I led a double life in the 1960s and ‘70s, growing up in Snowdon, which was then a largely Anglophone, lower middle-class neighborhood in the Western part of Montreal. We were pretty much the only French-speaking household in the area. My mother, a Hungarian Jew, had spent her adolescence in France (long story), had acquired French citizenship which she passed on to me (Thanks, Mom), and more importantly, had developed a very strong sense of French identity, and perhaps even of French cultural superiority. I therefore attended Collège Stanislas, an educational gulag which, though it did everything it could to stifle any creative spark that might have been flickering among its pupils, did instill upon me a strong grasp of the rules of agreement of the French language. My friends at school were for the most part French Canadian. There were a few anglos – but we lived in French. I was fully attuned to French pop culture. I could probably still sing all the lyrics to the three Harmonium albums from memory. (Don’t dare me).
In my neighborhood, on the other hand, it was all English, all the time. The kids I played baseball and shinny with in MacDonald park were all Anglophones, and though they had French classes in the Anglophone schools that they attended, they could barely put together a simple French sentence, let alone master the plus-que-parfait. Now, none of them were anglophone because their ancestors were Anglo-Celts. They were Anglophones, but not English. As I make my way back up and down the block in my mind’s eye, I remember Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern and Central Europe, Italian, German, Greek and Dutch families, living in a happy English-speaking melting pot. That was the way it was back then – if you were the child of an immigrant, you were far more likely to end up in English rather than in French school, and therefore far more likely to be socialized as an anglophone. Now, part of the explanation of that fact had to do with push rather than pull factors – French schools were largely Catholic, and Jews and Protestants were not welcome there, which pushed them into Protestant schools that were, for the most part, de facto, English. But, as I will argue below, the pull factors were powerful as well.
My anglo friends from the neighborhood and my franco friends from school might just as well have been living on different planets. Bill 101, which was enacted 40 years ago today, changed all that. Immigrants to Quebec would henceforth have to send their kids to French schools. Only Anglophone schools that received not a dime of public subsidy from the provincial government were exempt. In fact, the only people who were initially allowed to send their kids to publicly funded English schools were Anglophones who had themselves been educated in English in Quebec. (That changed in later years to include those who had been educated in English elsewhere in Canada, as well).
Few laws have polarized opinion in Canada as much as 101. Francophones support it as a necessary tool to protect the French language from erosion, while many Anglophones, both within Quebec and outside of it, see it as an ignoble attack on basic civil rights.
The point I want to make in the present post however is that Canadians should celebrate the law because it may very well have saved Canada. Let me explain.
Anyone who travels a bit knows just how potent an attractive force English exercises in the world today. As people interact to a greater degree than ever before because of increased trade, improved communications, and cheaper and more efficient transportation, there is a need for a language that can serve to bridge the linguistic gulfs that would otherwise exist between people of diverse mother tongues. For all sorts of reasons, English has established itself, for the time being, as that language. There is a huge incentive to learn English everywhere in the world, from Beijing to Sao Paulo, from Moscow to, well, Quebec! Want to make a decent living and travel the world at the same time? Take up ESL teaching!
The global prominence of English generates a pretty recognizable set of incentives. If you are born as a native English-speaker, you have, in essence, won the lottery. You can just sit back and relax while others rush to learn your language (imperfectly, perhaps, which will always give you a slight advantage in various competitive forums). You don’t really have to learn anyone else’s language. You can spend the time and resources you might have spent doing other productive things. Again, advantage, English-speaker! English speakers who learn other languages in spite of this are, to coin a phrase, linguistically supererogatory. If you are not born with English in your back pocket, however, there is a massive incentive to acquire it. And that incentive becomes greater for everyone else once you’ve learned the language, because you have added yet another person to the total sum of people that others can communicate with if they learn English! Anyone who has ever been part of a linguistically diverse group will have experienced just how quickly the group defaults to English in order to facilitate communication. Any speaker of a “smaller” language will have experienced just how quickly that happens whenever an Anglophone happens to find herself in a conversational group, even when the majority is more comfortable in the smaller language.
What’s true in the world today is massively true in North America. There are well over 300 million native speakers of English on this continent. In a regime of linguistic laissez faire, it just makes sense that immigrants would choose to educate their kids in the dominant language.
Native speakers of smaller languages confronted with the attractive force of English find themselves in a difficult situation. Given the very strong link that exists in the world today between language and identity, most of them would rather that their kids be educated in their language, and that they be able to participate in that language in a vital and thriving public sphere. But they are worried that many others will succumb to the lure of the larger, and all things equal more attractive language. You need a critical mass of speakers in order to sustain a thriving economic, political, and cultural sphere, and the worry is that if too many people defect, that critical mass will no longer be there. So the parent speaking a “smaller” language in a laissez faire linguistic environment faces an assurance problem: how can she be sure that enough people will make the choice that sustains the language? And in the absence of such an assurance, even if the preference of the parent is to educate her children in her language, doesn’t it make sense to jump linguistic ship first in order to avoid placing her kids in a highly disadvantaged linguistic situation?
The Belgian philosopher Philippe Van Parijs has probably done most in recent years to elucidate problems of this kind. His prescription for the speakers of the smaller language of Europe is to (in his words), to “grab a territory”. What he means by that is that if the speakers of a smaller language can gain control over institutions on the territory on which they constitute a majority (even if that territory and the total number of speakers on it is relatively small), they can forestall the attractive effects of the larger language (be it English, or some locally dominant language).
Now, the idea of grabbing a territory is ambiguous. It can for a threatened linguistic group mean seceding from whatever larger political unit one is a part of, and establishing political sovereignty over the territory in which one’s language is spoken by a majority. Or it can mean enacting laws over that territory which, even in the absence of full sovereignty, immunize the smaller language from the full effect of the sociolinguistic drift that tends to favour larger languages in general, and English in particular.
Back to Quebec. The Charter of the French language is an instantiation of the second of the two construals of the Van Parijsian injunction. It is an answer to the question: “how might Quebec protect the French language from the attractive force of English whilst remaining within Canadian political space?”. To the extent that it represents an effective answer to that question, it is emphatically not a step in the direction of sovereignty. It is rather a demonstration of the fact that continued participation in the Canadian federation (with all the benefits that that participation entails) is compatible with at least one of the principal aspirations of people living in Quebec, that of being able to establish the conditions for the flourishing of a vital francophone public sphere here.
I don’t think there is any doubt that the language Charter has been effective. Immigrants now happily send their kids to French public schools, and those kids emerge from these schools bi- or even trilingual. (Immigrants tend to hang on to the language of their country of origin for a generation or two, and they tend to pick up English as well just be lending an ear to the broader Anglophone culture of North America). The assurance problems that Francophone parents find themselves in is moreover solved by the self-binding mechanisms inscribed in the law. But the degree to which the law is effective is perhaps best displayed by the measures that Anglophones in Quebec now take to ensure that their kids are (unlike the Anglophone kids that I was surrounded by in my old ‘hood) fluent in French. A growing number of anglos who in virtue of the language law’s provisions could send their kids to English schools choose not to, and even those who do are now in effect sending their kids to immersion schools. There are very few, if any schools left in Quebec from which it is possible to emerge without at least functional French. Clearly, this would not be happening had Anglo-Quebeckers not come to the conclusion that French was in Quebec a language worth learning, and worth educating their children in. As I mentioned above, there are most definitely supererogatory anglos who learn French out of a sense of duty, or out of an ethically admirable sense that they ought to reach out to Quebec and Canada’s francophone communities, but we would not see the big numbers we are seeing were the cost-benefit analysis not also to incline anglos in the direction of French.
The result is a linguistic landscape that is immeasurably superior to the one in which I grew up. Not perfect – far from it, and I will be devoting a later post to the challenges that our present set of laws will have to face in the years to come. But better. The situation of French is pretty stable (unless one decides, as some language alarmists have done in recent years, that the relevant indicator to assess the health of the French language is no longer the capacity to speak French and the willingness to use it in the public sphere, but rather the use of French as the language of the home), and Anglophones are no longer confined to the linguistic ghetto that they were in when I was growing up. They are in fact today the most bilingual linguistic community in the country!
This has been a very long set-up to a claim that can be expressed quite briefly. There have been two sovereignty referenda in my lifetime in Quebec. The first wasn’t that close, but it wasn’t that not close, either. On the first occasion in which Quebeckers were asked whether they wanted to become a sovereign country, 40% answered “yes”. The second time, it was very close indeed (though how close it would have been had the question been clearer is anyone’s guess). Now, imagine an alternate Canada in which the Supreme Court roundly rejected the very idea of limiting the freedom of choice of the citizens of Quebec in the linguistic arena. Imagine a referendum having been launched in the face of the rejection by the highest court in the land of the entirety of the language law. In such circumstances, I think it is not an enormous leap to think that Quebeckers would have been inclined to go for the first, rather than for the second of the construals of the “grab a territory” idea. In the face of the refusal by central Canadian institutions to allow for the reconciliation of membership in the Canadian federation and of policies protecting French somewhat from the attractive force of English, a sufficient number of voters would probably have been inclined to go for the first of these construals, namely the setting up of state borders around the territory, if not in the first referendum, then almost certainly in the second.
As a federalist, I am happy that things did not shake out that way. I am happy that, though it did nip and cut away at the aspects of the law that it deemed disproportionate relative to the objective of protecting the French language, the court did not reject the core of the law. (As a liberal, I am also happy that the law has been significantly shorn of those elements that were deemed to infringe rights to too great a degree). To the extent that they still see Quebec as an important part of the Canadian family, I suggest that federalists outside of Quebec (and federalists inside Quebec who are still grumbling) should therefore celebrate the 40th anniversary of a law that, perhaps inadvertently, may very well have saved Canada.