With the heating up of tensions over the declining place of French on Montreal Island, some nationalists are calling for reducing immigration, others for steering allophones to French CEGEPS, still others for merging franco and anglo CEGEPS so as to shrink the influence of the latter.
Excuse me. A far simpler solution exists.
How about simply ceasing to encourage people to move away from Montreal Island?
Everyone knows that middle-class francophones make up the great majority of those Montreal island residents who leave for the off-island suburbs. Everyone also knows that this exodus (along with the low birthrate among francophones) is responsible for the chronic erosion of French as the island's lingua franca. The 2006 census showed that 49.8 per cent of islanders had French as their mother tongue, down 3.4 per cent from five years before.
But I don't think anyone has grasped how the exodus has accelerated since the start of the century. Figures for the 2006-07 fiscal year, made public by the Institut de la statistique du Québec this week, show that 23,827 people moved off the island to other parts of Quebec (in 92 per cent of cases to off-island suburbs) than moved to the island from elsewhere in Quebec. This is 20 times the net loss in 1998-99, when only 1,172 people more left than came.
To be sure, the late 1990s were an unusually rocky period economically, with Quebec still recovering from the 1995 referendum. A comparison with 1998-99 - the earliest year for which the Institut has figures - therefore has the effect of making the current level appear extra-intense.
Nonetheless, today's level is remarkably high. A demographer for the Institut says you'd have to go back to a four- or five- year period ending in 1990 to find anything like it. That's the period of feverish urban sprawl that alarmed provincial politicians as they saw the island's tax base suffering.
Indeed, one of the reasons the Parti Québécois government gave for merging Montreal Island was to curb sprawl. No one ever said how this was supposed to work, and the graph shows the absurdity of the rationale: Coincidence or not, the exodus began its steep rise shortly after the government launched the merger concept in 2000, and it reached high altitude after the merger took effect in 2002.
What explains the resurgence of the francophone flight to the 450 area code?
Much of it, of course, has to do with the familiar suburban staples of greenery, low house prices and low municipal taxes. But the Quebec government has helped the trend along in many ways. This, ironically, is especially true of governments of the PQ, whose leaders are loudest in bewailing the island's de-francization.
That's why people who want to stabilize the place of French on Montreal Island might wisely turn their attention away from immigration or CEGEPs and instead demand that politicians rein in three Quebec government departments in particular.
The first is the transport department. It has facilitated the current exodus during the PQ years by initiating the commuter-rail line from Blainville in 1997, as well as the line from Delson-Candiac in 2001. Under the PQ, the department also started the Laval métro and planned both the extension of Highway 25 and the enlargement of Notre Dame St., a joint project that the Liberals will carry out and that will spur the exodus to Laval and the North Shore. The Liberals also aim to open a rail line to Mascouche on the North Shore in 2010.
The agriculture department also deserves attention. Its commission on farmland protection has accelerated sprawl by approving zoning changes that give free rein to housing tracts.
Finally, there's the municipal affairs department, which imposed the merger when its minister was the PQ's Louise Harel. The merger has brought with it higher taxes, more impersonal local government and deteriorating services. Generally speaking, it's made the island a less attractive place to live relative to the off-island suburbs.
Politicians can't have it both ways. They can't logically rail against the declining place of French on Montreal Island while at the time indirectly promoting that same decline.
Blame urban sprawl for the decline of French on island
Francophones are moving off island, encouraged by government policies