Photo: Drapeau du Québec, Dooblem. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia. Edited by Inroads.
The following has been selected and edited from the Inroads Listserv by Bob Chodos. The Inroads listserv began in 1997 as a means to link Inroads readers and others interested in policy discussion. With more than 100 subscribers, it offers one of the few chances for people of diverse views to grapple with social and political issues in depth. To subscribe, write to Inroads at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will add your name to the list.
With his intemperate social media posts, University of Ottawa law professor Amir Attaran has been a focus of controversy on a number of occasions. In late March his tweets about Quebec were deemed “Quebec bashing” by Prime Minister Trudeau, “unacceptable” by Quebec Premier François Legault and “hate speech” by Bloc Québécois MP Alain Therrien. They also sparked what turned out to be a wide-ranging discussion of Quebec on the Inroads listserv. Some highlights follow.
Henry Milner | March 22
The Canadian Press reported that besides calling Quebec’s culture racist and dubbing the province the “#AlabamaOfTheNorth,” Attaran accused its nurses of “medical lynching” in regard to Joyce Echaquan, a 37-year-old Indigenous woman who died in a Quebec hospital in 2020: “He also referred to the RCMP as the ‘Royal Canadian Mounted Pigs’ in a recent post on an independent commission’s finding that Mounties dealt in a discriminatory manner with the family of Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old First Nations man who was fatally shot by Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley.”
Systematic racism, Attaran said, “merely means you treat whites as supreme. And Quebec undeniably does so, as when a government hospital advertises for ‘white women only,’” referring to job postings for patient attendants at a hospital north of Montreal last fall. (In fact, the story was about internal email messages that a white staff member was needed to attend to a patient in Saint-Eustache, who “only accepts women of white skin colour.”)
Attaran later responded to criticism by a Bloc MP by calling the Bloc a “white supremacist party.”
Frances Abele | March 22
So your point is what, Henry? Attaran is rude? Arrogant? Fortunately, professors don’t get fired for those things. I would not use the words he did, but the real cause for outrage lies in what he was referring to: Joyce Echaquan was subjected to racist treatment as she died in a Quebec hospital. Many other Indigenous people can speak of similar treatment; sometimes they die of it, as did Brian Sinclair in a Winnipeg hospital in 2008.
The independent commission did find that the RCMP treated Colton Boushie’s mom in a racist fashion: when they went to tell her her son was dead, they asked if she had been drinking, smelled her breath and searched her house. Think that would happen at your house? I hope you never have to find out.
Louis Germain | March 22
Problem is, the only racist slurs that do not get condemned in Canada are those directed at the Québécois. If you uttered about Blacks, Asians, you name it, what is being said about Québécois, you would hear an uproar.
But against Québécois, nope.
Do you agree?
Anne Michèle Meggs | March 22
This is certainly true and has been for years. Back in the 1980s a friend took a letter to the editor published in one of the northern Ontario dailies and replaced references to francophones with references to Jews. It was pretty obvious the revised letter would never have been published.
Frances Abele | March 22
We all have different experiences and I don’t know how to answer your question about whether slurs against Québécois are never condemned. Doesn’t it depend upon where we are? In my own little world, which is pretty specialized, I can tell you that I rarely do hear them, and if someone dares to go there, there are objections. Probably I don’t follow the right people on Twitter, because until tonight I had no idea about Prof. Attaran’s comments.
Reg Whitaker | March 22
Louis writes re Amir Attaran’s attacks on Quebec, “The only racist slurs that do not get condemned in Canada are those directed at the Québécois.” I understand his sensitivity, but in this case Attaran’s recklessly extreme comments have drawn public rebukes from both the Premier of Quebec and the Prime Minister of Canada.
This gives Prof. Attaran once again one of his Andy Warhol 15 minutes of fame moments. The last time I looked the same guy was in the midst of a social media shitstorm for asserting that all Albertans should be punished for Premier Kenney’s sins by being cut off from federal pandemic assistance funding.
The guy is a congenital verbal extremist, but he is an equal opportunity extremist.
No, I can’t agree that racial slurs directed at the Québécois don’t get condemned.
And perhaps if we stopped paying attention to the likes of Attaran scattering insults left and right, we could also be spared sanctimonious pols like Legault and Trudeau pronouncing the obvious homilies in response.
Gareth Morley | March 23
Attaran’s comments are obviously intemperate but they are hardly racist. Even if we use the old-fashioned language in which French Canadians are a “race” (and why not, since we all know by now that race is socially constructed), he wasn’t talking about Acadians or Franco-Ontarians and he wasn’t excluding Anglo-Quebecers.
Certainly ethnic slurs against Québécois should be condemned. But this whole discussion does shed new light on the point that one person’s political correctness is another’s sensitivity to historic grievances.
Louisa Blair | March 23
Anti-French hostility is a reality. If you’d like to talk about anti-anglophone hostility I can do that too but I will be silenced just as quickly. The problem with calling anti-French hostility “racist slurs against Québécois” is that it implies that the only real Québécois are francophones de souche. I thought we had moved on from there in our understanding of what makes a Québécois/e. I defend my fellow Québécois/es against any criticism based on race or language – any race, any language (or is that straying outside my lane, as an anglophone Quebecer?). But saying that criticism of Quebec’s actions as a state (e.g. banning of the headscarf in the public service) is racist is to avoid level nation-to-nation debate and exclude a bunch of us from participating at all.
Louis Germain | March 23
When racist slurs are thrown at Québécois, I resent it as a Québécois, which includes everybody in Quebec. I have anglophone friends and my son is married to an anglophone Montreal Jewish girl. You know very well that those racist slurs are most of the time directed at francophone Québécois. My anglo friends and my son’s wife resent those as if they were directed at them, even though they know the slurs are aimed at francos.
Most franco-Québécois consider newcomers “real” Québécois as soon as they have lived here some time and, above all, have learned French. And use it.
Gareth Morley | March 24
Francophobia is a real thing in English Canada. It is not as salient as in the 1970s and 1980s, but it certainly crops up. But of course no one ever thought that the main issues confronting the survival of the French fact in North America were the subjective attitudes of English-speaking people. Certainly that wasn’t the analysis of Quebec sovereigntists. Rather, there were structural features of the North American economy and Canadian state that could only be remedied by independence or sovereignty-association. Why are structural approaches to racial disparities forbidden and outrageous?
Henry Milner | March 24
Gareth, what structural responses to racial disparities are you thinking of that are parallel to sovereignty-association?
Gareth Morley | March 24
Well, sovereignty-association was put forward as a constitutional solution to a structural problem from the perspective of the francophone majority in Quebec. I am not personally endorsing that solution, but it was based on an analysis of history, colonialism, the alleged failures of Canadian federalism, the political economy of North American capitalism, language dynamics and various other things that did not depend on the subjective attitudes of English Canadians.
An obvious analogy would be the various calls for recognition of inherent self-government rights of First Nations, but also claims for representation of all kinds of racial groups in positions of power, the professions and employment generally. There would also be structural claims about the role of the police and the justice system, curriculum, representation in culture and in the media and so on. I am not arguing for any particular analysis or solution, just saying that these depend on a claim of structural racial injustice, without being focused on subjective attitudes of individuals.
Steven Davis | March 31
Gareth, you said that sovereignty-association was primarily put forward “as a constitutional solution to a structural problem from the perspective of the francophone majority in Quebec.” I don’t think that this gets at the main reasons for sovereignty-association and the independence movement. Sovereignty-association was a way of making independence more palatable to the majority of French Canadians of Quebec (my attempt to translate Québécois de souche – alternatives like Quebecer, Québécois and francophone do not get at the community in Quebec which was the base of the independence movement), who were anxious about what could happen to them economically if Quebec separated from Canada.
This aside, one of the most important reasons for the majority of the French Canadians of Quebec to vote Yes in the two referendums was their feeling that their language and culture could disappear. Many French Canadians of Quebec (FCQ) believed during the height of the independence movement, and still believe today, that their language is under threat. If the language goes, so too does their culture and the continued existence of their community. Moreover, many felt, and probably still feel, that their language and culture are not respected both inside and outside Quebec. Even though most Quebec anglophones are functionally bilingual, I wonder how many go to French theatre, watch a French movie without subtitles, read a French-language daily newspaper, or have francophone close friends – in other words, I wonder how many really take part in French Quebec cultural life. Language was the fuel that drove sovereignty-association and the independence movement. The issues that are behind sovereignty-association and the independence movement are not then constitutional.
Further, you say that the independence movement “did not depend on the subjective attitudes of English Canadians.” I think that this is mistaken as well. During the height of the independence movement, many FCQ were aggrieved by what they took to be the attitudes and the behaviour of the Quebec anglophone minority. For example, francophones were told in many downtown Montreal restaurants and stores that they had to speak English to be served.
Another example: the large companies that wouldn’t hire FCQ. In 1962, Donald Gordon, then president of Canadian National Railways, which was headquartered in Montreal, was asked why none of the 17 CN vice-presidents was a Quebec French Canadian. He replied that promotions were made on “merit” and suggested that no FCQ met his standards. In response, there were demonstrations throughout Quebec and the FLQ planted its first bombs.
At the height of the independence movement, most Quebec anglophones weren’t very interested in learning French and were indifferent to French-Canadian Quebec culture. FCQ found the attitude of the anglophone minority humiliating and deeply hurtful.
Even though there have been changes in Quebec since the height of the independence movement, the emotions underlying it are still there. They are perhaps not as sharp, but they are just below the surface. Witness the reactions to Amir Attaran’s grotesque remarks, which were picked up by some of Le Journal de Montréal’s columnists. They regarded it as outrageous Quebec-bashing.
The same deep pride that fuelled the independence movement is still at work in Quebec – a pride in Quebec’s long history of 400 years, its culture and achievements. I think that without understanding these emotions, it is impossible to understand what has gone on in Quebec for the last 60 years.
Henry Milner | March 31
I think it useful to add the contemporary dilemma on language to Steven’s analysis. It focuses on the two or three years spent at cegep (junior college). Quebec law requires francophone, allophone and some of the (few) recent anglophone immigrants to attend French elementary and secondary schools. But English-language cegeps attract an increasing number of them as a means of advancing their English skills. Quebec law has tried to reduce the incentive for doing so by limiting the kinds of jobs that can require English-language skills. But it cannot escape the reality of English being the lingua franca in North America and beyond.
The threat to the French language lies in the possibility that studying at an English cegep will lead to their adopting English as the language spoken at home. This appears to be particularly the case for some allophones, but responding by limiting English cegeps to anglophones in effect punishes many young francophones who present no threat of linguistic assimilation.
It was possible to show previous generations that sovereignty-association was the way to keep Quebec French; it is harder to do that today.
Louis Germain | March 31
Learning English, nowadays, is essential. It is the new “lingua franca” – rightly named “franca” after “French,” since French was then the language of diplomacy and communications the world over. English, now, is the lingua franca. You need English to sail around.
Many young people in Quebec today want to go to anglophone cegeps (and afterwards universities, why not?) to learn English. They are wrong because you do not need to attend an English school to learn English.
I live in Quebec City. I never attended an English school or university. Nevertheless, at 14 or 15 years of age I was bilingual. Two factors: (1) when I was 12, my parents sent me to an English summer camp in New Hampshire and (2) my father was a subscriber to Time magazine, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report and Consumer Reports, which I would read with great interest. That is how I learned English. I became more fluent being a tourist guide during the summers of my university years.
So French Canadians of Quebec have enough means – magazines, plenty of English TV, Netflix, Spotify, continental immersion, etc. – to learn English. And be good at it. But at the same time, to keep their language and culture vibrant by living it, fully, convincedly.
According to demographers’ projections, if Quebec does not become a country, 30 years from now it will be another New Brunswick. I don’t want that to happen. Do you?
Claire Durand | April 1
The idea that demographers agree that “if Quebec does not become a country, 30 years from now it will be another New Brunswick” is absolutely not true, to say the least.
I just looked at the numbers again recently: (1) English is not making gains as a language spoken at home, as it did 50 years ago. (2) French is not making gains either, but this is because there are more immigrants coming to Quebec and they use their mother tongue at home, which is quite normal.
The real question is whether more people know French and use French outside their homes. The answer to this question is yes. Nowadays, for example, 80 per cent of the Quebecers whose mother tongue is English are bilingual. In fact, proportionally more English-speaking Quebecers are bilingual than French-speaking Quebecers. That was clearly not the case when the Parti Québécois was elected in 1976. In short, Law 101 worked.
Anne Michèle Meggs | April 1
Concerning Claire’s post, I think it’s misleading to suggest so categorically that all is fine for the future of the French language in Quebec. The editorial in today’s Le Devoir cites new studies published by the Office Québécois de la Langue Française published this very week. The signs of decline were already there in 2017, but extra projections and studies were done to determine where the real problem lies and how perhaps it can be addressed.1
The percentage of Quebecers speaking French at home (whatever their mother tongue) is expected to drop from 82 per cent in 2011 to 74 per cent in 2036. This is a pretty dramatic drop in the next 15 years. The number of workers who most often use French in the workplace on Montreal Island is 53 per cent. Many indicators of the move to English in various sectors (cultural, workplace, choice of cegeps, etc.) were laid out in the OQLF’s most recent Rapport sur l’évolution de la situation linguistique au Québec (Report on the Evolution of the Language Situation in Quebec), issued in April 2019.2
For years, defenders of the French language in Quebec have been blaming immigrants for the decline of the language and therefore calling for fewer admissions. The only positive aspect of the more recent discouraging studies and projections is that they demonstrate that even if Quebec stopped admitting immigrants altogether, the decline, while a bit slower, would continue. So calls are now less related to immigration and lean more toward measures such as restricting access to English cegeps and stricter enforcement of French in the workplace.
Certainly there are more nonfrancophones in Quebec today who declare that they can carry on a conversation in French. That doesn’t mean they do – at home, in the workplace or in public. And at the same time more francophones are declaring that they use English at home.
It will always be an uphill battle to protect the French language, even in Quebec, let alone in other provinces – whether Quebec is independent or not.
Claire Durand | April 1
Just to be clear, I had no intention of saying that there is no problem and that everything is fine. I only say that the decrease in the use of French at home is mostly in favour of other languages, not English. Twenty per cent of Montrealers speak three languages compared with 10 per cent of Torontonians. I think this is positive.
Second, the situation will evolve in this direction in years to come unless we think that Italians should speak with one another in French. I personally think that this was not the goal of Law 101 from the beginning.
The first question is: what problem do we think needs to be addressed? The second: what statistics could help us better understand the use of different languages in the public sphere, in the work environment, in different contexts, etc.? One thing is sure: mother tongue and language spoken at home are not the appropriate statistics to understand this. And of course, if Quebec enterprises engage in much more international commerce than 30 years ago and if we think that this commerce will – or should – increase, the use of English is likely to increase too, whatever we do. This does not mean that everything is fine and that there is no concern.
Anne Michèle Meggs | April 1
I have always said, as I did at the end of my post, that efforts to protect the French language will always be necessary, no matter the political status of Quebec, given the massive sea of anglophones in North America.
What would be different if Quebec were independent is that the language regime would be clear. Currently, two language policies apply in Quebec – the federal policy of two official languages and the Quebec policy of French as the official language. Signs on bridges in Quebec are bilingual, but on highways they are only in French. Such anomalies are numerous. A change to a single language policy regime would clarify the situation for immigrants. They would be immigrating to a French-speaking country with one official language. They would need to learn French to become a citizen of Quebec. (The Bloc proposed that French be required for citizenship in Quebec, but the Liberals voted against it.) French would be a condition for permanent residence.
One (last?) word on language indicators. The reason language spoken at home is followed so closely is for intergenerational reasons linked to the long-term vitality of the language. It has nothing to do with official government policy related to who speaks what at home. In any immigration situation, there will eventually be a move to the language of the host country, usually by the second generation. This is considered an indicator of the lasting strength of the language.
Louis Germain | April 2
Claire Durand is convinced that Quebec will not be another New Brunswick in 30 years if it does not become a country.
Francos in Quebec (French as mother tongue) amounted to 82.9 per cent of Québécois in 1986. In 2011, 79.9 per cent. In 2036 (Statistics Canada reference scenario), 70.1 per cent.3
French language spoken at home: in 1986, 81 per cent; in 2011, 81.6 per cent; in 2036, 74.4 per cent.
English language spoken at home: in 2011, 10.7 per cent; in 2036, 12.6 per cent.
Allophones: in 2011, 12.9 per cent; in 2036, 21.2 per cent.
Anyone can see that there is a trend. A trend that is slowly accelerating, particularly as a result of the education funding system. Whereas the Québécois English population amounts to 8.3 per cent, the English community receives 19 per cent of cegep funding and 25.4 per cent of university funding.
There are numerous other factors. Landing in Quebec, immigrants set foot in Canada, an English-speaking country. The lingua franca is English. No surprise that five years after their settling in Quebec, only 32 per cent of allophone immigrants have learned French. Quebec needs to become the host country. Otherwise …
New Brunswick is 33 per cent French right now. For Quebec to become another New Brunswick requires only that its French-culture population get down to 49.9 per cent. When this happens, the English-speaking Québécois will rule Quebec politically and culturally. This 50 per cent might not happen within 30 years. It might take 50 years or so. But during the lifetime of my grandchildren, the game will be over, for sure. Quebec will be a New Brunswick.
Claire Durand | April 2
I see that your expectations for the future are very pessimistic. And of course, it is possible to pick numbers that fit your beliefs. However, the reality is that there are numbers out there that do not support such a pessimistic view.
Sure enough, English has become the lingua franca and this will have an influence. But we need to examine the situation with a historical view. For example, for several decades in the 19th century Montreal had an English majority. Then it became majority French. Now, with immigrants coming from all over the world, it has become – mixed, but French is the common language, much more than it was in the 1970s when I arrived in Montreal from Quebec City.
In short, one cannot cherrypick the numbers that support a point of view, because other numbers support other points of view. Academically, we need to examine all the figures to have a complete view of the situation. And my examination of these figures tell me that it is not all dark, by any means.
Louisa Blair | April 2
As an anglophone Quebecer living in Quebec City I am following this discussion with passionate interest.
Claire, I’m interested to know what you think of the importance of the stats re majority language spoken outside the home vs. language spoken inside the home. You point out that the former is more important “unless we think that Italians should speak with one another in French,” but Anne Michèle pointed out that language spoken at home predicts the situation down the generations and that is clearly important too.
Louis says young people are wrong to want to attend English cegeps. I have difficulty with that. My daughter, born and raised in Quebec, speaks and writes both languages perfectly, and this attracts intense envy among her francophone friends who are not allowed to attend public pre-cegep English-language institutions. She also has a massive advantage on the employment front. An English summer camp in New Hampshire may not be enough for everyone – or affordable for everyone.
On francisation, I accompanied many refugees arriving in Quebec City in the early 2010s and it was very difficult for them to (a) find out about and (b) attend francisation classes. There is no immigration office in this city. Many refugees arrived from camps where they were living in tents. As there was no office where they could sign up, they were expected to access the information about francisation on the internet. This worked if they (a) were literate in French or English, (b) had a computer and (c) knew how to use it. Then they had to find daycare for their children so they could attend – an immigrant told me a week ago that the waiting list for daycare was two years. If Quebec is serious about francisation, there’s a simple solution here in Quebec City: one-stop shopping for getting your health card, getting your social insurance card and signing up for francisation, all in one go and at one place. I have helped and encouraged many allophone refugees and immigrants to take French classes, and have watched them give up because it’s so complicated.
Anne Michèle Meggs | April 3
I must admit I am quite surprised to read about the difficulty obtaining services for immigrants, and particularly refugees, in Quebec City. While during the austerity years the Liberals had closed the regional offices (the Ministry of Immigration is the only ministry of the Quebec government with its head office in Montreal, so Quebec City is a regional office in this case) of many departments, including immigration, the CAQ immediately reinstated regional services and has nine regional offices and 66 “antennes,” as the government calls them. There is a phone number for the Quebec City office on the site and a general phone number for all the department’s services.
Refugees in particular (not to be confused with asylum seekers) are literally met at the airport in Montreal by their private sponsors or ministry personnel and taken in hand with lodging, free winter clothing, diapers if necessary, etc. They are normally guided to French classes, although I’ve heard recently that it’s not easy to get and keep teachers during the pandemic so there may be a slowdown in access. Classes for public refugees are often specialized, because many are not literate in their own language. Virtual classes must be an even bigger challenge. There are specific government-funded community organizations in the receiving cities to accompany these refugees.
Clearly some are falling through the cracks, which is more than unfortunate.
Immigrants arriving as permanent residents at the Montreal airport, after passing federal immigration reception, are guided to the counter operated by the Quebec immigration ministry where they are greeted, receive copious useful information and are offered appointments for their health card or integration services or French-language evaluation, a precondition before signing up for courses. Many are not ready to set up appointments on the spot, and there is no obligation to do so.
Where I fear more and more problems will arise is with people arriving with temporary permits. These people are not directed to the Quebec immigration counter on arrival and could easily miss out on very useful accompaniment. Obviously, it is impossible to determine on arrival if they actually intend to stay in the country. These people are really at the mercy of their educational institution or employer or family and friends, if they have any, for help getting settled and accessing services.
Sorry for this administrative detail. The ministry is my old stomping ground; I felt it was important to clarify that governmental efforts are made. That being said, bureaucracy can be unnecessarily complex for anyone, native or immigrant, public or private. Newcomers definitely need to be accompanied. Hats off to Louisa for stepping up.
Claire Durand | April 3
Happy to see an Anglo from Quebec City intervene!
On your first point, last time I saw data on this, it seems that allophones in Quebec tend to keep their mother tongue more than in other parts of North America. This is probably because they have family outside of Quebec in North America and their own language becomes the lingua franca. It is quite probable that they will not keep it for generations, but then the choice will partly depend on the language their kids learn at school. And now they go to school in French. Of course, since often part of their family speaks English, they will also speak English. Young Quebecers right now are much more bilingual than their predecessors.
On francisation, of course teaching French to people who arrive in Quebec, even from English Canada I would say, should be seen as essential. In Sweden, for example, immigrants are requested to learn Swedish during the first eight months after they arrive and they are paid to do so. Here, when they arrive through some of the immigration programs, they do not even have the possibility of learning French for free. If we are serious, this should be an essential thing to do: teach French for free to all immigrants who come in, and organize so that access to courses is made easy for those who work, or even who stay home. The idea that current immigrants who arrive in Quebec are not interested in learning French is not based on any reliable data.
Philip Resnick | April 6
La valse des langues
Le français, dit-on,
perd des plumes au dépens de l’anglais,
qui avance avec les pas de géant
dans un monde de plus en plus axé
sur les pôles de l’avenir,
mettant fin aux portes-paroles
de tous ses concurrents.
Néanmoins les tenants des langues,
même les toutes petites,
trouvent refuge dans la limpidité de leur vocabulaire,
les soubresauts de leur grammaire,
une convivialité de parole qui remonte jusqu’à leur naissance,
et ne céderont jamais leur droit à l’existence.
1 Robert Dutrisac, Freiner le déclin, Le Devoir, April 1, 2021.
2 Anne Michèle Meggs, Une intégration réussie – une responsabilité commune, L’Aut’journal, August 26, 2019.
3 René Houle and Jean-Pierre Corbeil, Language Projections for Canada, 2011 to 2036 (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2017).