Quebecers could benefit from a new linguistic social contract
During the twentieth century, Montreal became increasingly shared between anglophones and francophones, the latter abandoning rural life in order to get work in the city. Add to this a constant influx of immigrants from all over the world, and it was inevitable that the questions would begin to arise as to how the city’s ethnic composition would impact language. As francophones began to fear that their language might come to be marginalized, they clamored for regulatory protection. Such was the backdrop for the passage of Bill 101 forty years ago this month.
Consider the Anglophone community’s experience since then. Bill 101 ushered in a vision of Quebec as “unilingual” French, rather than the community’s preference then for bilingualism. Yet, Quebec’s English school system at that time was generating graduates, many of whom who were neither competitively bilingual nor bi-literate in French, so many of them were unable to thrive in either scenario.
Since then the situation has evolved as anglophone bilingualism has improved significantly. Nevertheless, some of us have come to look for new approaches such as common bilingual French/English schools like that proposed by Julius Grey in a May 25 submission to the Montreal Gazette on Bill 101 (Also see It’s high time for bilingual schools by co-author Giuliano D’andrea in the Montreal Gazette August 24). Moreover, one can ask if the existence of linguistically–based segregated schools (even the French immersion programs) act to fracture Quebec society like religious-based institutions do in Northern Ireland.
One way to address this issue and explore other new ideas would be to develop a new holistic language social contract which could comprehensively address how language groups in a more cosmopolitan twenty-first century now interact on all levels: business, social and educational.
Imagine, for example, if the Montreal region had a level of autonomy where the application of any language-related statutes would reflect particular local needs and realities, those not faced by other regions in Quebec. Regional devolution of certain responsibilities may be a solution since much of the linguistic tensions we have had may be as much a clash of ideologies as they are a clash of regional identities.
Importantly, this projet de société must be the end product of a consultation process that would include minority representatives. Why? Any package, or vision, once again imposed on minority groups by virtue of a sort of Québécois francophone unilateralism (through their plurality of numbers), will undermine any moral legitimacy it could have.
Alternatively, a new grassroots supported linguistic social contract, in which minority citizens could actually vote for it in some sort of ratification referendum, could offer a greater chance that they will not only follow the letter of the law but its spirit. Such spirit could be a new and powerful tool in any effort to preserve and promote both languages.
A vehicle for this contract could be an enhanced Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which could also be embedded in a Quebec provincial constitution. A constitutionalized charter, with a specific amending procedure other than just a simple majority vote of the National Assembly, could provide more protection than simple legislative statutes. All major Quebec political parties have at one time considered or advocated a constitution since the 1960s. And within the English-speaking world, there are precedents such as the US and Australian state level constitutions that are all subordinate to their national equivalents.
In the meantime, there will be nationalist legislators looking for an immediate relief from supposed Anglicization through additional piecemeal language regulation, especially if the Quebec Liberals lose their parliamentary majority next year. But this is only going to, at best, fix a leak in a roof that ultimately needs to be replaced anyways.
Alternatively, those same legislators could pursue a more comprehensive and updated approach for the longer term. And they could even borrow from the positive aspects of past language-related jurisprudence for a base on which to build on. We might come to be surprised at the potential paradigm shift a bilateral (majority-minority) inclusive approach could produce – a good example of a peaceful Quebec and Canadian way.
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