It’s hard to imagine how bizarre Quebec’s plan to restrict the use of the English language in official government business is until you consider what it would look like in practice. Consider the following scene.
You live in a nondescript middle-class neighbourhood in any number of Quebec’s beautifully historic cities and towns. You’re fluently bilingual, as most Quebeckers are, though English was your first language. You were born and raised in Quebec. Your Anglophone but French-speaking parents have lived in Quebec for 50 years. You live, work and raise your kids in both official languages. At home, you speak a version of Franglais that gets more “anglais” than “fra” as the day tires on. It’s important to you that your kids have a native grasp on both languages, but your husband, a member of the Canadian Armed Forces stationed in Quebec, only relatively recently learned French and after a long day still struggles from time to time.
You’re keeping up with the Jones’, as we say en anglais. Except for one thing. Mme Jones’ mother went to an English school in Gatineau. Yours went to an English school across the river in Ottawa.
Why does this matter? Aside from the Jones family being given the choice to send their children to either an English or a French school while yours will only have the French option, the provincial government plan would soon leave the Jones family with more freedom of choice than yours.
In its relentlessly futile march to stop the dangerous spread of, uh, English being spoken in public, and in a not-so-subtle effort to make immigrants feel just a little bit more unwelcome than they did last week, Premier François Legault, building on a previous announcement made by Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, publicly stated that only the “historic English minority” will have the right to receive Quebec government services in English.
Who qualifies as historically English? Well, obviously, only those who went to an English school in Quebec, or in some cases, an elementary school in another part of Canada. That’s the test. Of course, you can only go to an English school in Quebec if your parents went to an English school in Quebec (or, again, sometimes but not always in another province). You can see the problem here, now. It doesn’t matter whether you’re actually “historically English” as the plain meaning of the words would suggest. Where your parents went to school as a poor proxy for your cultural identity, but here we are.
Now, this discrimination on the grounds of parental grade school origin, existing and newly proposed, takes many forms. These range from petty annoyances like what language you’re allowed to receive a utility bill in, to potentially serious consequences as a result of being legally prevented from describing medical issues to a doctor or being able to report a crime to police.
As outrageous as it is in theory, imagine it in practice
For fully bilingual Quebeckers like you, these problems will tend to exist along the “minor irritation” end of the spectrum. Your government is merely legally othering you from the Jones’ family in a mildly annoying fashion. Based on nothing more than the school your grandparents chose to register your parents in decades ago. But for Anglophones? Soldiers like your husband, stationed in Quebec from elsewhere in Canada? New immigrants? Visitors?
As outrageous as it is in theory, imagine it in practice. Your fully Anglophone colleague is sitting in the emergency room with his son waiting to see a doctor about the little guy’s suspected broken arm. As his turn to speak with the triage nurse approaches, he realizes with horror that he’s forgotten both his newly issued “right kind of English” identity card and his mother’s proof of high school enrolment. The French-speaking patient next in line, of course, has no such concerns.
Take that hypothetical example and multiply it hundreds of thousands of times. It will be a nightmare to enforce, but we know from experience that some Quebec bureaucrats will try. Sometimes they’ll back off in the face of backlash, sometimes not.
It’s not a proposal for anything but tension and division. But then again, one suspects that was the point all along.
Danica McLellan is a bilingual Albertan. She is a graduate of the University of Ottawa’s French Immersion program and the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Law.
Update: This blog was updated with more detail about the rules around who may attend and English school in Quebec.