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Quebec Votes 2012: The most dangerous election in decades

Martin Patriquin explains how the PQ’s not-so-subtle attack on English has stoked a disturbing return of identity politics


 
The blame game

Photograph by Rogers Lemoyne

Pablo and Andrea Morales consider themselves Quebecers. The pair arrived in the province from Mendoza, Argentina, in 2005 and settled in Pierrefonds, a suburb on the western tip of Montreal. The decision to come to Canada came in 1999, shortly after a man put a gun to Andrea’s side and demanded her wallet.

Because they hardly knew how to say hello and goodbye in French, the couple took language courses; in 2006, Pablo, 42, was proficient enough to get a job as a technician at a perfume manufacturer where, as he puts it, “We work 100 per cent in French.” That same year, Andrea, 39, began work as a daycare worker. Their spoken French remains a bit halting and tentative. It’s partly because they still speak Spanish at home, and because they realize how much their linguistic efforts have been overshadowed by their three boys.

Though all three were born in Argentina, Pablo Jr., 17, Ignacio, 14, and Tomas, 12, speak French like, well, born-and-bred Quebecers. It’s no surprise: under Quebec’s language law, immigrants and French Quebecers alike must attend French school. Practically their entire scholarly life happens in French, including some 4,600 hours of grammar and conjugation instruction by the time they graduate. They speak Spanish and English as well.

The elder Pablo gushes about the reception he had upon arriving here, how his neighbours welcomed him with open arms. And yet he still has the occasional, nearly imperceptible feeling that he’s sometimes excluded. I mention the PQ campaign slogan C’est à nous de choisir (“It’s for us to choose”) and he nods. “I don’t feel like I’m part of the nous,” he says, invoking the French word for ‘us’. “We always felt a bit different than Quebecers.”

Quebec will welcome as many as 53,800 new immigrants in 2012—a crucial part of the province’s demographic reality and, as its population ages, its future. Yet in the midst of the run-up to the Sept. 4 election in which the sovereignist Parti Québécois is leading the polls, just how these new arrivals fit into the French fact of Quebec has become a flashpoint of the campaign.

The PQ has promised to introduce a raft of laws ostensibly designed to shore up what Péquiste candidate Jean-François Lisée termed the “very grave” decline of Québécois de souche—literally, old-stock Quebecers—on the island of Montreal.These include a Quebec citizen test that would prevent any new arrival from running for elected office without an appropriate knowledge of French. A PQ government would introduce a “secularism charter” enshrining both the equality between men and women and the supremacy of French in Quebec.

And as Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois said recently, the party would forbid Québécois de souche and immigrants alike from attending Quebec’s finishing schools, known as CEGEPs, in English—lest more people are lost to that language.

Other parties have played the identity card as well during the campaign. A candidate for the right-of-centre Coalition Avenir Québec said his party would reduce the number of immigrants Quebec accepts in order to stem what he called “the importation of unemployment.” Premier Jean Charest, meanwhile, wouldn’t outright condemn xenophobic comments pronounced by a small-town mayor, if only because it might cost him votes.

Yet it is the Parti Québécois, which has twice attempted to take Quebec out of Canada and plans on trying again should it win on Sept. 4, that has most harped on the supposed decline of the French language—even if most statistics suggest otherwise—in order to form a government.

In doing so, the party of Jacques Parizeau— who, after the loss of the referendum on Quebec sovereignty in 1995, blamed it on “money and ethnic votes”—has drawn the ire of many voters, French and otherwise, as well as federalist and fellow sovereignist parties. It has also drawn comparisons to the Tea Party and the Front National. “The PQ is going after the fibre identitaire [identity vote],” says Will Prosper, a candidate for Québec Solidaire and a community organizer in the immigrant-rich area of Montreal North. “It’s not just anglophones, it’s immigrants who feel the fear.”

The Parti Québécois of 1968 was much different than today’s incarnation. The result of a coalition between two movements, the Ralliement National (RN) * and the more moderate Mouvement Souveraineté-Association (MSA), the PQ has long struggled internally over the means to the ultimate goal of separation. In eschewing the more radical, English-baiting rhetoric of the RN, party leader René Lévesque was firmly in the moderate camp, and was privately reluctant to introduce Bill 101 for fear of alienating Quebec’s English population. Yet whatever worries he had were trumped by his determination to have the French majority flourish socially and economically in their own language.

He had two caveats: the law would not apply to CEGEPs and universities, nor to businesses with fewer than 50 people. Along with the bureaucratic nightmare this would entail, Lévesque “had a horror of imposing French signs on corner stores,” as Graham Fraser notes in his biography of the politician.

Today’s PQ will undo the two conditions set by its founder and de facto secular saint. The reason, according to PQ language and immigration critic Yves-François Blanchet, is because the situation has changed since Lévesque was in power. “Fundamentally it’s not an English versus French phenomenon, because our relations are more cordial today than 40 years ago,” Blanchet says. “It has more to do with the integration of immigrants.”

Trim, intense and blessed with a politician’s baritone, Blanchet is either a hero or a scourge, depending on which official language you happen to speak. A colleague once dubbed the former weightlifter “Goon,” for his rather direct speaking style, and the nickname has stuck to the 47-year-old Péquiste national assembly member who represents the largely rural riding of Drummond, east of Montreal.

“I’m not an ayatollah,” he says after finishing his 12-grain bagel at a Tim Hortons in his riding. “It’s the volume of English that bothers me.” He notes how his Tim Hortons cup isn’t up to Bill 101 code (it should say “Les Cafés” rather than just “Café” above the logo). Neither, he notes, is the Subway across the street or the Canadian Tire in town. He tells a story about how he was recently served by a unilingual anglophone at a Vietnamese restaurant in Montreal’s Rosemont-La-Patrie district, and how he spoke back in English even though he has a rule never to do so in Montreal.

“I did it without realizing,” he says, noting the transaction was very courteous, and a French-speaking employee immediately came to take his order when he asked. Nevertheless, he says the encounter reminded him that many immigrants tend to embrace English rather than Quebec’s official language. “An immigrant can get off the plane in Dorval, he’ll see that he’s landed not in a French society but a bilingual society. He’ll go outside into Dorval, one of the most English communities on the island of Montreal, and he’ll say, ‘Why would I need to speak French here? There is none!’ Then he’ll get into the job market and find it is as easy to get a job in English as it is in French. That is a calamity in terms of the French language in Quebec.”

The problem isn’t irreversible, he says. All it takes is a Parti Québécois government willing to impose its linguistic will on new arrivals by ensuring they must speak French in order to run for public office, as well as applying Bill 101 at the CEGEP level and to small businesses. Part of the reason, he says, is because French Quebecers have softened their wariness of the English language. “It has maybe made us let our guard down. And if you let your guard down, you invite a threat.”

The cost of policing the “threat” will be heavy. Under the current law, Quebec’s 6,000 businesses with more than 50 employees must abide by the French language charter; policing these large businesses takes 250 staff from Quebec’s language office. According to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), roughly 85 per cent of Quebec’s 240,000 registered businesses have less than 50 employees. “They’ll have to hire an army of civil servants” to apply Bill 101 to small- and medium-sized businesses, says CFIB Quebec’s vice-president, Martine Hébert.

Already, policing the language in which Quebecers are served is a pricey affair. According to documents obtained by Maclean’s through an Access to Information request, the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) recently spent more than $136,000 producing a series of reports on the use of French on signs and in businesses in Montreal. By most measures these reports suggest French is doing quite well in Montreal: it was available in 95 per cent of businesses in downtown Montreal.

Quebec immigration ministry numbers throw doubt on the contention that immigrants are relentlessly drifting toward English. Under a 1978 provision with the federal government, the province controls 75 per cent of the flow of “economic immigrants”—as opposed to refugees and family reunification applicants—coming to Quebec.

In 2001, under PQ premier Bernard Landry, 47 per cent of those immigrants spoke French; in 2011, the number had climbed to 65 per cent. The PQ’s 1989 platform notes how “70 per cent of allophones”—those whose first language is neither French nor English—“adopt English as their daily language.” Today, that number stands at 49 per cent, according to OQLF statistics. “It marks the first time since we’ve done these studies that the majority of immigrants chose French over English,” says OQLF spokesperson Martin Bergeron.

By refusing to acknowledge the linguistic strides of new arrivals to Quebec, the PQ is “pointing the finger at immigrants to say that they don’t speak French,” says Culture Minister Christine St-Pierre. “That’s false. It’s a way to engender fear.”

Examples of the rhetoric are abundant. Péquiste Bernard Drainville recently tweeted how urgent it was to reinforce Bill 101 because “less than 50 per cent of Montrealers have French as a first language.”

His colleague Jean-François Lisée was even more direct. “From the moment where there isn’t a majority of people whose first language is French, it means there is no majority to defend it,” he said in an interview for Mort Ta Langue (“bite your tongue”), a documentary about the future of French in Quebec. “We can be very attached to our second languages, but I won’t go protest to defend English or Spanish.”

Far from shying away from it, some believe this brand of ethnic nationalism is key to both welcoming immigrants and achieving sovereignty. Sociologist and columnist Mathieu Bock-Côté, whose recent book Fin De Cycle traces the demise of the movement, says the PQ’s fortunes are brighter now that the party has embraced the nous aspect of Quebec’s francophone majority.

Click here to read a transcript of Martin Patriquin’s interview with Mathieu Bock-Côté

“The day after the referendum, traumatized by Jacques Parizeau’s words, sovereignists convinced themselves of the ‘historical guilt’ of Quebec nationalism,” he says. “We found our history to be cloistered, closed in on itself, xenophobic even. Wrongfully, of course. I believe one thing: the more French Quebecers assume their identity, the more they will be attractive to new arrivals.”

Yet one need only sit around the Morales’s table for 10 minutes to see how Bock-Côté’s assertion runs into problems. Pablo and Andrea may love Quebec to pieces—and speak English about as well as your average Torontonian speaks French—but the couple seems almost quaintly Canadian nonetheless. Andrea remembers the day in 2010 when she received her family’s Canadian citizenship papers. “I cried when I heard O Canada. It was the cherry on the cake.”

It’s a common theme amongst new arrivals to the province. A 2011 Association for Canadian Studies poll suggests the majority of immigrants identify as both Canadians and Quebecers. It’s a nightmare scenario for Péquistes: arguably the largest source of demographic growth in the province considers itself Québécois, but with a hearty serving of Maple Leaf Canadiana thrown into the mix.

While careful to note how there are differing levels of radicalism—and the Parti Québécois remains, on this scale, relatively tame—columnist Jérôme Lussier says that by delving into identity politics, the party is in league with other nationalist movements around the globe. “You find a number of political parties and movements who have certain attitudes, like a skeptical view of immigration and multiculturalism, a fierce defence of traditional values and a willingness to use the power of the state to impose a ‘national identity,’ like Europe’s Front National, English Defence League, Sweden Democrats, as well as in the Tea Party movement in the U.S.”

Certainly, France’s Front National seems to share the PQ’s wariness of immigration’s effect on language and culture. “They have reason to be worried” about immigration, says Sylvie Verez, the Front National’s Canadian representative. “I think that we are seeing the beginnings of what we lived through in France. In France, we let things go on for too long. Immigrants who don’t integrate are very dangerous. We hear less talk about them here because they are a minority right now.”

The PQ’s virage identitaire, or turn toward identity, has been fodder for political opponents—including fellow sovereignist parties who say it has gone too far. Québec Solidaire, a left-leaning, Montreal-centric sovereignist party, recently blasted the PQ for its “worrisome” stance on immigrants. For Québec Solidaire candidate Will Prosper, born in Montreal to a Haitian father and a Québécois mother, the defection from the PQ is a family affair. Inspired by Haiti’s independence, Will’s father Donald Prosper became a member of the Parti Québécois in 1980. He worked for and remained loyal to the party until Parizeau’s infamous post-referendum “money and ethnic votes” speech in 1995.

“It completely ripped his heart out to hear those words from the leader,” Will says. “I’m born in Quebec. I grew up here. Am I part of the nous? You see that there’s still a problem with this within in the party. It’s why many people with ethnic origins don’t feel included in the vision of the Parti Québécois.”

Sitting at her dining room table, surrounded by her bilingual husband and trilingual kids, Andrea Morales laughs over how much different she is from her sister, who lives in Toronto. She is punctual, organized, stressed about making plans, while Andrea has a distinctly Latin way with time and spontaneity. “She’s such an anglophone,” Andrea says. “We get into fights over it sometimes.” It’s a Canadian two-solitudes mini-cliché, and for the Parti Québécois, the perfect conundrum: a family that is part and parcel nous, despite itself.

*an earlier version of this article said the Parti Québécois was the result of a merger between the Mouvement Souveraineté-Association and Rassemblement pour l’indépendance nationale. In fact, it was between the MSA and Ralliement national,  Maclean’s regrets the error.

[<a href=”http://storify.com/MacleansMag/readers-respond-the-most-dangerous-election-in-dec” target=”_blank”>View the story “Readers respond: The most dangerous election in decades” on Storify</a>]


 

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