Quebec, so the cliché goes, is home to poutine, smoky bars and maddening language debates, and indulging in all three is something of a rite of passage. Alas, a recent government health initiative means the combination of fries, cheese and gravy will effectively be outlawed from the cafeterias of many government institutions by 2012, while lighting up in any public space has been illegal for nearly five years. Language issues, meanwhile, are far less the stuff of spittle and hot blood than they once were. Battles between English and French used to occupy the headlines and even spill out onto the street. Now most English Quebecers apparently choose to stay quiet.
Fighting language laws seems especially passé. Twenty years ago, the right to have English on exterior commercial signs spawned an English rights movement that saw the birth of the Equality Party, and renewed linguistic tension across the province. Now, as Premier Jean Charest’s Liberals prepare to clamp down on English education rights, the old guard of that movement is lamenting the distinct lack of rage in its ranks. “Anglos don’t want to stick their necks out anymore,” says Robert Libman, former leader of the Equality Party. “There’s a sense of ‘What’s the point?’ The white flag has been waved, and it’s now lying encrusted on the ground.”
The current fuss—or lack thereof—is over an amendment to the current language law. In 2002, alarmed by a trend of parents exploiting what it called a legal loophole, the governing Parti Québécois outlawed a somewhat obscure practice that allowed certain students, otherwise ineligible under the province’s language law, to attend English school: if they attended a private English school for a year, they and their siblings could receive public education in English forevermore. (Under Quebec law, only those with a grandfathered right can attend English school.) The PQ’s Bill 104 closed the loophole—but lawyer Brent Tyler challenged the law all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled it unconstitutional last October.
The court gave the Quebec government a year to “fix” Bill 104, which it will do in the coming weeks. It has already shown its cards: Culture Minister Christine St-Pierre declared herself “disappointed and angered” by the Supreme Court ruling, and Justice Minister Kathleen Weil—a former Anglo-rights lawyer, ironically enough—is expected to clamp down on English education as much as is constitutionally feasible. (One advisory group has suggested changing the law to restrict all private English schools to grandfathered students.)
And yet, in the Quebec anglophone community, the silence has been deafening. Reaction in the Montreal Gazette and on radio call-in shows has been muted. No one has taken to the streets in protest. “The angst that existed before no longer exists,” says Dermod Travis, a moderate English-rights advocate. “I don’t see the emotion where you’re going to get thousands of people on the street.”
Part of the reason may be numbers. Roughly 300 students took advantage of the loophole each year—“relatively small stakes,” says Liberal MNA Geoff Kelley. Anglo angst has also lost its fiercest champions: Alliance Quebec, the militant English advocacy group, imploded in 2005 after the feds cut its funding. Moreover, the Anglos are older; health care and retirement worries trump matters of the tongue. And thanks in part to the language laws they once derided, they have sufficiently acclimatized to Quebec’s French fact. Nearly 70 per cent of Quebec’s 918,000 or so Anglos are bilingual, an increase of roughly 12 per cent since 1991. Even the English Montreal School Board now trumpets the quality and extent of its French-language instruction. It is doing something right; the dropout rate among Montreal’s English schools is 23 percentage points lower than the French equivalents.
“Bill 101 worked,” says Thomas Mulcair, an NDP MP and former cabinet minister in Charest’s government, referring to Quebec’s original language law, enacted in 1977. “The only way Quebec has been able to flourish and to remove a lot of linguistic insecurities that brought it to the brink of leaving Canada has been thanks to the fact that Quebec has been made a more French place.”
There’s still the odd gripe. Quebec’s Anglo community overwhelmingly supports the Liberal party, the province’s only outright federalist party. In return, critics say, Charest’s Liberals have taken the community for granted. “We’re captives of the Liberal party,” sighs Heather Keith, a long-time Anglo-rights activist in Quebec’s Eastern Townships.
As for Tyler, he expects the Charest government to water down the Supreme Court judgment; when it does, he says, he’ll be off to the United Nations, where he hopes to challenge Quebec in the court of international law. “The Liberals are the PQ in slow motion,” Tyler said recently. “Both are based on fundamentally ethnocentric principles.” It’s a throwback sentiment from Quebec’s language battles of yore: pithy, baiting and, these days at least, increasingly rare.