A language bill deepens a culture clash in Quebec
By Dan Bilefsky
Since Aude Le Dubé opened an English-only bookshop in Montreal last year, she has had several unwelcome guests each month: irate Francophones, sometimes draped in Quebec flags, who storm in and berate her for not selling books in French.
“You would think I had opened a sex shop at the Vatican,” mused Le Dubé, a novelist from Brittany, France, and an ardent F. Scott Fitzgerald fan.
Now, however, Le Dubé is worried that resistance against businesses like her De Stiil bookshop will intensify. A language bill that the Quebec government has proposed would solidify the status of French as the paramount language in Quebec, a move that could undermine businesses that depend on English.
Under the legislation, which builds on a four decades-old language law and is expected to pass in the coming months, small and medium-size businesses would face more rigorous regulations to ensure they are operating in French, including raising the bar for companies to justify why they need to hire employees with a command of a language other than French. Government language inspectors would have expanded powers to raid offices and search private computers and iPhones. And the number of Francophone Quebecers who can attend English-language colleges would be severely limited.
Language is inextricably bound to identity in Quebec, a former French colony that fell to Britain in 1763. Today, French-speaking Quebecers are a minority in North America, where their language faces a daily challenge in English-dominated social media and global popular culture.
In Quebec, French is already the official language of the government, commerce and the courts. On commercial advertising and public signs, the French must be predominant. And children of immigrant families must attend French schools.
The new bill is spurring a backlash among the province’s English-speaking minority and others, who complain that it seeks to create a monocultural Quebec in multicultural Canada and tramples over human rights.
The debate over language is particularly heated in Montreal, a swaggering cosmopolitan city with a large English-speaking minority. Such is the alarm about the fragility of French in Quebec that a few years ago the provincial government passed a nonbinding resolution calling for shop attendants to replace “bonjour hi” — a common greeting in bilingual, tourist-friendly Montreal — with just “bonjour.”
The premier of Quebec, François Legault, has argued that the new law is “urgently required” to stave off the decline of the French language in a Francophone-majority province.
“It’s nothing against the English Quebecers,” he said.
Other proponents argue that the legislation is necessary in a world in which the pull of English is so strong.
But critics of the bill say that stigmatizing bilingualism will prove damaging for Quebec.
“Language should be a bridge to other cultures, but this bill wants to erect barriers,” said Le Dubé, whose bookshop is in Montreal’s Plateau-Mont-Royal, a neighborhood with a large Francophone community, street art and hip cafes.
To shield the bill from potential court challenges, the government has invoked a constitutional loophole known as the “notwithstanding clause,” which gives Canadian governments the power to breach some constitutional rights, including freedom of religion or expression.
Quebec’s quest to preserve French has echoes in other countries, including the United States, where more than 20 states, amid the proliferation of Spanish, have enacted laws in recent years to make English the official language.
In France, the Académie Française, the rarefied body that protects the French language, has sought to ban certain English words like “hashtag,” though it later backed down on that. Quebec’s language agency, for its part, has allowed “grilled cheese” to enter the lexicon but prefers “courriel” to “email.”
Its proponents argue that the bill is imperative because bilingualism is on the ascent in Quebec workplaces. They point to a 2019 study by the agency charged with protecting the French language, which showed that the proportion of workers exclusively using French at work fell to 56% from 60% between 2011 and 2016.
Alain Bélanger, a demographer at Quebec’s Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique, a graduate research organization in Quebec City, said the future of French in the province was at risk, in particular among second- and third-generation immigrants, who invariably turned to English.
“This law is necessary to help redress this imbalance,” he said.
Louise Beaudoin, who in the 1990s served as minister for language for the Parti Québécois, a nationalist party, said in recent hearings on the legislation that the bill did not go far enough, and could not be moderate and reasonable “given the state of French in Quebec.”
Critics of the bill said that bilingualism should be seen as an advantage — not a threat — and accused Quebec’s government of seeking to expunge English and other minority languages.
Shady Hafez, an Indigenous advocate and a sociology doctoral student at the University of Toronto, whose Indigenous community resides in Quebec, criticized the measure as tone-deaf. He said it ignored other marginalized cultures altogether, including Canada’s large Indigenous population.
“For Quebec to say, we need you all to speak our language, is continuing the project of building a one-culture state,” he said. Referring to efforts in Canada historically to stamp out Indigenous languages like his native Algonquin, he added, “We should be prioritizing preserving our own oppressed languages — not French.”
The bill requires that companies justify their need to hire employees with knowledge of a language other than French. Its proponents are concerned that a bilingual person could be hired in preference to one speaking only French, putting Francophones at a disadvantage.
Michel Leblanc, president of Montreal’s Chamber of Commerce, said he did not want a situation in which a restaurant had one bilingual waiter, to be called over every time an American tourist appeared. But he stressed that language protections were necessary, given that French was spoken by a minority in Canada.
Yet some, including Leblanc, fear the bill’s economic consequences. During recent legislative committee debate on the bill, he stressed that English was the international language of business and that the bill could undermine Quebec’s economy. In the late 1970s, after the passing of a previous landmark language bill, Montreal experienced an exodus of Anglophones and businesses to Toronto.
Le Dubé said that, being from Brittany, where the Breton language had declined rapidly in the 20th century under persecution from France, she understood all too well the importance of preserving a nation’s language.
But, she quickly added, “Why can’t different languages coexist?”