Will immigrants save the French language in Quebec, or hasten its demise? - Macleans.ca

Will immigrants save the French language in Quebec, or hasten its demise?

Language advocates are increasingly leery of immigration

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If, as one of Quebec’s own websites proclaims, the province is on the hunt for “willing, dynamic people” to immigrate to its shores, then Jessica Rosales almost certainly fits the bill. The college-trained Rosales and her husband, Roberto Belmar Torres, a design engineer, wanted to emigrate from their native Chile and, spurred by a string of cheery, unsolicited emails from Quebec’s Immigration Department, the pair chose to settle in Montreal in March 2010. “We decided on Quebec for the French culture,” the 37-year-old Rosales says. “We chose it even though we knew it would be harder.”

It certainly was. Because neither could speak the language, they each took a 10-month French course. Save for the occasional nervous breakdown (“I got burned out, I couldn’t stop crying,” says Rosales of one episode) that even prompted the purchase of a pair of one-way tickets to Toronto that they never used, the pair is quite happy with their lives here. They even found jobs in their new-found language. Jessica is an administrative assistant at a refugee resource centre, while Belmar Torres works at a large Montreal engineering firm. They work almost entirely in French.

Yet increasingly, language advocates are turning this apparent success story into a narrative of decline of the French language in Quebec. The reason: though the pair conduct much of their public lives in French, they speak their native Spanish in the confines of their home. Earlier this year, the governing Liberals announced plans to cut the yearly number of immigrants allowed into the province by 4,000, to 50,000, by 2012, while the the right-of-centre Action démocratique du Québec has called for a further clawback to 46,000. The Parti Québécois believe “immigration should be set at the ability to Frenchify new arrivals,” says PQ spokesperson Éric Gamache, and popular former Péquiste minister François Legault, who is flirting with the idea of running for premier, has called for the number to be capped at 40,000.

Others are even more strident. “We must become our own country, period,” militant sovereignist Gérald Larose told La Presse in the wake of a report detailing a decrease in the percentage of Quebec-born francophones. His argument: an independent Quebec would have absolute power over its immigration policy.

On the face of it, so-called “allophones” (immigrants whose native language is neither French nor English) would seem an odd target, and not only because, unlike the Canada-born English population living in Quebec, they are required by law to attend primary and secondary school in French. Like nearly every other province in the country, Quebec is faced with a looming demographic problem brought on by lower birth rates—a void often filled by immigrants. Ontario, for example, took in roughly 104,000 non-refugee immigrants in 2010 alone.

And even with 54,000 new arrivals a year, Quebec is falling behind. According to demographer Jacques Henripin, the province needs between 70,000 and 80,000 immigrants a year to compensate for its lower birth rate—people like Rosales and Belmar Torres. To Rosales, the idea that Quebec would cut down on the number of immigrants allowed into the province is absurd. “I’m a taxpayer,” she says. “Who needs who?”

The feeling is often mutual. By and large, Quebecers have long cast a beady eye at Canada’s official policy of multiculturalism; a recent Angus Reid poll noted that 66 per cent of francophones in the province believe multiculturalism is a threat to the French language. Practically every major demographic report released in the province over the last two decades has sparked debate and uproar about the survival of the language.

But does the decline of francophones necessarily mean the decline of French, when those immigrants arriving here must by law attend school in la langue de René Lévesque? Marc Termote thinks so. The demographer authored a recent report illustrating the demographic decline of Quebec-born francophones in the province; he says they will be overtaken as a majority by immigrants by 2031. And while he makes pains to say he isn’t a Larose-style sovereignist—“We don’t need independence to ensure the survival of a language,” he says—he believes the sheer numbers, coupled with the creeping bilingualism of Montreal, is detrimental to the language. “I am one of those people who says that the government should have no say whatsoever over what language is used at home,” Termote says. However, “the problem is that the language used at home becomes the language of the children.”

This wouldn’t be a problem in, say, the overwhelmingly francophone city of Saguenay. But roughly 75 per cent of Quebec’s immigrants settle in the 500 sq. km of Montreal where, says Termote, “there is free choice in what language you work in.” (Montreal is home to roughly 48,000 businesses with less than 50 employees that don’t fall under the province’s language provisions.) “The problem is Montreal. In the regions there are no problems. You will only speak French in Chicoutimi.”

“It’s not up to immigrants to resolve the problems of French in Quebec,” Termote adds. “We tell immigrants to have children, because we don’t want to have any. We tell them to go out to the regions, because we don’t want to, we tell them to learn French in a hurry, because French is declining. I can’t accept that the future of the French in Quebec is the responsibility of immigrants.”

Still others see no problem at all with the immigrant influx into Quebec. Jean-Benoît Nadeau, author of the book The Story of French, recently published a column decrying the accepted definition of the term “francophone” in the province. “French is no longer the language of one ethnic group, but one for all ethnic groups,” Nadeau writes. “Only in Quebec do we tolerate such a restrictive definition. Why not include the woven sash or ketchup tortière in the definition of francophone while we’re at it? It’s a disgrace.”

Jessica Rosales agrees. After being courted by the Quebec government (and spending an estimated $13,000 in fees and plane tickets) to get here, then spending nearly a year studying the language, she knows quite well that she can still vote with her feet. “I like Quebec, I like Montreal, but I can live somewhere else.”