Sunday, November 13, 2016

A more inclusive Bill 101

Recently, there was an opinion piece in the Gazette by Deepak Awasti and Murray Levine which called for a "more inclusive" Bill 101. It's hard to believe that it took two people to write this gibberish but nonetheless the article does contain some of the fallacies that are routinely repeated by the opponents of the Charter of the French language, so it is worth addressing. 

An anglophone minority?

The authors attempt to frame this issue in the context of an oppressive francophone "majority" and a beleaguered anglophone "minority." Quebec, however, does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in a part of the world where English is the dominant, majority language and speakers of this language enjoy all of the benefits of this majority status even when they are a numerical minority, like in Quebec. This fact cannot be simply ignored. It's a rather important detail. Anglophones are a minority in Quebec like white people are a minority in Detroit. It's not really something that marginalizes them in any way.

In fact, when a group of anglophones went before the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations in the 1980s claiming that they were victims of violations of article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Committee observed that "provisions of article 27 refers to minorities in States", which English-speaking people in Canada are not. It stated that the "authors therefore have no claim under article 27 of the Covenant."

But even if we consider Anglo-Quebecers as a real minority, they have an enviable situation compared to other minorities. Quebec anglophones have their own publicly funded schools system, which they control. This includes three English-only universities that get almost a third of all government financing for higher education. There are roughly 15 hospitals in Quebec where you are guaranteed service in English. Most government services are available in English on demand. All laws passed in Quebec are written in French and English. You have the right to use English in the National Assembly. In fact, anglophones in Quebec have the right to demand that all of their court proceedings be in English. Therefore a judge in Quebec must be able to render verdicts and pass sentence in English. 

We just need to compare to see the stark differences. In the Greater Sudbury region of Ontario where francophones make up 28% of the population there is only one partially bilingual hospital where, in the words of Denis Constantineau, director of the Sudbury Community Health Center, you can be admitted to the hospital in French, but you will likely die in English because the more you progress in the system, fewer French services are offered.

A study conducted by the Federation of Francophone and Acadian Communities of Canada concluded that: "…access to health care services in French for Franco-Ontarians is severely lacking in hospital services, community health centers, medical clinics, and home care: these four sectors cover most health care services available in Ontario. Hospital emergency services are often the key entry point to the health care system, yet three quarters of Franco-Ontarians are denied such access in their language. 74% of Franco-Ontarians said they have either no access at all or rarely access to hospital services in French. In fact, only 12% claimed that they could access hospital services in French at all times."

Or as we recently saw in the Caron case, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Alberta had no constitutional obligation to translate its laws into French. So Quebec anglophones have rights that francophones in most of English Canada do not have.

And setting aside the issue of rights, there is the omnipresence of American and Canadian media (magazines, newspapers, music, TV shows, computer software and video games) which means that the English language occupies a prominent place in Quebec regardless of anything else. Two of the twelve daily newspapers in Quebec are published in English. 19% of magazines and other periodicals published in Quebec are in English. There are 15 English radio stations in Quebec (vs. 11 in 1970). And 35% of all movies shown in theaters in Quebec are in English. All of this leads to English having a greater power of attraction over French even in Quebec.

No real linguistic minority has a situation anywhere near as good as this. Anglophones in North America, whether they are in Quebec or not, are simply not a minority. They are part of the overwhelming majority. The real minority in this story are the North American francophones. Trying to remove this fact from the context is dishonest.

The sign law

Quebec's sign law seem to produce most of the hysteria from Quebec's anglophone community. It is their most tangible evidence for oppression. I admit that the original version of this law (the French only version) was controversial even though I don't think it violated freedom of expression which is meant to protect the pluralism of political, ideological and artistic expression and is only remotely related to commercial signs. And even with that version of the law, anglophones in Quebec continued to do business in English. The sign law did not prevent anglophone merchants from advertising in English on radio and television and in newspapers, neighborhood publications, etc. It only affected commercial signs. But why regulate the language of commercial signs?

I often compare Quebec's sign law to regulations which aim to preserve a city's unique architectural heritage. Many cities around the world have regulations regarding new construction to ensure that these buildings are architecturally and contextually compatible with the existing streetscape. The reason for this is that some cities have a very unique architectural style and the people who live in these cities wish to preserve it. If they allow people to build whatever they want, over time, that unique style could vanish. 

Quebec is the only French-speaking society in North America. A majority of Quebecers want to preserve this unique trait and feel that people who do business here should contribute to this uniqueness instead of contributing to the dominant current of cultural homogenization. And so, we have regulations to ensure that the “visage linguistique” in Quebec remains predominately French. 

When the Supreme Court ruled against the "French only rule" of Bill 101's sign law (Ford v. Quebec), it still conceded that the purpose of the legislation —to assure the quality and influence of the French language in Quebec— was a valid one. English had become so commonplace in the “visage linguistique” of the province that it “strongly suggested to young and ambitious francophones that the language of success was almost exclusively English. It confirmed to anglophones that there was no great need to learn French. And it suggested to immigrants that the prudent course lay in joining the anglophone community.” Given this threat to the French language, the court decided that although an outright ban was unreasonable, it would not be unreasonable to require “the predominant display of the French language, even its marked predominance.” So the sign law as it exists now is based on the ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada. 

The idea behind Bill 101

There is no denying that Quebec is unique in that it is the only majority francophone state in North America. It is the only society on this continent where you can do pretty much whatever you want to do in life and succeed at the highest levels in French. But the existence of this francophone society in Anglo North America is precarious given the overwhelming dominance of English. Therefore, certain protectionist measures are justified. The Supreme Court of Canada could see the legitimacy of this and most reasonable people can see it too, but there are some who simply refuse to see it.

In their article Awasti and Levine claim that wanting to make French the common language of all Quebecers is excluding people. I really don't see how. Having French as the common langue in Quebec does not mean that it is the only language spoken here just as English is not the only language spoken in Toronto, but it is the common language. People don't get upset if they have to speak English to get some kind of service in Toronto, it's just normal.

Bill 101 aims to create that kind of normalcy for French in Quebec. But some people feel that it is their God-given right as Canadians to never have to speak anything other than English from sea to shining sea. Of course, francophones can never hope to expect such a thing with French, but who cares about that. Anglophones obviously have some greater value which means that they should never be expected to speak the language of "the other."

Are the authors of this article really motivated by a desire for equality and inclusiveness or could something else be motivating them? Well, as it happens, one of the co-authors (Murray Levine) has visited my Facebook page on a number of occasions, and he made the following comment during a discussion on the possible partitioning of an independent Quebec:

"With 70% against separation and the low birth rate of the Quebecois the point is moot. There is not going to be separation and there will likely be no partition. We are stuck with the pouriture of Amerique de nord until Montcalm rises from the dead and defeats Wolfe!"
Murray Levine, Why Quebec needs independence page, April 4th, 2013

Yes, that's right Murray seems to think that an entire people are nothing but rot ("pouriture" [sic] is French for "rot"). Maybe this explains why he is so vehemently opposed to the idea of French as the common language in Quebec. Maybe it's not really about a desires for a more "inclusive" Quebec after all. Maybe his opposition to Bill 101 actually comes from a much darker place. Whatever the case may be, I don't think we need any lessons on inclusiveness from Murray Levine.

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