved! Take a look at the online public consultations on big projects like Chelsea’s Active Transportation Plan or Gatineau River access: the comments and suggestions sections are populated largely by postings in English. Projects that enhance community life almost always see an important number of anglophones at the helm: Chelsea’s pesticide ban bylaw, the conversion of rails to the hugely popular community trail, and the move to save the Farm Point rail station are just a scant few examples of anglophones working together successfully with francophones. Every effort should be put to encourage, not limit public participation, and communicating in the languages people can understand is key.
Chelsea can – and for the sake of preserving community harmony must – pass a resolution to ask the province to preserve its bilingual status, but nobody familiar with Quebec language politics should take its approval as a given. The devil is in the details of Quebec’s huge 100-page omnibus bill to reform Bill 101. Most affected mayors are holding their breath.
As we’ve seen with Bill 21 (the face-covering law) and Bill 40 (to abolish school boards) this government is ready and willing to play identity politics or scapegoat anglophones and other minorities to gain political advantage, and next year is an election year.