Quebec moves to legislate against bilingualism in bid to stave off encroaching English
Building a bilingual society might be seen as the key to saving one language in Wales – but politicians in Quebec want to legislate against it in order to secure the future of another.
The government of Quebec has proposed a law which would make French the “only official language” of la Belle Province in order to arrest a decline in use of the language most pronounced in its largest city, Montreal.
Two-thirds of people working in the city say they regularly use English at work – a situation described as “breaking point” by Quebec’s justice minister Simon Jolin-Barrette – while the number of people using French at home is projected to fall from 82% to 75% over the next 15 years.
Jolin-Barrette has stopped short of following through on a suggestion that businesses could be banned from greeting customers with the bilingual greeting “bonjour – hi”, which has become a symbolic battle in Canada’s culture wars.
But the reform of the 1977 French language charter presented to the Quebec parliament on Thursday will oblige shops to serve customers in French, require employers with over 25 staff to “avoid requiring a person to have knowledge of a language other than French” and ensure adverts give “clear predominance” to French.
Other measures include a freeze on the number of students following courses in English, making French the “exclusive” language of public administration and automatically removing the official bilingual status of towns – which gives them the right to offer public services in English – if the number of first language English speaking residents falls below 50%.
“The French language is our only official language and our common language, it’s time to reflect that in all spheres of society,” said Jolin-Barrette of the conservative Coalition Avenir Québec party which holds 72 of the 125 seats in the Quebec parliament.
Despite the government’s majority and inclusion of measures proposed by opposition parties, the bill faces criticism from all sides. Mayors of municipalities with bilingual status have already announced plans to mobilise against it and lawyers have branded it incompatible with the Canadian constitution.
Meanwhile, the head of the Parti Quebecois said the bill contains only the “strict minimum”, particularly when it comes to action to increase the number of young people studying in French. “We are in a language emergency, the decline is rapid, there are measures which would really have an impact, which would give us a chance to reverse this trend – the government hasn’t made them,” said Paul St-Pierre Plamondon.
The left-wing Quebec Solidaire launched alternative proposals which would oblige even the smallest businesses to comply with French language laws, a ban on employers making English a requirement for a job unless it can be shown it is genuinely essential and the independence of Quebec.
Dr Ian Johnson, a Plaid Cymru councillor and observer of Canadian politics who spent a French language sabbatical at the Canadian Institute for Research on Linguistic Minorities, said the debate around the bill should be seen as the start of the campaign for next year’s elections in Quebec.
“The governing Coalition Avenir Québec have a majority in the Assémble Nationale du Québec and a strong lead in opinion polls ahead of next year’s Québec elections,” he told Nation.Cymru.
“At the same time, a nationalist government that doesn’t support an independence referendum still needs a purpose.
“This legislation seems to unilaterally rewrite the position of Québec as a nation within the Canadian constitution and strengthens French language protections across a wide range of domains.
“With a difficult public consultation and potential legal challenges ahead, Johnson predicted the bill “could be very different by the time it becomes law.”
The relationship between the governments of Wales and Quebec has grown in recent years, helped by the fact both are led by ‘soft’ nationalist parties that embrace cultural distinctions but oppose independence.
The Welsh Government opened an office in Montreal in 2018 and last year signed an agreement to work together on five policy areas including language.
A policy exchange with Quebec on language immersion and adult education is part of the Welsh Government’s latest international action plan.
Eluned Morgan, the Welsh Government’s former international minister, also last year met with the Canadian government to discuss “our ambition to reach one million Welsh speakers by 2050, as well as the Canadian perspective on bilingualism.”