But before starting, I have many biases, but the one that comes to mind as an American is that I tend to worry more about individual rights than collective rights. And I worry about governments interfering too much, and I worry about people who worry too much. For instance, lots of folks worry about the new immigrants to the US not learning English. I would rather the market and the society have its impact, which will be to protect English, than impose the state upon the individuals. If they want to send their kids to private school in Spanish, that is their choice.
Anyhow, here is what I wrote while waiting for my internet connection to work again after the break:
What is the threat to French in Canada? The answer that motivates much of the policy and politics is not the present but the past. Because of the past Tyranny of the Majority, French was threatened with English political and economic dominance in Quebec and a Rest of Canada that was uninterested in either being bilingual or maintaining a French Quebec. Over the past forty years or so, politics, institutions and demographics have made a dramatic difference. Quebec has significant powers to protect French. The changes in demography has meant that politicians must play to a largely Francophone audience, so that there are incentives to protect French, and, as I have argued over the past few days—over-protect it. At the Canadian level, for the recent past and the near future, it has become clear that one must do quite well in Quebec to win a national majority, giving Quebec significant influence over who runs Canada. Plus the crises over the past few decades has provided Quebec with significant bargaining leverage as well.
So, what does threaten French in Quebec? Wait, first, some realities to be made clear: 80% of Quebec is Francophone and then 10% is Anglophone and the rest are Allophone. But what does that mean? Well, the 80% of the population speaks French. 10% of the population has English as a first language, but many of these folks are bilingual. And the allophones are folks whose first language is neither French nor English but probably end up speaking three or more languages. At least that has been my experience in the stores and streets of Montreal, where I hear individuals speaking three languages.
The perception is that French is threatened in Montreal because the percentage of families that speak French first at home has declined somewhat. To be clear, this has not been because there has been a huge influx of Anglophones or even of Allophones. Rather, it has been the reality that French families have been moving to the suburbs to the North and South. Why? Because the houses are cheaper, the services are probably better, and the taxes are lower. Montreal is facing some significant problems that make it less desirable than it once was—but those problems are not about language.
Well, language politics may matter in all of this, but not because English is dominating, but because Quebec as a province does not treat Montreal terribly well and because Montreal is poorly run. The last municipal election was between a mayor that had many corruption controversies, a woman who was widely reviled for her past policies that had been pretty hostile to much of Montreal, and another competitor who was seen as not entirely stable, I guess.
Anyway, the key is that the perception of a threat is much greater than the reality of what is really going on—that the new generation of Anglophones is increasingly bilingual, the Allophones are multilingual, and the Francophones desire but cannot get access to as much English education as they would like. It sometimes feels like I am the only unilingual person in town. Obvious, that is not true.
So, what is the threat to French in Quebec? Not immigrants, for one. Quebec controls immigration to the province, so it can and does favor immigration from those parts of the world where French is spoken. The downside for some nationalists is that this means that more French-speaking immigrants means more non-white immigrants—Haitians, Lebanese, etc. But for the point here, the best place to influence the composition of the society is at the border, and Quebec already controls that.
The only real challenge or risk is not from hordes of Americans, Aussies, Brits, Kiwis, and other Anglophones outside the country but from the rest of Canada. Quebec cannot prohibit Canadians from moving to Quebec. One could imagine a million or two Anglophones from other parts of Canada moving to Quebec to upset the balance of power somewhat. Sure. Given the higher taxes, lower wages, and often worse services, there is no risk of this either. The flow has been very much in the opposite direction, and perhaps it has evened out. But there really is no probability of Canadians reversing the demographic shifts of the past.
So again, what is the threat to French? And the answer is the obvious one—being located near the US and an increasingly connected world where English is the primary language of business and culture. Not the only language, but the increasingly common one. French has lost to English in Romania, for instance, despite Romania’s history and its membership in the Francophonie. Unless Quebec invests in jamming devices, its proximity to the US means that English TV, movies, and radio will continue to penetrate the province.
Even if Quebec were able to gain significant power over the airwaves (a stance has surprisingly gotten little play) and require content rules not unlike those that require 30% of the music to be Canadian to require more or exclusively French media, the 21st century will not allow it. Close the English movie theaters and people can access stuff online. Prohibit American TV programs on Quebec cable and satellite dishes, and the gray market on satellite dishes that get American and other foreign programming will boom. Same for radio with the advent of satellite radio. Blocking the internet a la China so that only French media gets through is theoretically possible, I guess, but would be, well, extraordinarily repressive and very difficult technologically.
More important, Quebec has to exist in a world of English if it wants to trade with the rest of the world. The Chinese are not going to invest in learning French when English will do just fine. So, the real threat to French in Quebec is the need for Francophones to learn English so that they can compete on world markets. That is why Francophones go to English CEGEPs (the strange Quebec institution that bridges high school and university—part vocational, part junior college, part prep school). And that is why McGill continues to attract many Francophones. There are other very good universities in Quebec where French is the language of instruction (Université de Montréal), but many French-speakers pick McGill, the notoriously Anglophone entity in the heart of Montreal, precisely because they know what it takes to succeed.
So, the threat to French in Quebec is not that severe and so we must question whether the methods used to protect it are proportionate to the threat. The Francophones have won many big battles over the years to get here, deservedly so, and moving from here forwards is not going to reverse those gains in any significant way. The political incentives are what they are. The English in Quebec have marginal political influence, and that is not going to change.
The Francophones in Quebec can choose to govern better than the English in Canada used to or not. They can choose to inflict a tyranny of the majority on the local minorities or not. But if they choose the former (and this is not a foregone conclusion since real support for independence and other extreme policies is decidedly mixed), it will not be due to a real threat and the policies will have a marginal impact on the realities of language in Quebec. But it may win votes.