If Canada breaks up, thank the -- official language minorities.

Author:Richards, John
 
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John Richards is an editor of Inroads.

The conclusion of this article is simple and, for those who cannot bear to read one more analysis of our constitutional problems, here it is up front. There may no longer be a feasible political compromise to set Canada right. If the country breaks up, the official language minorities--who have the most to lose--must assume a large chunk of the blame.

Why blame them? A good place to start is with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Far too much of our political discourse has been transformed since 1982 into an American-style debate over conflicting individual rights. A rights-dominated political discourse renders political debate infantile; it blocks intelligent discussion about reconciling the (usually rational) interests of important groups in the country. Politics of successful countries require an ongoing exercise in such reconciliation. Without it, political stresses accumulate and--sooner or later--the political structure cracks, often in decidedly unpleasant ways for all concerned. In Canada, a major political task for over two centuries has been to reconcile the respective interests of the two linguistic majorities--the Francophone majority in Quebec and the Anglophone majority elsewhere in British North America. The Charter of Rights sets out official language minority rights; it makes no mention of official language majorities. Quite predictably, the official language minorities like the Charter, and have used it effectively to drown out serious discussion of possible compromises between the linguistic majorities.

To appreciate this, let us start with an imaginary conversation with a foreign visitor seeking to understand what Canada's interminable constitutional conflict is all about.

Discussion with an inquisitive foreigner

The first question the visitor might pose is, what groups are sufficiently opposed to the status quo to entertain seriously the idea of breaking Canada apart?

Answer: There is one and only one such group, the 6 million Quebecois. (1) The foreigner then asks, what is unique about this group of Canadians to make their political choices differ so remarkably from the rest of you?

Again, the answer is obvious. Quebecois share with other Canadians many political complaints. The one overriding distinction of this group is their language. The Western Hemisphere is a continent of settlers from many lands. The Quebecois are the only linguistic community to have simultaneously built--in conjunction with les Anglais--a prosperous industrial society and resisted assimilation to one of the three dominant languages of the continent (English, Spanish and Portuguese).

Most of us think about our language--as we do our health--only when it is threatened. English-speaking Canadians have few occasions to feel their language threatened. Hence, they tend to ignore language policy and to suspect that those who insist on the subject harbour illiberal desires to suppress freedom of speech. On the other hand, the Quebecois have thought about their language and culture for over 200 years.

Is it really true, the foreigner asks, that the Quebecois have been consistently concerned about survival of their language and culture?

Indeed, they have--sometimes obsessively so. This concern has been a central theme throughout Canadian history. The British understood this perfectly. Faced with a growing revolt among their colonists to the south, they enacted the 1774 Quebec Act guaranteeing the seigneurial system of property rights and the position of the Roman Catholic Church. Negotiation of the British North America Act a century later was another pragmatic compromise. Quebec representatives insisted that the new dominion be a federation and that education be explicitly under provincial jurisdiction.

With the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, Quebec became as secular as other Western industrial societies. While Quebecois abandoned la foi, they had no intention of abandoning la langue, insisting that the Quebec state take over from the church as its defender. Upon its initial election in 1976, the first priority of the Parti quebecois was to consolidate language laws. Bill 101, La Charte de la langue francaise, was enacted in 1977. It formally assured Quebecois that French would be the official language for public purposes within the province. With good reason, Bill 101 is extremely popular among Quebecois as a constitution-like guarantee that French will predominate in the public life of their province. Ironically, La Charte de la langue francaise probably contributed significantly to the PQ's loss of their 1980 referendum. It reassured moderate nationalists that linguistic survival was feasible if Quebec remained a province. Provided French was secure within their province, this group was happy to remain Canadian.

Has this Charte de la langue francaise in fact provided linguistic security?

Whether they remain within Canada or not, the Quebecois are like any other small linguistic group living beside a much larger linguistic group. Quebec is like Denmark, Finland, Hungary and Singapore. In an age of migration and mass communication, linguistic boundaries of "minor" language groups correspond roughly to the relevant political boundaries. Unless buttressed by law that effectively limits public use of the competing "major" language, "minor" languages do not survive intergenerationally as lingua france.

The evidence on French-language use across Canada is dramatic evidence for this thesis. Within Quebec, intergenerational retention of language among mothertongue Francophones is essentially 100 percent. Among New Brunswick Franco-phones, retention is also high, although roughly one in ten Acadians has abandoned his mother tongue. Elsewhere in Canada, the evidence is grim. In Ontario, French-language retention declined from 70 percent in 1971 to 59 percent in 1991. In the nine jurisdictions (seven provinces and two territories) beyond Quebec and the provinces adjacent to it, French-language retention fell from 51 percent in 1971 to 41 percent by 1991. This decline in use of French took place, it should be realized, despite significant improvements in French-language services associated with federal bilingual policies.

Since 1977, successive Quebec governments--both Liberal and PQ--have made many amendments to Bill 101 (allowing, for example, bilingual commercial signs). But they have adamantly adhered to the legislation's basic provisions. For 20 years, Quebec governments have required large firms to function in French, have required professionals to show a working knowledge of French in order to practice, have required Allophone immigrants to attend French schools and, in other ways, have improved the relative position of French as the dominant public language within the province.

Bill 101 has also strengthened the relative position of French among Anglophones and Allophones. Table 1 summarizes statistics on knowledge of French among the various linguistic communities within the province In 1971, the proportion of Allophones who knew only French was less than half the proportion who knew only English; by 1991, it had...

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