Fallacy over fact: overturning half-century of Canadian Official Languages policy
I reacted with shock and disbelief to last September’s Speech from the Throne, which indicated that the long-awaited Official Languages Act overhaul would scrap linguistic equality, and French would now be prioritized over English. The federal government has also proposed that a new French-predominant OLA, or Bill 101, will now apply to all federally regulated workers in Quebec. This past Friday, the Quebec government announced its desire for the federal government to relinquish its role in promoting linguistic duality across the country, and its hope for an end to the Official Languages Act’s approach of equality amongst Canada’s official languages.
Each of these proposals diminish and trivialize the real language and labour issue plaguing Quebec: the poverty and socio-economic exclusion of non-francophones.
First, the federal government justified their position with the argument that eight million francophones live amongst 360 million North American anglos. While these numbers are true, they completely miss the point. French-speakers are a powerful majority in Quebec, and enjoy socio-economic privilege, along with educational, media and political control of the province. Furthermore, they are also a powerful minority voice within the rest of Canada.
Secondly, the intellectual, legal and rhetorical underpinnings of restrictive language laws are held together by a powerful myth: that French is threatened in Quebec. To the contrary, statistics show an expansion in the proportion of French and French-speakers: never before has such a large segment of the Quebec population (95 per cent) spoken French.
Third, according to the latest Canadian census, 95.8 per cent of all francophones reported using French at work “most often,” 0.8 per cent never use French and 70 per cent never use English. Definitively, the language of work in Quebec is French.
Fourthly, the new bill would be unconstitutional under the equality of English and French provisions of the Canadian Charter. The proposed legislation runs contrary to written and unwritten constitutional principles of bilingualism and respect for minorities in the Canadian constitution.
Finally, the English-speaking community is defined by a declining and aging population, as well as a low proportion of people aged 15-44, which experience an overall lower level of income and employment than their French-speaking counterparts.
In conclusion, the proposed changes to the OLA will only compound the issues described above and further penalize an already disadvantaged population.
Anglophones in Quebec represent a highly educated population that, nonetheless, is significantly poorer than francophones, and, despite higher workforce participation rates overall, has more unemployment and has seen a majority of its people leave Quebec for greener pastures.
To correct the situation, Canada needs an OLA based on equality of all languages, applied to all federal labour markets and a nationwide provincial legislative framework for language rights.
Governments need to commit to progressive programs for English-speaking Quebecers and other minority populations to ameliorate patently unfair socio-economic situations. The proposals brought forth by the Canadian and Quebec governments over the last several months indicate that neither intends to do anything of the sort.
Let us revive the dreams of our forefathers and push forward with a truly bilingual Canada. Let us build upon their vision and ensure it lasts for the betterment of us all.
Colin Standish is from Cookshire in the Eastern Townships. He is a law student at Osgoode Hall Law School and the founder of Language Equality/Égalité linguistique.