One of the fascinating things about Quebec politics is that it’s often impossible to predict which absurdities will become controversial and which will be accepted as reasonable. The province’s linguistic and more recently cultural debates operate in an atmosphere so divorced from normal reality that it’s impossible to know how any new idea or event might react to its unique and volatile mixture of gases.
The classic example is Pastagate: An inspector from the Office québécois de la langue française found an Italian restaurant’s menu was riddled with Italian — calamari, antipasti — and issued the appropriate cease-and-desist notice. At no point did anyone suggest he had misinterpreted the law. Despite universal scorn and worldwide mockery, at no point did anyone successfully explain why this inspector’s actions were obviously ultra vires, while the OQLF’s other insane diktats — say, forcing a bilingual community newspaper to segregate English-language and French-language content such that English-only advertising will never appear on the same page as a French-language article — were reasonable.
As a result, Quebec politics is like a festival of trial balloons. Most recently we saw languages minister Simon Jolin-Barrette float the idea of banning merchants from greeting customers with “bonjour-hi” — a Downtown Montreal-ism that turns language hawks crimson with rage — only to have Premier François Legault shoot it down a couple of days later amidst widespread ridicule.
By contrast, we’re supposed to think it’s totally reasonable that the National Assembly voted merely to request that merchants use state-sanctioned greetings. Unanimously. Twice.
Ban religious symbols for all civil servants, or only those “in a position of authority”? Which civil servants are “in a position of authority”? Should currently employed civil servants affected by Bill 21 be grandfathered in or not? You can poll all you like, but until any given idea goes through Quebec’s intense media ringer, no one knows how it’ll shake out. With fundamental rights at stake, the majoritarian randomness of it all is truly alarming.
This week another balloon wafted up over the Plains of Abraham, again from Jolin-Barrette. He’s just full of ideas, and this one is a corker: In order to protect the French language from the anglophone and allophone menaces, government services will henceforth only be provided in English to the “historic English minority.”
There are any number of reasons one might find this impractical (are Legacy Anglos supposed to carry around their grandparents’ birth certificates?), pointless (why does Quebec want to make it harder for people to pay their hydro bills?), rude, discriminatory or downright appalling, Like the bonjour-hi ban, it has been very poorly received in many quarters.
But for whatever reason, Legault likes this balloon. “If your parents went to English school, you have rights in Quebec, and we will respect those rights,” he told reporters. “If you’re a new immigrant, we have to talk with them in French. That’s the difference.”
Quebec’s limits on freedom of expression in the name of protecting the French language are so entrenched that we hardly even think of them as such
So that answers the practicality question, then: Just bring along your framed diploma from Westmount High. (In practice, of course, proof of status is likely to come down to whether you … shall we say … look the part.)
The idea is ripe for a court challenge, needless to say. “The creation of classes of citizens carries the potential for an equality challenge, as well as a freedom of expression challenge,” human rights lawyer Julius Grey told CBC News. National and ethnic origins are prohibited grounds for discrimination under both Canada’s and Quebec’s charters of rights (though at this point Quebec might as well just feed its through the shredder).
At that point, if not before, the issue would land in the only slightly less bizarre and volatile atmosphere of federal politics. We just recently concluded a federal election campaign during which a nominally conservative party with religious freedom in its front window promised maximum deference to Quebec on manifestly unconstitutional restrictions on religious civil servants’ attire, and a nominally social-democratic party led by a turban-wearing Sikh promised only slightly less deference, and the self-styled party of multiculturalism bragged of not having “closed the door” on doing something about it.
Quebec’s limits on freedom of expression in the name of protecting the French language are so entrenched in the national consciousness and accepted across the political and linguistic spectrum that we hardly even think of them as such. (“We all have a right to live and work in the official language of our choice,” Justin Trudeau famously tweeted last year.) But limits on minority rights is precisely what they are. And with their “Legacy Anglos Only” policy, Legault and Jolin-Barrette are not-very-subtly blending those entrenched restrictions with Quebecers’ newer, much uglier and much more contentious demands for limits on ethnic and religious minorities’ rights.
It’s a balloon that the federal party leaders desperately, belatedly, need to pop. Vote-shopping was no excuse for silence before the election, and fear of reanimating sovereignty is no excuse after. At this point, allowing Quebec to proceed on its current course is a bigger threat to the Canadian federation than the prospect of it leaving ever was.