Thursday, March 21, 2013

Language shift and propaganda

Language Shift

The process in which a minority language is gradually replace by a dominant language is called language shift. It is a process that has been observed and well documented, most notably in the historical shifts to English by Celtic language speakers of Britain and Ireland. The main factors that cause a people to abandon their language for another are well understood by linguists. Addressing these factors is exactly what Quebec's language laws are about. In terms of linguistics, this is known as "language planning" and the goal is to achieve "language maintenance".

Any country will have a dominant language. This is not a problem when the citizens of this country all naturally speak this language. If, however, this country is the product of imperialism, the dominant language will often be one that dominates minority languages. It can be a forceful domination or an insidious one but the effects are often the same.

In most cases the majority language is numerically stronger as regards numbers of speakers (e.g. English in Wales or Scotland), but in some cases the majority language, spoken by a dominant elite may in fact be the first language of a minority (e.g. the elite status of Russian in Estonia during the Soviet era). In both cases, the balance of power between the different speech communities is rarely - if ever - equal. This power differential may be either perceived or real, with regard to a language group’s access to economic, political, legislative, cultural or educational resources.

A marked mismatch in power relations between these groups may result in language shift, whereby the disfavored language loses ground. Should this process continue, the outcome may be so-called language death. This is the fate that befell two of the Celtic languages, Cornish and Manx, which died out as native languages with the death of the last native speakers in 1777 and 1974, respectively.

Language shift doesn't happen overnight. It's a gradual process. A typical model looks something like this: Using the letter A for the language of the monolingual minority speech community and the letter B for the language of the majority speech community, the process of language shift can be represented as follows:

                                           A > Ab > AB > aB > B

Thus language shift over the space of a few generations begins and ends in monolingualism passing through three stages of bilingualism: Ab, where the bilingual is most competent in the minority language; AB, where the bilingual is a equally competent in both the minority and majority language; and aB, where the bilingual is most competent in the majority language.

This is how it played out in Scotland:

Percentages of Gaelic speakers (mono and bilingual) in Scotland in successive census years, 1891–2001. Red, 75–100% Gaelic speaking; orange, 50–74.9% Gaelic speaking; yellow, 25–49.9% Gaelic speaking; white, less than 25% Gaelic speaking.

According to this model, language maintenance appears to be under threat from the moment a population becomes bilingual. This isn't necessarily the case. If a minority language can maintain itself at the Ab stage, it is still secure as long as the minority language remains necessary in everyday life (i.e. it is not an optional language). In other words, French must be as essential in Quebec as English is in Ontario. Franco-Ontarians can get services in French, if they ask for them, but they understand that English is the common language and they are all bilingual anyway. It is very difficult to function in Ontario without English. The same must be true in Quebec with regards to French if we are to avoid language shift.

The Big Mistake

Probably the single biggest mistake the English made in Canada was simply not sticking to the plan. The Act of Union of 1840 laid it all out, Upper Canada (Ontario) was to be merged with Lower Canada (Quebec) in order to form the Province of Canada. Massive immigration from the British Isles would eventually make Francophones a minority. The French language was banned in the Parliament, Courts and all other governmental bodies of the new united province. An added bonus to all this was that Upper Canada could unload half of its massive debt onto the then-solvent Lower Canada.

Even though the English were given an artificial majority in the new parliament until they actually formed a real majority, the union never really worked out for them. Francophones tended to vote as a block, whereas the English vote was split so nothing could really get done without the consent of the Francophones (The whole idea was to marginalize them). This situation eventually lead to Confederation and the creation of the province of Quebec.

What the English ended up doing was giving us a state in which we were the majority. This would prove essential in resisting language shift. Had we remained a stateless minority, it would have been much harder, if not impossible, to resist the planned assimilation. It is through the government of Quebec that we have had the necessary tools to even begin to address the problem. We must also recognize the important role played by unions who had to fight for the basic right to be able to work in French.

Of course, it must be remembered that Canada did not become officially bilingual until 1969, a year after the Parti Quebecois was formed. French language schools in Ontario were not officially recognized under the provincial Education Act until 1968. In other words, only the fear of an independent Quebec moved Canada to clean up its act. Before that, we had to fight for even minimal recognition of our language like having some French on our stamps and currency. Nothing was ever given to us, it had to be fought for.


Any discussion about language policy in Quebec should be framed within the context of our history and the fact that we are a linguistic minority that faces challenges that the dominant, majority language does not. Unfortunately, our opponents aren't engaging in any kind of discussion. They are waging a very ugly propaganda war and like in any war, the truth is the first casualty.


It all started with someone visiting an Italian restaurant in Montreal called Buona Notte. This person was presented with a menu which was in Italian and English only. Had he asked for a French version, he would have got one but instead he reported the incident to the OQLF.

The OQLF sent an inspector who was presented with the French version of the menu. He should have closed the case but instead he sent a letter to the owner of the restaurant about the headings in the menu (Antipasti, Pasta, Carne, Contorne, Pesce) which he felt should have a French equivalent. As always, he asked the owner to contact him in order the find an acceptable solution (The OQLF will often offer to pay part of the costs of the changes). The owner, however, chose to go to the Anglo media and claimed Quebec wanted to ban the word "pasta", this was repeated ad nauseum and even reached foreign media. He even began selling T-shits commemorating the event.

It's true, some mistakes were made but the way this story was distorted and exploited went well beyond any sense of proportion. Enforcing these types of laws will always be a tricky business. I'm sure if we were to scrutinize the CRTC's enforcement of Canada's Canadian content laws, we would also find some strange cases.

Other examples:

This one isn't even based on a real event. La Charte de la langue française does not regulate art. It regulates commercial signage only. The purpose here is to perpetuate the "language police" myth. The OQLF are endlessly portrayed as some kind of Gestapo that breaks down doors and arrests people.

It's not uncommon to find people in English Canada who actually seem to believe that you can be fined for speaking English in public in Quebec. All of our efforts to survive as a linguistic minority in this country are systematically vilified. It's not honest criticism, it's just slander.

The management and maintenance of the Mercier bridge is shared by the federal crown corporation The Jacques Cartier and Champlain Bridges Incorporated and the Ministère des Transports du Québec. Why not blame the federal government for the state of this bridge? Why not focus on the $332 million wasted on corruption and federalist propaganda during Canada's sponsorship scandal? No, that's not important. That was a worthy cause. The point here is simply that 1¢ spent on protecting the French language in Quebec is 1¢ too much.

Article 26(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children."

If you immigrate to Italy, can you demand that your child be given a publicly-funded education in English? No, of course not. Public education in Italy is in Italian. Public education in Quebec is in French with exceptions made for the traditional Anglophone community and for the Native people. However, these rules don't apply to private schools. Parents do have the right to choose. Quebec is no more in violation of this article than Italy or any other country. What these Anglophones really want is for Quebecers to subsidize the assimilation of their own society by providing English public education to any newcomer to Quebec. Refusing to do so is considered discrimination and a violation of human rights.


What should be apparent to anyone by now is that Canada is not, and never has been, willing to make any serious concessions in order to allow a minority language to survive. When its back is against the wall, Canada will pretend to make concessions, mostly meaningless ones like Trudeau's fantasy about a bilingual Canada. The reality boils down to being able to buy stamps in French or English anywhere in Canada but not much else. Francophones outside of Quebec are still being assimilated at an alarming rate.

Anyone interested in keeping Quebec a place where North American French can survive and thrive long into the future needs to understand that this will only happen in an independent Quebec. Keeping Quebec a province of Canada is keeping us all in a perpetual battlefield and I feel it is battle we may lose in the long run. The real choices are independence or assimilation. If I had my way, that would be the question for the next referendum: Independence or Assimilation?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Detective Murdoch and the case of the missing Canadian history

Louis Riel? Never heard of him.
Canadians have two national pastimes, hockey (at least if we are to believe Tim Horton ads) and Quebec bashing. By "bashing" I don’t mean criticism. Good criticism is fair-minded and self-consistent, whereas bashing is unfair, demagogic and sensationalistic and rests on double-standards and generalizes from a few anecdotes. In fact, the Quebec bashing article has become a kind of literary genre in itself. First we have the “incident”, supposedly illustrating the inherently intolerant nature of Quebecers. The incident can be true, partially true and exaggerated, or entirely fabricated. It doesn’t really matter. Next, we have the analysis of Quebec’s culture and everything that’s wrong with it. This is the most insidious part, as it’s just good old-fashioned bigotry masquerading as a sociological thesis. Also, by accusing something as intangible as our culture, there is no possible way we can defend ourselves which is the whole point of bashing.
Anyway, I’m proposing something similar. The “incident” is the repeated broadcast of episodes of The Murdoch mysteries. I will use this incident to analyse Canadian culture, but hopefully I will be more fair-minded. I should point out that I haven’t seen every episode, so I can’t be absolutely sure about my analysis. However, I hope that the synopsis of every episode found on Wikipedia and IMDb will be sufficient to fill in the blanks. I will start by what we see on the show, and then by what we don’t see.
Set in Toronto in the 1890s, The Murdoch Mysteries follow the investigations of detective William Murdoch of the Toronto constabulary. The main character is handsome, clean-cut and without any apparent flaws or vices. He is not an addict, like Sherlock Holmes (with whom we most readily compare Murdoch). He does not have obsessive-compulsive disorder like Adrian Monk, nor is he a slob like Columbo. He has no inner demons. In fact, he doesn’t seem to have much of an inner life at all, if you don’t count his infatuation with Dr. Julia Ogden. Murdoch is very forward-thinking, using the very latest scientific advances in his investigations. He is also a devout Roman Catholic, setting him apart from the largely Protestant (and Orange, the Order not the color) society in which he lives. In short, Murdoch is the poster boy for mental health, moral rectitude and men’s hair care products. A nineteenth century Ken doll with about as much depth and personality.
I believe it is precisely the main character’s bland goodness that provides much of the show’s appeal for Canadians. He validates the pathological need Canadians have of being the good guys of the universe, a need that stems from a deep seated insecurity. Canada is basically an empire, which means it has no inherent legitimacy. It must maintain itself through the constant suppression of its francophone minority. The good guy fantasy provides a means of dealing with that unpleasant reality. It also provides a means of feeling superior both to the French and the Americans, another source of insecurity. Indeed, after the Conquest, the American Revolution is the second event that had a profound effect in shaping the Canadian character. It was because of this that Canada became populated by Loyalists, people who believed it was better to suck up to wealth (in the form of the British monarchy) and power (the mighty British Empire) than to take a chance with those crazy revolutionaries who spoke of liberty and a republican form of government. Ever since history has shown that they backed the wrong horse, Canadians have felt a need to prove something to Americans. This need is even more acute since Canada became a cultural colony of the United States (and since Harper came to power, a political one as well).
The Murdoch Mysteries is even more interesting in what it doesn’t show, specifically its troubled relationship with history. Its Wikipedia page states that “real history is an important element in most episodes”. This is true, in a way. The show seems to take a People magazine approach to history, in that the great names of the period (Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, Nikola Tesla, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells and so on) all make an appearance for one contrived reason or another. It’s as if they’re all strangely attracted to Toronto, which must have been a pretty unremarkable city at the time. Often, the historical celebs serve as an excuse to talk about the century that is to come, not to reflect on the one just past. It’s as if the Canada of the 1890s depicted on the show has no past, only a future.
But a past Canada most certainly has, even in the 1890s. At that time, the British Empire was at the height of its power and arrogance. The Orange Order was a powerful force in Canada, with its hatred of all things Catholic and a general hostility towards anyone who wasn’t White Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. We do see some of this on the show. Inspector Brackenreid and Constable Crabtree are Orangemen, we see instances of prejudice against the Chinese and Jewish communities, and Murdoch’s Catholicism (very) occasionally causes problems for him. But it all feels very watered down, very mild. This is the same Orange Order, after all, that was involved in the burning of the parliament building in Montreal in 1849, fought the right to French instruction wherever it could, and would later develop ties with the Ku Klux Klan1.
It is here, I think, that we hit the nail on the head. While there is nothing specifically Canadian about prejudice against Catholics, Jews and other visible minorities, francophobia is quintessentially Canadian. It is also conspicuously absent from the show. The only episode I am aware of with anything French in it is Monsieur Murdoch, season 4, where Murdoch investigates the disappearance of a young woman from France and collaborates with a French police officer. Apart from the fact that the French policeman plays into all the stereotypes Anglos have about Frenchmen, I should point out that French people from France is not the same as francophones from Canada. At the very least, the show’s creators could insert some casual francophobia here and there, so as to create some realism. They could put in a throwaway scene where, during an Orangemen parade, two francophones unwisely speak French to each other in the street. They are then accosted by a group of hostile Orangemen and told to “speak white”. Murdoch witnesses the scene and is vaguely embarrassed by it, but walks on. This sort of thing, after all, is a natural part of life in British North America.
Alternatively, the show’s creators can use some major historical events as part of the story. Events like the Red River Rebellion (1869), the North-West Rebellion (1885) and the ongoing discrimination against francophones are all within living memory in the 1890s and are filled with conflict, injustice and resentment. Going back a little further we have the brutal repression of the Patriotes in Quebec (1837-38), also filled with violence and Anglo militias looting and burning the homes of Quebecers2,3. This is all great material for a murder mystery writer with an affinity for history. Let’s see if we can’t help the show’s writers by proposing a story idea. When Manitoba joined the Canadian Empire... I mean, Confederation in 1870, it was officially bilingual. But by 1890 it became officially unilingual English, thanks in no small part to the efforts of a rabid francophobe called D’Alton McCarthy4 who died in 1898 in a carriage accident … or was it? Murdoch is on the case. And he suspects foul play. Evidence points to the possibility that the murderer may be a former guerrilla for Louis Riel. Murdoch questions Riel’s former lieutenant Gabriel Dumont, who happens to be in Toronto for some implausible reason. During the course of the interrogation we learn all the sad and sordid details about the dispossession of the Métis. History comes alive!
The lesson here is that Canadian history is not boring. Canadians make it boring by systematically ignoring those parts where they don’t look good, which also happen to be the most interesting parts. It could be argued that the creators of The Murdoch Mysteries are free to make any kind of show they want, including one where a Victorian-era detective goes around solving crimes in a Bourgeois and genteel society. After all, most detective shows aren’t at all interested in history. All this is true, but then why bother doing a period piece in the first place? Why couldn’t Murdoch solve crimes in contemporary Toronto? It just seems like a wasted opportunity to bring history to life in all its conflict, pain and tragedy. That is what the show lacks the most, a sense of the tragic. Even the murders don’t seem particularly tragic. Instead, we have an hour long heritage minute with commercial breaks, approved by the Harper government and designed to appeal to Canadian vanity. We get Canadian history as clean as the tables at Tim Horton’s after the busboy swabbed it down and as sweet as the jelly donuts with maple frosting on special that day.
Of course, there is an alternate explanation. Maybe Canadians don’t feel a need to talk about history involving Quebec and francophones outside of Quebec because they don’t consider it to be part of Canadian history. That is, in spite of all their talk of a “Canadian family”, they don’t consider us to be real Canadians. Just as the Indians were never really British and the Algerians were never really French, deep down Canadians will always consider us internal foreigners.

1 – Normand Lester, Le livre noir du Canada Anglais 2, Les Intouchables, 2002.
2 – Normand Lester, Le livre noir du Canada Anglais, Les Intouchable, 2001.
3 – John F. Conway, Des comptes à rendre, VLB éditeur, 1995.
4 – Jean-Paul Marchand, Conspiration? Les anglophones veulent-ils éliminer le français du Canada?, Stanké, 1997.