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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Speaking in tongues

BY Lyle Stewart May 22, 2023

Saviez-vous que la langue française est plus forte qu’elle ne l’a jamais été au Québec? Oui, c’est vrai.

It’s unlikely most people know this fact, because for the past several years a steady drumbeat of apocalyptic disinformation about the imminent death of the French language has dominated the news media in Quebec.

Fact: more people than ever in the history of Quebec speak French. 

Another fact: permanent immigrants to Quebec, who are supposedly the cause of linguistic genocide in the province (if you read the Journal de Montréal or watch TVA nouvelles), speak French at a far higher degree than they ever have.

Yet another fact: while the use of the French language is as robust in Quebec as it ever has been, the proportion of old-stock Quebecers who can trace their lineage to New France is declining. This does not mean French is declining, but the ethnic nationalism of Premier François Legault and his Coalition avenir Québec party makes this simple-minded and borderline racist equation at every opportunity.

This is the real, mostly unspoken lie at the heart of this dishonest debate. Saying French is threatened in Quebec is code for what they can’t easily say out loud: they fear being swamped by “the others” – even if cultural minorities here speak French in public to an unprecedented degree.

This demographic shift is occurring quite simply because the québécois de souche have largely stopped having babies. Their birth rate is among the lowest in North America, and the population of Quebec – and its economy – would be in steep decline if not for immigrants and their higher propensity to reproduce.

So that’s why we see xenophobic and misogynistic legislation such as Bill 21, which discriminates against all cultural minorities but mostly targets Muslim women who choose to wear a head scarf – possibly the most visible, vulnerable and marginalized population subset in Quebec.

On language, however, Bill 96, the Act respecting French, the official and common language of Québec, may be the most self-defeating legislation the CAQ has enacted during its term in government because it will scare away highly skilled immigrants and depress outside investment in Quebec. 

Indeed, it appears the best way to win votes outside Montreal is to attack immigrants and promise to close the door to future newcomers. And that, ironically, will help ensure the long-term decline in the use of French.

So, it’s fitting that the representatives of Quebec First Nations, whose languages have been spoken on this soil many centuries before Samuel de Champlain sailed up the St. Lawrence River, are challenging the law in court for infringing on their far more threatened tongues. They filed suit in Quebec Superior Court April 20 contending the law is hurting the academic and professional prospects of Indigenous students.

They also oppose the way the CAQ is following that up with a face-saving gesture with a proposed law to buttress “ancestral languages” – an interesting choice of words that insinuate Indigenous languages belong more in a museum than in public life. The idea that Quebec has any moral right to determine how Indigenous languages are used is deeply offensive, as is this whole divisive debate that is highly damaging to Quebec society.

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Lyle Stewart has been working as a journalist for over 30 years. He believes that information is the ultimate check on the abuse of power and that independent media outlets such as the Nation are crucial to democratic governance.