Jean Charest better hold on to his hat. He wants to make the economy his priority, but the language issue is back.
Last week, his language minister Christine St. Pierre felt the heat for some articles in the Journal de Montréal in which a reporter passing herself off as a unilingual anglo got 22 job offers and worked in 15 jobs out of 97 stores.
To counter these findings, the minister quoted a "study" by the Office québécois de la langue française saying that 90 per cent of stores in downtown Montreal served their clients in French. But on Friday, we learned that this study didn't exist. It was in fact a "promotional campaign" in which the OQLF visited some stores to see which language was used. There was no scientific study and no detailed report.
Then we learned the OQLF was months late in handing in its five-year report. Yesterday, respected demographer Marc Termote accused the Charest government of hiding an in-depth study he handed to the OQLF in August 2006.
In La Presse and Le Devoir, Termote said his study showed that French as a language spoken at home is losing strength in Quebec as a whole, on the island of Montreal and the suburbs. More allophones have also switched to English in the past 10 years, and half of allophones who went to French high school choose an English CEGEP.
Termote says his findings confirm the 2006 census where only 52.6 per cent of people on the island of Montreal spoke French at home, down 1.7 per cent from 2001. Those who speak English at home went up to 23.9 per cent, gaining 3.8 per cent. Termote said the force of attraction of English had been underestimated. Added to the low birthrate of francophones, he said one thing is sure: In a few years, only a minority of Montrealers will speak French at home. This decline would render even more difficult the francization of allophones.
La Presse and Le Devoir reported that St. Pierre decided to make Termote's study public. A press conference was called for last Friday, but it was cancelled. Termote thinks the plug was pulled by someone "upstairs," meaning the premier's office who didn't want more trouble. St . Pierre denied any political meddling.
After Termote's sortie, St. Pierre and the OQLF went into damage-control mode, saying his study would be in the OQLF's five-year report to be tabled in March... or perhaps later. But France Boucher, the OQLF president, said something that sounds like the findings will indeed be hot to handle. She said "this document has enormous consequences."
St. Pierre has been the scapegoat in this growing mess. But while this dossier is obviously not her forte, the fact is that when controversy erupts on language, The Bunker takes over, discreetly but surely since Lucien Bouchard's time.
Since Bouchard, The Bunker's message has remained unchanged: All is well, we have language equilibrium, no need to beef up Bill 101, more "vigilance" will take care of any problem.
And good luck to any minister who would say otherwise in public! Even Termote said that he's had it with the "obvious paranoia" at the government and the OQLF when scientific findings run counter to the official line.
But Charest will be faced with Termote's study as well as by a growing number of francophones, according to recent polls, who worry about the status of French and who favour strengthening Bill 101. The premier will see that all those people aren't language zealots, as some like to call anyone, including renowned experts, who refute the rosier picture painted by this government and its predecessor.
There's also the opposition. While the Parti Québécois, the last time it was in power, also denied French was in a precarious state, it is in opposition now. Looking to divert attention from shelving the referendum, Pauline Marois will ride that horse. So will Mario Dumont.
But beyond the partisan games and the politicization of the language issue where scientific data can get lost in the shuffle, Termote says something any premier would be irresponsible to ignore.
Charest can't turn blind eye to language issue
Study showing more Montrealers speak English at home can't be ignored