Did you know that Bill 101, Quebec’s French-first language law, is set to be overhauled in 2021, and promises to be even more restrictive of minority languages in the province? Probably not — there are bigger things dominating the news and people’s personal lives these days. But in the midst of the biggest health crisis of a century, the CAQ government decided in September to take $5 million from its budget and spend it on beefing up the OQLF, also known as the language police. This, despite the fact that even francophone comedians regularly make fun of such Inspector Clouseau-like tactics (remember pastagate?). Or despite the less-funny fact that, while Quebec hospitals are chronically underfunded, Quebec hired more language cops to roam the streets with their rulers to make sure the English wording on commercial signs was inferior size-wise to the French wording.
Back in August, Simon Jolin-Barrette, the minister responsible for the French language and famous for drafting the controversial “secularism” law, Bill 21, announced he was drafting a “robust and global” package of reforms to the province’s language laws, which will cover everything from commercial signs to the language used in the workplace and shops. Word is now that when the pandemic crisis plateaus, get ready, because 2021 will be the year anglophones “are being drawn into another intense language battle” predicts the former Equality Party leader Robert Libman. And when interviewed by the Montreal Gazette last week, the English-rights veteran also said anglos and other language minorities are facing these big threats “alone and unarmed.”
Parallel to this, the federal government has announced plans to overhaul the Official Languages Act, which states French and English are the official languages of Canada and offers protection for linguistic minorities. The proposed changes would allow Quebec to extend Bill 101 rules to federally-regulated businesses, such as banks and communications companies.
Maybe these moves would make sense, if it weren’t for a couple of things. More people in Quebec speak French than ever before. Yes, there is a slight decline of the mother-tongue francophone population (largely thanks to the increase in allophone population), but Stats Can puts the number of people with a working knowledge of French in Quebec at an impressive 95 per cent. It’s harder to argue the French language is at risk with a number like that.
Second: the enduring belief that the English are the wealthy oppressors of the francophones is an outdated myth. Statistics show that proportionally far more anglophones live below the poverty line, and more of us are unemployed. The current truth is, following the huge exodus of anglophones over the last decades, the majority of those of us remaining are bilingual and can and do work in French (if we can find a job).
It looks like we are headed into a tumultuous time on the language front in this province, and it is really important English speakers in Quebec wake up and find ways to protect the vitality of our community, protect access to government services in English and preserve the respect of our constitutional rights