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Quebec Language Debate Spurs Eerie Sense of Déjà-Vu

todayOctober 15, 2021 12

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MONTREAL — When I go for a stroll in my Montreal neighborhood, the bourgeois-bohemian Plateau-Mont-Royal, I hear a Babel of languages — French, English, Arabic, Mandarin — and pass graffiti that playfully mixes English and French words.

The waiter at my favorite Lebanese restaurant welcomes me with an upbeat “bonjour-hi” — a popular greeting in the city — dispensing hummus and Fattoush, a Lebanese salad, while he speaks English and French.

These days, however, as the debate over a polarizing new language bill rages in Quebec, I feel as if I’ve stepped into a time machine, back to the culture wars of the Montreal of my childhood, in the late 1970s and ’80s. Back then, debates over language were fierce, the issue of Quebec’s independence was flaring and businesses were fleeing to Toronto amid fears that Quebec could leave Canada.

Of course, a lot has changed since then, including the abeyance of Quebec’s independence movement. And although language remains a deeply divisive issue in Quebec, many people among the younger generation tell me they would rather become the next Steve Jobs, and succeed on the global stage, than spend time engaged in internecine battles over language.

[Read: A Language Bill Deepens a Culture Clash in Quebec]

For some proponents of the bill, however, it is precisely this nonchalance, which they perceive as apathy, that is worrisome. For them, protecting French is nothing less than a matter of existential urgency in a globalized era in which the younger generation of Quebecers play video games with their counterparts in China or Russia using English; converse on Facebook in English or watch popular Netflix shows like “Bridgerton” or “Sex Education” in English.

The threats to French are no illusion, according to Marc Termote, a leading demographer at the Université de Montréal. He cited a 2017 Statistics Canada report showing that the percentage of people speaking French at home in Quebec was projected to drop to about 75 percent in 2036 compared with 82 percent in 2011. And, he added, immigration, combined with slowing birthrates and an aging population among Francophones in Quebec, challenged the uptake of French.

“It takes one or two generations for immigrants to adopt a new language, and demographics aren’t on the side of Francophones,” he told me.

The bill aims to make French the language of working life. It will raise the bar for companies that want to hire people who speak a language other than French; and limit the number of Francophones who can attend English-language colleges.

A political scientist, Christian Dufour, told a provincial legislative committee debating the bill that prioritizing French was necessary to defend against the encroachment of English.

“Like it or not, English has been present in Quebec for 250 years and will remain in the future,” he said, adding, “Experience shows that the best way to control it is by not according it the same importance as French.”

Whatever the threats to French in Canada, critics of the bill counter that stigmatizing bilingualism is self-defeating in an increasingly interconnected world, and that policing English in the age of Twitter is futile, in particular in multicultural Montreal.

Reducing the percentage of Francophone Quebecers who can attend English-language colleges is a measure that critics say will unfairly punish future generations of French-speaking Quebecers.

Julius Grey, an eminent human rights lawyer in Montreal, who has argued landmark cases before Canada’s Supreme Court, told me he feared that limiting English language education for Francophone young people would curtail their career horizons in a world in which the lingua franca is English.

“Francophones will be lulled into thinking you don’t need English for a successful career in North America, which is not the case,” he said.

He also railed against the expanded powers that the bill confers on Quebec language inspectors, who would be able to search computers and iPhones of a business, to ensure that a company is complying with the legislation. “It risks turning Quebec into an inspector state,” he said.

Among the most strident criticism over the bill has come from the business community, who fear a return to the 1970s when another landmark language bill — Bill 101 — resulted in capital flight from Montreal. The need for businesses to justify hiring employees who speak a language other than French has prompted fears that Montreal will become less attractive to multinational companies that could find staffing needs determined by Quebec language bureaucrats.

Some business leaders cautioned that if Quebec became a hostile place for talented, English-speaking engineers and programmers, Montreal risked losing its status as a technology center.

François Vincent, vice president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, told me that the proposed measures would burden small and medium-sized businesses at a time when many were already coping with the coronavirus pandemic and a worker shortage.

“This bill will add bureaucracy, labor costs and red tape,” he said.

Will the legislation, which is expected to pass, achieve its aim of promoting French in Quebec?

Mr. Termote, the demographer, told a legislative committee that the bill wouldn’t do much to reverse the decline of French, given demographic patterns in Quebec. Inviting a demographer to attend the hearings had been brave, he added.

“They always come packing bad news,” he said.

This week’s Trans Canada section was compiled by Vjosa Isai, The Times’s Canada news assistant.

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