Why Quebec is fighting against its rights

New research shows that Quebec has consistently harmed French rights in the rest of Canada

The Office quebecois de la langue francaise is shown in Montreal, Wednesday, November 16, 2011. (Graham Hughes/CP)

The Office quebecois de la langue francaise is shown in Montreal, Wednesday, November 16, 2011. (Graham Hughes/CP)

Like much of its brethren outside of Quebec, Yukon’s French population faces a constant demographic challenge. Less than five per cent of the territory’s population have French as a mother tongue, according to the most recent census data. Survival of the language is largely predicated on French institutions like École Émilie-Tremblay, Yukon’s sole French school.

In 2009, the Yukon government sought to strip the Commission scolaire francophone du Yukon, which oversees the school, of some of its funding and powers to recruit students from beyond Yukon’s 1,630 francophones. The matter went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The school board’s plight would seem to have a natural ally in the Quebec government, often considered North America’s most formidable protector of the French language. And the government did indeed intervene in the case—against the school board. Giving the board such recruitment powers, Quebec’s attorney general’s office argued, “would compromise the fragile balance of Quebec’s linguistic dynamic.” Last May, the Supreme Court rendered a decision that mostly sided with the Yukon government.

“We were surprised and upset at Quebec’s involvement. We tried to convince [Quebec] lawyers to support or case or at least stay home so they wouldn’t hurt us. We weren’t able to do so,” says Roger Lepage, one of three lawyers who represented Yukon’s French school board.

It isn’t the only time that the Quebec government has gone to court to intervene against a francophone minority outside of the province. In fact, according to l’Observatoire national en matière de droits linguistiques, a nascent language rights observatory affiliated with Université de Montréal, Quebec has a long history of suppressing rights of non-Quebec francophones.

This curious pattern is among the observatory’s first findings; its co-founder, Frédéric Bérard, has expounded on it for his doctoral thesis to be published this summer. “Since even before the 1980s, the government of Quebec has never once helped French speakers outside the province in front of the courts,” says Bérard. “Essentially, Quebec has hurt the French fact in Canada outside Quebec’s borders.”

In an interview, Quebec Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Jean-Marc Fournier said linguistic minority rights “wasn’t a motivation” for the government intervention; rather, Quebec wanted to ensure that admissibility to educational facilities remains a provincial, and not a school board, jurisdiction.

Yet the government’s own brief in the Yukon case suggests Quebec worries about affording the same rights to its own linguistic minority—Quebec’s 835,000 anglophones—that other provinces would give to French speakers.

By law, only students of parents who went to English school in Canada can attend English school in Quebec; everyone else, Quebec’s francophone population included, is legally mandated to attend French school. (The law doesn’t apply to private schools.) “In the Quebec context, where English has a strong power of attraction to francophones and allophones, increasing the powers of the province’s anglophone school boards would have grave consequences for the protection of the French language,” reads the brief from Quebec’s attorney general.

Quebec’s intervention against minority linguistic rights outside the province is enduring and bipartisan. In 1989, Quebec’s Liberal government intervened in the landmark Supreme Court case of Jean-Claude Mahé, which sought to enshrine the rights of linguistic minorities to have their own school boards. Quebec argued against the right. (Mahé won.) In 1999, the Quebec government again intervened in the case of Jean Beaulac, a convicted murderer from British Columbia who, the Court ultimately decided, deserved to have his trial heard in French in his home province.

Following the Beaulac decision in 1999, Parti Québécois justice minister Linda Goupil gave a decidedly bizarre press conference in which she said the case would “limit the collective capacity of Quebecers to protect the blossoming of their language.” She then quoted Voltaire—“The joy of some creates misfortune for others,” she said—and promptly refused to take any questions in English.

Quebec’s interventions in linguistic minority cases “are seriously disappointing for activists in minority language communities,” says official languages commissioner Graham Fraser, whose office intervened in favour of Yukon’s French school board. “They see Quebec as a potential ally, and they feel they’ve been betrayed.”

Fournier balks at the interpretation, noting that the Quebec government is now giving $25,000 a year for the next five years to various francophone initiatives in the Yukon. “We are the first to promote French in Quebec and across the country,” Fournier said.


Why Quebec is fighting against its rights

  1. Outside of Quebec, the ability to speak French, and $1.75, gets you a medium coffee. Quebec has created a backlash among Anglophones across the country, who rightly see Quebec’s language fixation as bigotry. Were it not afforded special protections, the French language- and subsequently a large number of related socio-political problems- would simply not exist within a continent of English and Spanish speakers.
    We’re not a bilingual country, and haven’t been since sometime in the 19th century. It’s high time we abandoned our language laws in favor of basic liberty.

    • Si le mirage du pays bilingue ne c’est pas concrétisé, c’est parce que de tout temps les autres provinces n’ont jamais levé le petit doigt pour leurs communautés francophones. On s’entend que c’est définitivement pas la faute du Québec puisqu’il incarne aujourd’hui cet idéal de bilinguisme et que si l’ensemble des provinces faisaient autant que nous, le pays seraient effectivement bilingue.

      • Québec est bilingue ? Loi 101 bilingue? On sait que même le gouvernement libéral veut que tout les immigrants parlent français. La minorité anglophone au Québec n’est pas apprécié plus que les minorités francophones dans les autres provinces.

  2. Maclean’s fait encore dans la belle hypocrisie en blamant le Québec pour le sort des francophones hors Québec. Si ces derniers bénéficient de services médiocres, c’est de la faute de leur gouvernement respectif, pas celle du Québec.

    • Whatever. We’re only bilingual by decree, not in actual facts on the ground. Only 8% of Canadians are unilingually French. Another 17% at most are bilingual Francophones. Almost all of the remainder of the country is unilingually English. Bilingual we are not. California, Texas, and Arizona are far more bilingual in practice than Canada is. Trying to create a bilingual nation when there are no compelling reasons to become bilingual is just another reason why we need an Ebola outbreak in Ottawa.

  3. If the French language were a viable linguistic entity it wouldn’t NEED protection. Compelling people who have no use for the French language to speak it anyways would be bad enough (ask any Anglo 7 year old how much they speak French outside of that one class in school) but Québec also aggressively discourages the use of English (try posting an English sign in Québec sometime). There is an undeniable double standard in play and it causes tremendous resentment against the French and the Quebecois.
    Get rid of the ridiculous protectionist laws and let’s see if French can cut it as a language without them.
    I suspect we’ll all be saying adieu to French before very long…

    • More galling is the simple fact that we tolerate anti-Anglo bigotry from the French in spite of the fact that it was simple British decency that ensured the survival of French in North America. Had the British lost the War of 1812, there would be no Quebec as we know it.
      In the spring 1806, French was spoken throughout the watershed of the Mississippi. By the time of the American Civil war, it was on its way to becoming non-existent as a daily use language in the United States. It only exists in Canada due to special protections that fly in the face of natural rights upon which our society is founded. A separate Quebec would cease to be a francophone nation inside of 50 years, as it would be a linguistic sandspit in a stormy sea of English and Spanish.

  4. It’s a separatist/nationalist plot against English, bilingualism, bilingual rights and bilingual services in Quebec. For the linguistically intolerant Quebec government – not to mention the separatist-leaning Quebec public service – if Francophones in the other provinces don’t get increased French services, then it’s easier for the Quebec government to get away with taking away English/bilingual services and rights here in Quebec. It’s not in linguistically intolerant Quebec’s best interest to have bilingualism flourish in the rest of Canada when they’re trying to squash it in Quebec. Fighting against efforts to increase French rights and services outside Quebec also helps them justify the funding of their OQLF language police and the subsidizing of separatist organizations like the St. John the Baptist Society and Impératif Français. The bottom line is that separatists in Quebec want to make French Quebecers believe that there are no Francophones or French services in the other provinces. It’s why many separatist-leaning media in Quebec refer to the country as Quebec and “le Canada anglais” instead of Quebec and the nine other provinces and three territories. They don’t want Quebec to be merely one of ten provinces; they want a French Quebec and an English Canada. There’s nothing they won’t say or pull to get French Quebecers to believe their propaganda. Calling Quebec City “la Capitale nationale” when we all know that it’s OTTAWA, and calling the Quebec legislature the “National Assembly” instead of the provincial one, are just two other examples of this.

    Oh, and by the way, no matter what Stephen Harper said, Quebec is not a nation – never was, never will be! It can be argued that French Canadians are a nation just like English Canadians or First Nation Canadians might be, but not Quebecers. There are French Canadians living in every single province in Canada today, and Quebecers are not, have never been and will never be just French. Calling Quebec a nation (within Canada) is insulting to English and other non-Francophone Quebecers, and it’s insulting to French Canadians living in the nine other provinces and three territories. Harper had no mandate to call Quebec a nation. It was a misguided, misinformed and irresponsible statement to make.

    As for La “Belle” province’s ongoing actions and interference to discourage and block French rights and services in the other provinces and territories in efforts to undermine bilingualism in Canada, shame, shame, shame on Quebec!

  5. Quebec’s position on these matters isn’t difficult to understand at all, and has been consistent for a long time. But to understand this position, you need to understand the larger context which is something that Patriquin will never give you. But I will…

    From the beginning of Confederation, francophones believed that Section 93 of the Constitution Act 1867 included language rights. Anglophones believed otherwise, and in the decades that followed Confederation they enacted a whole series of anti-French laws which usually culminated in the banning of French schools. The federal government and the Supreme Court remained almost completely silent during this time even when the rights explicitly guaranteed in a federal act (The Manitoba Act) were being violated.

    It was only when Quebec passed the Charter of the French language, which limited the use of English in Quebec, that the Supreme Court sprang into action in order to cut it into pieces. A few years later, a new constitution was imposed on Quebec which incorporated a charter of rights that contained several new clauses severely limiting Quebec’s power over matters of language and culture.

    Given this context, it is completely understandable why Quebec would oppose any further federal encroachment over its jurisdiction on language through Supreme Court rulings. However, since there is no constitutional recognition of Quebec’s distinct situation within Canada (as the Meech Lake Accord potentially offered), these battles must be played out in the context of federal vs provincial jurisdiction, which sometimes puts it in opposition to francophones outside of Quebec.

    But really, the root cause of this problem is that the premises on which Canadian language policy is based is simply false. It assumes that there is some kind of equality between French and English in Canada when there is not. One language is a minority language with all of the challenges that come with this reality, whereas the other is the dominant, majority language in this part of the world. And speakers of this language enjoy all of the benefits of this majority status even when they are a numerical minority, like in Quebec.

    Canada’s approach to language also completely ignores the important differences between the history of francophones in English Canada and that of anglophones in Quebec. The historical situation of francophones – underprivileged in education and income, suffering rampant language attrition, lacking public institutions which function in their language and thus the means to maintain their culture, etc – is somehow made analogous to the situation of anglophones in Quebec, where none of these historical indices of oppression were present.

  6. I think Patriquin’s inability to comprehend Quebec’s position on this is intentional and that his real purpose is to mislead his readers. To prove this point I’ll focus on one example from this article, Patriquin’s description of the Beaulac case and Quebec’s reaction to it:

    “In 1999, the Quebec government again intervened in the case of Jean Beaulac, a convicted murderer from British Columbia who, the Court ultimately decided, deserved to have his trial heard in French in his home province.

    Following the Beaulac decision in 1999, Parti Québécois justice minister Linda Goupil gave a decidedly bizarre press conference in which she said the case would “limit the collective capacity of Quebecers to protect the blossoming of their language.” She then quoted Voltaire—“The joy of some creates misfortune for others,” she said—and promptly refused to take any questions in English.”

    The main problem here is that a transcript the entire press conference is available online and Patriquin’s depiction of it is so clearly fraudulent. Here is some of what justice Minister Linda Goupil said:

    “The Court states that administrative contingencies must not be taken into consideration in respect that right. The State must take the necessary steps to ensure the existence and maintenance of institutional bilingualism of criminal justice in all of Canada. This means, in practice, that a francophone from British Columbia could demand that in a criminal trial, the Crown prosecutor, the judge and the jury must be able to speak his language, i.e. French.

    I can imagine that the government of British Columbia might question the applicability and practice of this judgment on the administration of justice over there. In Quebec, all anglophone already enjoy, in almost all cases, these privileges. Quebec has been offering this service to its linguistic minority for a long time.

    But the Beaulac ruling does has as an effect in Quebec in that it limits the collective capacity of Quebecers to protect the development of their language. In practice, this will mean that any defendant in Quebec may, to the extent that he has a minimal knowledge of the English language, require that his trial be held in English. Consequently, the judge and the prosecution must be able to speak English.
    This is undeniably an extension of the current practice, which is that when the accused is an anglophone, we take steps to ensure that his trial is held in that language. However, this is a situation which is assessed case by case, depending on the real spoken language of the accused. In practice, this means that many trials are held each year in English in Montreal, Gaspésie and Estrie.

    In conclusion, this judgment is reminiscent of the old adage that the happiness of some is the misfortune of others, I am very happy for francophones outside Quebec but in Quebec we did not need Beaulac ruling to protect our linguistic minority, they already had these rights.”

    The Deputy Minister for Legal and Legislative Affairs, Louis Borgeat, then added more information about the different laws implicated in this case and how this ruling might affect them. Questions were then taken from journalists including from anglophone journalists John Grant (CTV) and Richard Kalb (CBC). Mr Kalb asked the Minister if she would answer some questions in English. She said that she would rather not, explaining that she was still in the process of perfecting her English. Mr Kalb then said that he would go easy on her, people laughed and the press conference continued. Later on, the Deputy Minister did answer some questions in English.

    Basically, it is impossible to read the transcript of that press conference and Patriquin’s account of it without coming away with the obvious conclusion that Patriquin is a lying bag of crap. Why is he completely distorting this 17 year old press conference? Well, like all propagandists, he is not interested in informing the public. His goal is to form public opinion in a certain way. This often requires lies and distortions.


  7. No what makes me mad. We ask for english in quebec and its a big fat no. And thats not fair. Ottawa and other parts of ottawa. French people have gone and conplaine they want french and what happens. They get it. Ottawa is alot of french now. And other parts of camada are starting because a french person complaines and they get what they want. But a english person conplaines and its the end of the freaking world. Gatineau hospital.even told me they dont have to serve me becuase im english and i should go to ontario.
    If any thing quebec should be learning English. It is the biggest language around the workd and they should understand it when they go some where. Instead of going to a english town and conplaining. Alberra was very english. French people when and complained now there talking over there to. but again we ask for english signs to understand things or activitys but no were not allowed. I wanted my results in English at the Gatineau Hospital they no me no and go oay someone to translate it for you. Andnthe biggest thing that makes me mad is these stupid groupe the language police. Making people loose the business and giving fines for english writing words. So Ontario should have the same thing for french. No french signs allowed. Then younhave the rude people saying quebec is not Canada. Im sorry last I checked it is. Get over it and respect the english. Your not happy with signs and English words well learn them. Stop complaing and ruing things for just thoses english speaking people.. yous work in quebec or ontario just for speaking french. And a english person cant even get a job in quebec or ontario now becuase of french peope whinning they want french. Not fair 100% half my french friends and families no longer soeak french becuase there embarrassed of how some french people have been acting selfsih and rude. Its a shame.

  8. Nothing is lost in learning two languages, it’s a gain gain situation. All is lost in denying people languages, and all is lost in creating societies based on control and regulations that limit people from being successful. Whoever is doing this past present and future is wrong, and right now Quebec is a police state whose people are being kept in poverty by over regulation, over taxation and fees, and giving too much control to unions. stop living in the past and start working on fixing the future. The state of french schools in the Yukon and English schools in Quebec, shouldn’t be a discussion, because everyone should welcome learning both languages all the time…not because the government forces or restricts peoples choices.

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