By: Alex Ripley
I don’t talk about Quebec very often. Maybe I’m just all too aware of my terminal case of foot-in-mouth disease. Whatever the excuse, the fact remains: I can’t remember the last time I wrote about or discussed, however casually, the politics of Quebec and of the French language in Canada.
I’m going to make up for that prolonged radio silence. For starters, the facts: Quebec is having a provincial election this fall, and the governing Liberals (in power since 2003 under the leadership of lapsed federal Tory Jean Charest) are, according to Leger Marketing, trailing in the polls.[i] Enter Pauline Marois, the sixty-three year old leader of the Parti Quebecois. Madame Marois doesn’t just want to be Premier. She wants to be the Premier who spearheads a successful campaign for secession.
The PQ has long relished tough talk; seldom have their deeds lived up to their words and rhetorical plays. Their stints in office have left a mark on Quebec though. Take, for example, the “Charter of the French Language”, or Bill 101. Introduced by the first Parti Quebecois administration in the mid-1970s, this now-infamous piece of legislation put severe limits on where and when one could employ the English language in Quebec’s public spaces. Signage in the language spoken by the rest of Canada was torn down; Anglo families who simply tried to put “Merry Christmas” signs in their windows were instructed to play by the rules and bid their neighbors “Joyeux Noel.”
The constitutionality of Bill 101 is been debated over the years, but its supporters have argued that the legislation is but a necessary tool for the preservation of the French language amid a continent of English speakers. Pauline Marois wants to revisit Bill 101.[ii] Marois’ plan would block most francophone and allophone students from attending English language CEGEPs (junior colleges.)
Quebec may not be an officially bilingual province, but it is – for now, at least – a component of an officially bilingual federation. In English Canada, students are free to study in French, if French immersion education is available. The government isn’t blocking access. I understand and respect those who desire to protect and preserve the French language and Quebecois culture. By limiting access to English-speaking CEGEPs, however, the PQ would ultimately be doing a disservice to the youth of Quebec. English is the language of the rest of Canada, and of business and science internationally. There most be other ways to protect Quebecois culture than to deny young Francophones the opportunity to complete their schooling in the lingua franca of the modern age.
The Parti Quebecois would likely disagree with what I’ve said here. However, I am a strong believer in what in the United States would be called “states rights”, and I’m not about to suggest that Ottawa or the rest of Canada should limit the ability of Quebec to legislate on education or cultural policy. So let me leave you with this question: is it time to let Quebec go? If preserving the French language must be done in such a way that the priorities and sensibilities of the rest of Canada are offended, then perhaps it’s time cut the ties and let the province go its own way. It would make life a fair bit easier for the rest of us. I don’t want it to come to that, and as such I hope Madame Marois and the PQ are defeated on September 4th. But if the separatists do eke out a victory, I might, deep down, let out a little cheer.