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Language policy 
without the emotion

by Bruce M. Hicks

With the Parti Québécois winning the September 4 general election, language politics has once again been primed in Quebec and across Canada. The PQ’s election platform contained a number of policy initiatives designed to protect the French language. Two were hotly debated during the campaign.

The first was the promise to extend the Charter of the French Language’s requirement that French be the language in the workplace for companies with 50 employees or more to smaller companies. The second was the plan to extend the compulsory education in French requirement that now applies to public elementary and secondary schools to Cegeps. Cegeps offer an intermediate level following Grade 11 for students wanting to go on to university and community college–level courses for students who do not.

These two promises were reported outside of Quebec and, through that reporting, became the subject of media punditry. While there was no consensus, as there never is on such matters, the strongest and most frequently expressed opinion was that these measures were unfair to the anglophone and immigrant communities in Quebec. Francophone voices outside Quebec were not raised, but it can be imagined that these communities saw the proposals as necessary restrictions to protect the French language.

It is noteworthy that in Quebec, the reaction of the anglophone and francophone communities was almost the reverse of that of their “rest-of-Canada” cousins.

While some Anglos in Quebec were upset with the proposals, for the most part Quebecers are used to Bill 101 and expanding work and education language restrictions was not initially seen as either overly onerous or unexpected, particularly by younger Anglos.

In Quebec, the strongest opposition to the PQ language restrictions was voiced by francophone Quebecers and specifically concerned the Cegep requirement. Pundits, academics and community elites repeatedly expressed the view that, having acquired fluency in French but having failed to acquire English as a second language, many francophones (and children of immigrants) avail themselves of English Cegeps to acquire second-language skill in the hope of attending English universities or widening their job prospects.

Of course these attitudes will change – hardening or shifting – as the PQ moves from making promises to enacting legislation. Understandably, language policy is emotional because it is so connected to identity, and when language policy involves education the emotionality increases as parents express fear for their children and their children’s futures.

What I seek to do here is to put language policy in a nonemotional context, placing it in a global context and within a useful typology. Ultimately the policies favoured by citizens of Quebec will reflect their personal experiences and attitudes, but context can advance understanding of alternative positions and thus further public discourse.

Global context

The dominance of certain languages

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About the Author

Bruce Hicks
Bruce Hicks is an associate at the Canada Research Chair in Electoral Studies, Department of Political Science, at the Université de Montréal.A written decision would allow political actors and other interested parties (like the citizens of Canada!) to better understand the rules of the game.




One Comment


  1. Parpalhon

    The language issue cannot be the same in Canada as in Québec because the sociolinguistic context is totally different.

    In English-speaking Canada, language shifts go to English at a rate over 99%, including a massive transfert from French to English. There is no threath to English as a community language whatsoever and English as the home language, the tongue passed-down to kids, remains stable despite high immigration thanks to high transfers to English with zero competition from other languages.

    French speakers are assimilated at the rate of 40% in Ontario to about 70% in the Prairies. It’s even higher for young adults. Attraction of more French-speaking immigration there is not helping because they are assimilated to English even faster. What would help would be to raise the status of French to the level of status English has in Québec. Ex : One French-speaking hospital in Ontario (Monfort, it was almost shut down a few years ago, remember?) vs. eleven English-speaking hospitals in Québec, come on, who are we kidding?

    During this time, Québec is not assimilating English speakers to French at all. Transfers between French and English balance themselves in Québec, nowhere else in Canada. English attracts a net gain of 20% of its demographic weight for over 50% of language shifts in Québec. That is, French as a community language has very high competition.

    No wonder French is slipping with such uneffective protection, 29%, 25%, 23%… When will people wake up?



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