Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Threats and Responses

Thanks again to some really thoughtful responses.  I promised to respond with a focus on threats, so see below:

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.


Sam said...

You make some good points, but there are some understatements here.

One thing I feel that cannot be repeated enough is that the current status of French probably has its origins in the legislation that has protected it in one way or another for the last 40+ years. It might be the case that this is inaccurate (it would require research that might be difficult to draw conclusions from), but in any case the current status of French is that it is already "artificially" propped up by legislation. I think many people fear the potential consequences of loosening or repealing provisions of Bill 101.

I very much like your insight on Montreal's desirability and the impacts it might have on demographic data and I feel that has not been studied enough.

The perception of the threat against French in Montreal is a large part of the PQ argument (such as what was presented in the Curzi report, which has methodological issues and flaws of its own) and indeed it should be. The current demographic situations of almost every other Quebec region do not suggest a very large threat, but those areas are, as a rule, not subject to much immigration.

The fear is largely focused on just that -- immigration. A threat that is very real is represented by the idea that it is possible to conduct one's life in Montreal without knowing a word of French. This is neither a surprise nor much of a threat in most of the West Island, where English-speaking residents are served by English-speaking business and government employees. Indeed, this is more problematic elsewhere in the island. It is not wrong to be a native English speaker and to ask for service in English, but the sentiment is that when allophones immigrate to Montreal, they won't take the initiative to learn French and instead will learn English. When they open businesses, they operate them in English (or extremely limited French), thus perpetuating this culture. Yes, the province does favour French-speaking immigrants (and there are many) but let's not delude ourselves into thinking that immigrant language learning is not a problem. It's lessening, but it is still very much there (the degree depends on which group is being examined.)

There is a growing number of bilingual people (and there damn well should be! As a fully bilingual Quebecer I greatly enjoy not being burdened by mot of these issues) and that solves a lot of the problem. As time goes on the hardline English-only West Island population will surely decline, which is a good sign for French in Quebec.

Sam said...

The other main threat, as you pointed out, is the media presence of the rest of Canada but especially of the United States. This and English being the language of international business tend to push people to act as though it is no longer necessary to learn French. The idea here is that it is not only the existence of French that is threatened (indeed that isn't an enormous problem as French is unlikely to completely die out any time soon, to say the least), but its quality. Many are concerned that Quebec culture -- which is very much rooted in the French language -- is becoming bastardized through the external influence of English Canada and the US.

You point out another important phenomenon: many French speakers choose English CEGEPs and go on to attend McGill or Concordia. I understand -- growing up and going to English schools, I was very much envied by my ineligible friends whose parents would have paid a lot of money to have them attend. English education ranges from acceptable to laughable in French schools and many feel this preparation is inadequate. There is some degree of irrationality in the fear that if everyone attended English school, no one would speak French anymore (if you already did, why would you stop?) but it is a high-risk situation that would be very difficult to reverse if it turned out that it had negative effects on French.

On the whole I agree that the threat is "not that severe," but part of this is explained by the fact that it is legislated. Following from that I would say that the methods to protect French are generally appropriate in the sense that they are part of the reason why Francophones have won these battles and part of why the threat is no longer severe.

To be clear, I am definitely not in favour of pushing these protections further (and I have the impression that much of the population knows the distinction between "I am concerned about the status of French in Quebec" and "I am in favour of further legislating its protection to the detriment of immigrants"). In one sense, the dominance of English is a hard train to stop and Quebec must be prepared to acknowledge that unless draconian, repressive policies are put in place, it will not be reversed (and in that case, even if it were -- it would probably result in mass emigration and possible violence).

So in conclusion to this (extremely long!) comment, I would say that your assessment is quite good, though some parts are a bit understated. I do not in any way favour expansion of Bill 101 or continued application of Bill 104, especially if we intend to attract and retain skilled immigrants such as yourself and your family.

Mrs. Spew said...

Well, that's pretty much it in a nutshell. Quebec nationalists are not that worried about immigrants, who they can control by more and more institutionalized laws of prejudice, or Anglophone Canadians, who they've been very effective at discouraging from staying in large numbers -- and who they continue to try to oust currently through destroying the English public school system -- but of French Canadians abandoning Quebec culture and the French language for English. The whole bit with the size of print on signs and the names of businesses is the fear that English businesses are, if not controlled, going to come in and take over the economy -- as they used to do -- hire employees for their English skills, get all the hospital patients, and push forward a culture that is mostly English. If more access to English is available in public schools to make French Canadians bilingual, then the assumption is that they'll like English better and increasingly abandon French. The threat is not immigrants who won't follow "our way of life;" it's that the natives, especially the younger ones, in their cultural tolerance and the desirability of English globally, and in the lure of the big cities like Montreal, will stop following "our way of life." And the best way to get them to stick with Quebec culture -- or reassure nationalists that they can be made to stick with the culture -- is to tell them it's under threat from immigrants and anglophones and the English federal government, and that this threat is so bad that they need the nationalist politicians to protect them and look out for their culture by legislating how they can exist in it.

Basically, Quebecers have no faith in their own culture being attractive, which I find the saddest thing, as it has so many wonderful things about it, things that work beautifully as well with a poly-gut, poly-lingual society. And so the politicians manipulate people by constantly striking out at the Other, in claims that this will keep Quebec culture and language safe and pure. Of course it doesn't; it just costs Quebec opportunities. Nor will it stop immigration, because there are too many places on the planet far worse than the gentle legislative bigotry of Quebec.

Younger Quebecers, even outside of Montreal, in the majority see this protectionism as pointless, but instead of acting against it, they simply put up with it -- in the same way that French Canadians had to put up with English Canadian oppression -- because they aren't interested in government and because restrictions can often be circumvented. Or they leave for greener pastures. So the nationalists can then run the local and provincial politics and continue their big con. And so Quebec has a great deal of power in Canada, but its growth is slowed and stunted and its people are always -- at the legislative level -- at war.

As long as English is seen as a zombie maker -- a train that's hard to stop -- taking over other cultures, instead of enhancing them as part of the multi-cultural development that it is in much of the world, Quebec will be a prejudicial, protectionist backwater with vibrant, struggling sub-cultures. If it let itself be a bilingual powerhouse, as it easily could be, I've always said it could be running the whole country. But right now, Quebec still suffers from the post traumatic stress of English being forced on them. And that's too useful for politicians to ignore.

Sam said...

Speaking as a young Quebecer who spent most of his life outside Montreal -- there is actually a significant number who agree with this protectionism. Is it because they believe it's necessary? Is it because they've been brainwashed into thinking that Quebec culture is threatened? Is it because it's the status quo and they're too lazy to want to change it?

I'd say it's a little of everything. I'm wary of talking about government manipulation, at least in the sense in which we are all being manipulated by nationalist politicians. Quebec nationalism is really not as big a joke as many people seem to think it is. It's a very real political trend that arises from the differences that have always existed within Canada. The easiest way to rally people behind a nationalist cause is obviously to show them how they are different from others -- in Quebec, the flagrant difference is, of course, language. I really don't buy this theory that everyone is being conned by nationalists, as if there was no real reason for it to exist. When you have a nation, you're likely to have nationalism.

To be clear, I don't particularly share most people's qualms about what is happening to French in Quebec. In fact, the only thing I know about which of the two is my mother tongue is that my very first words were in French -- from there, who knows? It makes it easy for me to make the most of this province, but I'm careful about seeing myself as an example. I grew up going to English school in an area where over 98% are Francophones -- it makes sense that I can speak both just fine. However, I grew up in that situation because in the decades preceding my birth, legislation was enacted that would dictate how things would go. We can go back and question to what degree French was threatened in the 1970s (hint: much more than it is now) but we can't forget that today's society is a product of that history.

With that in mind I can only note how interesting it would be to roll back legislation because it made itself obsolete. What would happen?

Also, it's hardly fair to compare the effect of English on Quebec with its effect on any other place in the world. I can't think of any similar situation offhand. In any case, most people I know don't consider English "the enemy." Then again, most people I know don't consider Quebec a "backwater" either. There's a difference between political rhetoric and what people actually believe (see the discrepancy between PQ discourse and the actual proportion of the population favourable to independence) -- and that's what you said in your comment. In my personal experience, many people who speak exclusively English -- including immigrants -- tend to be unable to distinguish between "attacking English" and "protecting French." Of course you'd feel that way if you were faced with the prospect of no longer being able to educate your child in the language of your choice -- but heck, even the PQ once encouraged more and better English teaching in French schools.

Mrs. Spew said...

By con, I mean I don't feel that many of the politicians sincerely believe that French is that threatened currently, and that they exaggerate threats in order to gain more solid political power.

Certainly, French Canada was in a precarious and dastardly position in the 1970's, and hard measures were needed to correct the centuries of English encroachment and repression. But Quebec seems to be having a very hard time adjusting to changing circumstances over time or refraining from using some of the same practices they despised from English Canadians. Protecting French means protecting it from threats, and at this point that threat is everything from English to French-speaking Muslim and immigrants who can't get jobs here to French Quebecers themselves whose allegiance to their culture isn't trusted. The forms of protecting French tend to be things like making sure English schools don't have any textbooks on time and strangling their enrollment so that they can be shut down while refusing to let French public schools teach English more effectively as a second language. (The PQ may have once advocated changing that, but that's certainly not their position now.)

So Quebec isn't a backwater because of location or inexperience, but it threatens to become one on the continent because it hampers itself by undercutting its own resoures. It's not the only place at all to do this, and its situation is unusual, but the continual manufactured language conflicts and claim of cultural threats that the minority cultures will overrun the majority here (because they are majorities elsewhere and in Canada,)keep Quebec from being the bilingual, multi-cultural powerhouse it could be. It drives both French and non-French away from Quebec and from French, not towards it.

It is a problem because Canada is a bilingual country in theory, but Quebec is in a continual question now of whether to spearhead that bilingualism or break away and secede. And so laws are enacted that go way beyond simply securing that French be prominent in Quebec.

Francois Caron said...

Very interesting subject.
You're way above the level of understanding of the common human on this continent.

I would wish to be at your table to comment live on many points. But here's only a few:
If people could be informed properly, have life experience of the bilinguism and Mtl/Quebec unique position, your statement would be way different - in a sense that there would be even less tension and misunderstanding. The situation is and will always be changing and typicaly people will stick to what once was.

Yes, politic does polarize the debat, and it's even worst here in USA where people speaks the same language! Quebec separation tension is just peanuts compared to fundamental values fights in the US.

Yes, as a Quebecer being abroad, the grass may be looking greener elsewhere, but would prefer the languistic argumentation that what can be here below the frontier.