French language laws renew Rift with anglophones in Quebec

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MONTREAL – Since Aude Le Dubé opened a only English-language bookstore in Montreal last year, she has had several unwelcome guests every month: angry Francophones, sometimes draped in Quebec flags, who rushed in and berated her so as not to sell books in French.

“You would think I had opened a sex shop in the Vatican,” reflected Ms. Le Dubé, a novelist from Brittany, France, and an ardent fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Now, however, Ms Le Dubé fears that resistance against companies like her De Stiil bookstore may escalate. A new language bill proposed by the Quebec government would consolidate the status of French as a primary language in Quebec, a decision that could undermine businesses that depend on English.

Under the law, which builds on a four-decade-old language law and is expected to be passed in the coming months, small and medium-sized businesses would face stricter regulations to ensure they operate in French. , including raising the bar for companies to justify why they should hire employees who speak a language other than French. Government language inspectors would have expanded powers to raid offices and search private computers and iPhones. And the number of French-speaking Quebecers able to attend English-speaking colleges would be severely limited.

Language is inextricably linked to identity in Quebec, a former French colony that fell to Great Britain in 1763. Today, French-speaking Quebecers are a minority in the world. North America, where their language faces a daily challenge in social media dominated by English and global popular culture.

In Quebec, French is already the official language of government, commerce and the courts. On commercial advertising and public signs, French must be predominant. And children from immigrant families must attend French schools.

The new bill provokes a backlash among the province’s English-speaking minority and others, who complain that it seeks to create a monocultural Quebec within a multicultural Canada and violates human rights.

The language debate is particularly heated in Montreal, a boastful cosmopolitan city with a large English-speaking minority. Such is the alarm about the fragility of French in Quebec that a few years ago, the provincial government adopted a non-binding resolution asking store salespeople to replace “bonjour salut” – a common greeting in bilingual Montreal and tourist – by simply “hello”. “

Quebec Premier François Legault argued that the new law is “urgent” to prevent the decline of the French language in a predominantly French-speaking province. “It’s nothing against English-speaking Quebecers,” he said.

Other proponents argue that legislation is needed in a world where the appeal of English is so strong.

But critics of the bill say that the stigmatization of bilingualism will be damaging for Quebec. “The language should be a bridge to other cultures, but this bill wants to erect barriers,” said Ms. Le Dubé, whose bookstore is located on the Plateau-Mont-Royal in Montreal, a neighborhood with a large Francophone community, street arts and trendy cafes.

To protect the bill from possible legal challenges, the government invoked a constitutional loophole known as the “notwithstanding clause,” which gives Canadian governments the power to violate certain constitutional rights, including freedom of religion or ‘expression.

Quebec’s quest to preserve French finds echoes in other countries, including the United States, where more than 20 states, amid the proliferation of Spanish, have enacted laws in recent years to make it known. ‘English the official language.

In France, the Académie Française, the rarefied body that protects the French language, has sought to ban certain English words like “hashtag”, although it has subsequently backed down. The linguistic agency of Quebec, for its part, allowed “grilled cheese” to enter the lexicon but prefers “mail” to “email”.

Its supporters maintain that the bill is imperative because bilingualism is on the rise in Quebec workplaces. They cite a 2019 study by the agency responsible for protecting the French language, which showed that the proportion of workers using French exclusively at work fell to 56% from 60% between 2011 and 2016.

Alain Bélanger, a demographer at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique du Québec, a university research organization in Quebec, said the future of French in the province was under threat, especially among second and third generation immigrants, who invariably turned to English. .

“This law is necessary to help correct this imbalance,” he said.

Louise Beaudoin, who in the 1990s was Minister of Languages ​​for the Parti Québécois, a nationalist party, said in recent hearings on the legislation that the bill did not go far enough, and could not be moderated and reasonable “given the state of French. In Quebec.”

Critics of the bill said bilingualism should be seen as a benefit – not a threat – and accused the Quebec government of seeking to suppress English and other minority languages.

Shady Hafez, an Indigenous rights advocate and doctoral student in sociology at the University of Toronto, whose Indigenous community resides in Quebec, criticized the measure as deaf. He said he was completely ignorant of other marginalized cultures, including Canada’s large indigenous population.

“For Quebec to say, we need all of you to speak our language, it is to continue the project of building a state with a single culture,” he declared. Referring to efforts historically made in Canada to eradicate Indigenous languages ​​like his native Algonquin, he added, “We should prioritize the preservation of our own oppressed languages ​​- not French.”

Alex Winnicki, co-owner of Satay Brothers, a popular Asian street food restaurant, said the regulation of the bill would hamper small businesses already shaken by the pandemic. He would ideally like to put a “Satay Brothers” sign outside his restaurant, which is now unmarked.

“A new sign would cost around $ 10,000, and I don’t want the language police knocking down my door,” said Mr. Winnicki, the son of immigrants from Singapore and Poland.

Additionally, in multilingual Montreal – where hip-hop artists mix English and French and where many residents move between French, English and native languages ​​like Mandarin and Arabic – he said that the idea that the government could actually control the use of the language in everyday life was “ludicrous.” “

The bill requires companies to justify their need to hire employees with knowledge of a language other than French. Its promoters fear that a bilingual person could be hired in preference to a person speaking only French, which would put Francophones at a disadvantage.

Michel Leblanc, president of the Montreal Chamber of Commerce, said he didn’t want a situation in which a restaurant has a bilingual waiter to be called every time an American tourist shows up. But he stressed that linguistic protections were necessary, given that French was spoken by a minority in Canada.

However, some, including Mr. Leblanc, fear the economic consequences of the bill. During a recent legislative committee debate on the bill, he pointed out that English was the international language of business and that the bill could undermine Quebec’s economy. In the late 1970s, after the passage of a previous language bill, Montreal experienced an exodus of English speakers and businesses to Toronto.

Christopher Shannon, principal of Lower Canada College, an elite English-speaking private school in Montreal, warned that the bill threatened to cut enrollment and make Montreal a less attractive place for world-class talent. Under the bill, he said, foreign nationals temporarily residing in Quebec cannot send their children to a private English school like his for more than three years.

“This bill threatens to turn Montreal into a lost hole,” he said.

Ms Le Dubé, the English bookseller, said that being from Brittany, where the Breton language had declined rapidly in the 20th century under persecution from France, she understood all too well the importance of preserving the language of a nation.

But, she quickly added, “Why can’t different languages ​​coexist? “


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