Last week, separatist filmmaker [Pierre Falardeau told Maclean's magazine->8061] that his fellow Quebecers were "imbeciles" because they had abandoned the goal of an independent Quebec. But a study released this week by the C.D. Howe Institute offers a far more sensible explanation for the declining appeal of separatism: Quebecers are becoming bilingual and prosperous -- so the belief they must have their own nation in order to reach their full potential no longer burns as brightly as it once did.
Laggards No More: The Changed Socioeconomic Status of Francophones in Quebec examines the economic progress of Quebecers from all language groups over the past four decades. The conclusion: "The economic returns to knowing French increased between 1970 and 2000 while the returns to knowing English decreased."
The authors found that unilingual francophones made better economic progress when measured against unilingual anglophones. But overall, knowing two languages was always better than knowing just one. The best-performing group in the province is bilingual francophones, followed by bilingual anglophones. In other words, the most reliable determinate of economic success in Quebec is facility in both official languages.
Seen from the perspective of the francophone community, the report chronicles extraordinary gains. In 1971, the average labour income of unilingual anglophones was 59% higher than that of unilingual francophones, while that of bilingual anglophones was 74% higher. Bilingual anglophones also earned 31% more than bilingual francophones. But by 2001, the gap between unilingual anglophones and francophones in Quebec had narrowed to just 15%, while the gap between bilingual anglos and francos had completely disappeared.
Were Quebec's compulsory French-language laws of the 1970s the cause of the current trend toward equality? That's how many nationalist politicians view recent history. Indeed, the C.D. Howe study itself was commissioned to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the controversial Bill 101, passed by Quebec's first separatist government in 1977.
But in fact, the authors of the report concluded that "the language laws … played only a small direct role." The more important factors were Quebec's increased trade with the rest of the world, the departure of large numbers of prosperous anglophones following the Parti Quebecois' victory in 1976 (which helped elevate francophones in purely relative terms), the growth of Quebec's public sector (with its numerous high-paying jobs for francophones) and the increased purchasing power of francophones, which has led the market to offer more goods and services in French -- quite apart from the efforts of Quebec's language police to enforce the use of French in the workplace.
Globalization is definitely a factor here. In 1986, Quebec's international exports accounted for less than a quarter of its economy. By 2004, the figure had risen to one-third. This increased commercial exposure to the rest of the world is one of the factors that has spurred the rise of bilingualism, which is itself a driver of higher earning power.
This is all good news for Canadian unity. More than any feel-good government program, the economic advancement of French speakers has made the Quebecois feel more confident within a united Canada. And as a result, support for separatism has declined.
Pierre Falardeau may be unhappy about all this. But he is in the minority: Only to an extremist would becoming rich and successful qualify a society for the sobriquet of "imbecile."