• The Low Down

Language: Apologies and absolutes

My apologies and thanks to Madame Vallières, for the very sweet and gentle rebuke in this week’s paper (Flip the switch on Bill 96, Nov. 3 edition). Of, course she is absolutely correct. The language thing works both ways.


In my own case, the height of sophistication in the 1950s was to be accepted as being French. For an English schoolboy living in France during his summer holidays, this was a pleasing challenge based on the adage, “When in Rome…”


Turning to the absolutes in the language debate, let us consider this: First absolute - it makes complete sense, and is politeness bordering on an imperative, to try to learn the local language of the majority, wherever you live. Second absolute - once a government has established a structure and a clear understanding supporting a citizen’s rights, it cannot then, for political or polling reasons, withdraw those rights. That is an outrage. Imagine trying to reverse the rules on gay marriage or cannabis now.


Historically, folks from Scotland, Ireland and England worked and then settled in our area – so, as a local language majority, establishing English services within a bilingual, multicultural country, seemed logical and appropriate. Who has a right to remove these ancient rights? Admittedly, it becomes more difficult to discuss and legislate when you weave in the expectations and rights of Indigenous peoples. Recent Anglo incomers implicitly understood they were grandfathered into rights relating to English-language medical and educational services at the least. Exclusion now is tantamount to being sacked at work, without cause and without compensation and without references.


Third absolute: denying your French-speaking citizens a second-language fluency, in the midst of English-speaking North America and the English-speaking global business world - by limiting access to English schools and colleges, seems cruelty that is hard to envisage, let alone justify.


Consider this: Tokyo-based Honda has adopted English as its corporate language; German global electronics company, Siemens, with 293,000 employees, adopted English as its language of operation in 2000. Sodexo, the French company with 35,000 staff in France and 125,000 in the US and elsewhere adopted English. One wonders how Saputo - the brilliant Montreal-based global cheese company, and $59 billion annual turnover Couche-Tard, also with worldwide operations are going to cope with French-only laws. It was similar French-only laws and inspectors in the late seventies that caused me to advise closing operations in Montreal and Canada when my company was trading and exporting Canadian raw materials and commodities in twenty-something languages.


Fourth absolute: Quebec City is a sophisticated Franco fortress where purists arm in arm with the inhabitants of hinterland Quebec Province feel understandably threatened by encroaching English – everywhere. Answer: build a wall? Who would not? But is this the right solution? Take a step into Montreal and the Eastern townships and you find a throbbing, intellectual, entrepreneurial, multicultural and modern bilingual and trilingual milieu.


Solution: You can come to a meeting point in the middle by embracing both extremes. You do not have you cut out the bit you do not like.


And after all, Switzerland with 8 million inhabitants, manages quite well with four official languages. Maybe Quebec could cope with two.


Andrew Salkeld is a spiritual counsellor who focuses on “The Journey of the Soul.” He lives in Masham, Quebec.