• The Low Down

If Quebec feels language threatened, expand not contract

Living in a country other than the one you were born in means having an open mind about expectations of the host. Like staying in someone else’s house. They lay out the welcome mat and you follow their rules. I should know - I have lived in 10 countries and worked in more than 50. However, if you stay in the country you were born in and are increasingly made to feel unwelcome because you belong to a minority group, then that is another matter completely. Welcome to the Outaouais and the Pontiac.


For Quebec to abandon English language services in areas that are deemed to have less than 50 per cent anglophones would be like Canada abandoning French language services because more than 50 per cent of the people speak English. Canada is a bilingual country, and that includes Quebec, not withstanding The Withstanding!

Quebec, like France, feels that language is under threat. This is understandable.


Language helps define identity. Both ‘nations’ have raised the drawbridge. Germans and other Europeans speak English — it is the international language of arts, sciences, governance, trade, health, travel, culture, and social media. Bilingualism has not impacted a German’s or Swede’s familiarity with his or her own language or culture. It has opened them to the world.


If Quebec feels language-threatened, the sensible thing is to become the world centre for translation, dubbing and interpreting, and multilingualism. Expand, not contract. All welcome.


It is not sensible to restrict English language services and English language education to both anglophones and francophones within Quebec. We are diminished. Inclusion is critical.


As immigrants in the mid-70s sent to run Canadian operations of a Dutch company in Montreal, my wife and I bought a house in Hudson. Our children were not permitted French education because we were Protestant. Language inspectors demanded that the company operate totally in French. I pleaded that we worked in over 20 languages because of the nature of our international business. But to no avail. I had no choice but to recommend closing the operation and [being] absorbed into the U.S. operation, headquartered in New York City. We chose not to follow and sold our house for 50 per cent of what we had paid, joining the queue along the 401 to Toronto, broke. We had tried to become absorbed, but “pure laine” aside, our willingness to be absorbed into Quebec had been rebuffed in all the ways that mattered — education, housing, and employment.


Years later, we were posted to Ottawa and where else to live but the Gatineau Hills! Thrilling landscape, mixed communities, adventurous folks! Separation a thing of the past! I no longer minded that my Parisian-sounding French was ignored by francophones, as they switched to English. I no longer worried about house prices and schooling. I am ancient. But I do worry about local youth, living within a slingshot of Ottawa, being unable to communicate with me in English.


By introducing fresh language laws, the government is further foreshortening the horizons of its citizens. And the biggest job market around here is in English-speaking Ontario. And I worry about anglophone and francophone youth being obliged to finish school education in Ontario. I worry too about the Irish, Scottish, and English families that first settled this area, stayed and prospered, and built community, speaking their native tongue.


My Swiss brother is fluent in three languages. House-servants in Tanzania spoke three languages. It’s not such a barrier. It’s fun and helps the world go round. Not listening to Bach does not improve your appreciation for Beethoven. Born free, but everywhere in chains.


Andrew Salkeld now teaches metaphysical and spiritual philosophy and lives in Sainte-Cecile-de-Masham.