Linguistic Nationalism Is Ethnic Nationalism
We need to stop beating around the supremacist bushes.
The issue of linguistic minority rights between Quebec and the rest of Canada is one that has not in any way been resolved. Defending English in Quebec is to defend French in the rest of Canada, a point often missed by both sides in the rather ridiculous debate over which European language should be spoken in which part of Canada, whose domestic founding nations and languages are generally lost in the discussion.
The Liberal party has been divided into two wings on the question of how to approach this, balanced between the unconditional federalism of Pierre Trudeau and the wishy-washy approach of pandering to Quebec’s shallow Trumpian identity politics of many of his successors, mistaking nationalists among their advisors for federalists.
The approach of giving into increasingly unreasonable demands, buying into the claim that French remains in danger in Quebec serves only to legitimise the cause of the Bloc Quebecois and hardline separatists who use slogans like “Le Quebec, c’est nous” — “Quebec is us”, with a subtext of “but not you”. This attitude serves to divide rather than unite Canada into an us-vs-them world based on language, while the actual danger to the French language is self-inflicted, coming from forcing French to the exclusion of English on young and new Quebeckers eager to participate in the wider global economy.
Where a welcoming attitude and a promotion of bilingualism would instil a profound sense of pride for all Quebecers and many Canadians elsewhere to speak French — ask the European Union about their 24 official languages and their ability to largely speak one common one without the others feeling particularly threatened — the nationalist approach is to say Quebec is alone the French community of Canada, hurting the language elsewhere in the country and incentivising a bidirectional migration reminiscent of, if less pronounced than, the partition of India and Pakistan.
It is important for people from all parts of Canada to stand up for and defend the bilingual nature of the country rather than giving into talking points on Quebec being a singular nation. It is, rather, a critical part of a rich Canadian cultural mosaic created from numerous influences beyond the English and French, who took turns conquering the land through genocidal war against the actual nations that were already here.
Recently, a social media post circulated citing the common refrain “If you are Canadian, your heritage is either indigenous, refugee, or immigrant. That’s it.”
When a facebook friend shared the meme, I replied, “or slave”.
Canadians, particularly of European heritage, are blissfully unaware of our true history, and several replies demonstrated this in ways that shock and frustrate me. “What about the first settlers?” someone asked. “French and British weren’t immigrants,” another declared. The argument that Europeans came to mix with North Americans was floated, as if this is somehow different from immigration, to which I replied:
If your argument is that they aren't immigrants because they mixed with the indigenous population, it merely proves the original point. I flatly reject the idea that 16th century colonial migrants are somehow more special than modern ones. Is it because they killed and enslaved the locals or because they came in the name of god? Euro-centric perspective isn't somehow more valid.
There is a mythical claim that Canada has two founding nations: the English and the French, with the occasional recognition that the First Nations make the third nation. It could just as easily, and probably equally accurately, be argued that Canada’s founding nations actually consisted of the Inuit, Woodland, Plains, Plateau, Pacific Coast, Mackenzie, and Yukon River nations, as well as the Iroquoian and Algonquian language groups, as well as the European nation. Seen from that perspective, arguing over which European languages we should or should not be speaking here is a little silly.
This list is not comprehensive. Most nations listed above are not only a collection of nations in their own right, but also represent geographic areas larger than either England or France.
When issues like Bill C-420 and C-421/C-223 come up, asserting French supremacy at the expense of English in Quebec, or when the National Assembly adopts a motion calling on businesses not to use the greeting “Bonjour-Hi”, as if recognising the preferences of customers is somehow traitorous, the bigger picture is lost. Division is sewn. Nationalism is inflamed. And real issues are totally forgotten.
French is not in danger in Quebec because of the English minority community. If it is in danger, it is because the French have made English the forbidden fruit of the next generation, forcing the young population to choose between learning English at the expense of French by leaving, or remaining and being uncompetitive in a world in which English has become the de facto international language. While most of the world embraces multilingualism, maintaining their own languages and cultures while learning the language of trade and commerce, Quebec’s nationalists insist that any word of a language other than French will collapse their society.
When I was elected in 2015, I believed that Quebec had finally moved beyond these harmful language debates. I was certain that my English and Jewish background would not be an obstacle to doing my job as an MP in a riding that is 94% francophone because Quebec society had finally moved on and was ready to talk about something else; that the so-called “orange wave” of 2011 was a statement from Quebec society to move on from their dark ages. I made my mandate and my mission about helping my riding modernise; to get better access to federal government services, long deprived of them by Bloc MPs intent on showing that Canada could not help; to bring Internet and cell phone service to the region, allowing the citizens to participate in modern society and the modern economy. I made no secret of my English background but nor did I make it an issue; I was not elected to have that fight.
At the end of 2017, the National Assembly adopted a PQ motion to call on Quebec businesses to no longer use the greeting “Bonjour, hi!” when customers entered. The next time I rose in the House, coincidentally in response to a Private Member’s Bill from the Bloc on restoring per-vote financing to political parties, a topic for a later essay, I, without planning or forethought, began my speech “Bonjour, hi, Madame la présidente!”
Naturally this went over like a lead balloon in Quebec. Though I never saw it myself, I received multiple reports of it having made Info-Man, Quebec’s weekly French political satire show, as well as the front page of le Courant, the newspaper in my largest community, and at that two weeks in a row. From then on, the Bloc made a special point of targeting me for removal. Now that they have succeeded, I suppose I should expand on my thoughts on that.
Pandering to Quebec nationalism is a failing strategy. Everyone who has tried it has eaten dirt and damaged the country; one need only look at Brian Mulroney, whose footsie with nationalists gave us the Bloc, or Paul Martin whose pandering gave them a revival after Chrétien had finally beaten them back out of first place in the province.
The current government has in some ways sewn the seeds for a strong nationalist revival in Quebec by pandering on the question of the French language charter in federally regulated workplaces in Quebec — the subject of Bill C-420 — and going to great lengths to keep the government in the good graces of Quebec’s so-called soft nationalists with locally popular cultural fights like the on-going war with social media.
If the Federal Liberals will not defend minority language rights, who will? Language requirements in the federal government should be task-specific, not location-specific. If the job requires French, state that. If the job requires English, state that. If the job is bilingual-imperative, state that. Having the French language charter apply federally in Quebec means every one of the more than 25,000 federal civil servants who work in Gatineau will be required to communicate in French at work; that federally-regulated businesses such as banks in English communities in Montreal will be required to do so as well. It is one more way that Quebec’s language minorities will feel the pinch of nationalism, and the encouragement to depart. It is an embarrassment.
The youth of Quebec, with some exception, no longer want anything to do with their parents’ language fight. They are unable to speak English and they are frustrated; the world is passing them by and it is their parents’ generation that is preventing them from broadening their horizons.
Few Quebec anglophones are embarrassed to speak French; the vast majority make a concerted effort to be bilingual. Even since leaving politics and moving out of Quebec, I continue to send my daughter to French school, where she is learning the language with the West African accent of her educators rather than the rural Quebec accent of her hometown, and I work in a fully bilingual environment.
The ability to speak more than one language is important for understanding that other perspectives exist. What baffles me is why French Quebec fails to recognise the French communities throughout every other province in the country, and that attacking English minority rights in Quebec is an attack on French minority rights everywhere else.
I was frequently asked by people in my riding: “what are you going to do about all these immigrants?” I would respond: “Like my wife?” which would inevitably both end the conversation and cost me any chance of the person’s vote the next time around.
If the goal of Quebec’s nationalists is truly to promote and protect the French language, they are doing everything in their power to fail. But it isn’t; the goal of Quebec’s nationalists is ethnic supremacy. That they do not even accept that they are descendants of immigrants, but rather something somehow more special, speaks volumes about the core values they defend.