French-English relations in Quebec at a 'happy medium'

Tribune libre

There were straws in the wind recently that augured well for the state of French-English relations in Quebec.Photograph by: Canwest News Service, Canwest News ServiceMONTREAL -- There were straws in the wind recently that augured well for the state of French-English relations in Quebec.
Among the new inductees to the Ordre National du Quebec, was Judge Michael Sheehan, honoured both for judicial accomplishment and his outstanding work on suicide prevention in both anglophone and francophone communities, and Heather Monroe-Blum, principal of McGill University once held as a bastion of anglophone dominance in the province.
"I felt moved because it's a recognition of McGill as a Quebec institution and an important player," she said.
At the Universite de Montreal - often caricatured as a separatist hotbed - the school's Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches Internationales announced it will be offering a groundbreaking eight courses in English as part of its summer program.
"We're breaking through a wall," said Jean-Francois Lisee, the centre's executive director. "It's something that maybe couldn't have happened 15 years ago."
And what earlier shaped up as a language downer - the banning of two anglo bands from a concert associated with Quebec's Fete nationale celebrations - came out on the upside. When it was suggested that event organizers drop two English-language acts, a storm of anger erupted and the bands were promptly reinstated to the day's lineup.
Lisee, formerly a senior adviser to Parti Quebecois premiers Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard, called the episode a great day for Quebec nation building. "Imagine, anglos banging on the doors to get in on the Fete nationale."
Not only were the groups restored to the bill, but both Bloodshot Bill and Lake of Stew got a bit of fame boost, moving from fringe acts to the most talked about bands in the province - in both languages.
There's general agreement that the episode was in the end a reassuring demonstration of how French-English relations have evolved to a level of relatively comfortable accommodation that sits well with a majority of both language communities.
It would be an exaggeration to say that language peace reigns unperturbed in Quebec, but the last major English-French confrontation - over bilingual signs - was 20 years ago. While there have been occasional eruptions of hostility since, they have tended to be over lesser grievances that were soon passed over.
Robert Donnelly, president of the anglo Quebec Community Groups Network, says the linguistic climate has significantly improved over the past 20 years. "Every now and then something comes up related to Bill 101, but the communities seem to be getting along for the most part. Don't ask us if we support Bill 101, but we've learned to live with it. We're at a happy medium."
Lisee suggests that the goal of language policy in Quebec should be to preserve the present linguistic equation for generations to come by measures to sustain both the current francophone and anglophone critical mass in the province. "I believe the equilibrium we have is pretty much what we like to live in. But then we're all facing anxieties, francophones and anglophones, as to whether it will last."
Despite their community's decisive gains over the years and its entrenchment as Quebec's undisputed first language, there remains a common insecurity among francophones as to the long-term survival of French in Quebec that manifests itself both defensively and aggressively. It is an attitude fostered not only by North American demographics and English dominance in the greater world, but also by a legacy of denigration and subjugation by anglo elites in bygone times.
To that end there are also straws in the wind that warn of possible turbulence ahead on the language front. Things like the Bloc Quebecois push to extend Quebec language law to areas of federal jurisdiction in the province, the controversy over mayoral candidate Louise Harel's deficiency in English, and the impending Supreme Court ruling on Quebec legislation to close a language-law loophole that allows students otherwise ineligible to gain access to English public education by spending a year at an anglo private school.
Down the road lies the prospect of a PQ government whose recently announced means of pushing for sovereignty would be to wrest powers from Ottawa by way of sectorial referendums on specific items, such as exclusive jurisdiction in matters cultural.
Demographer and political scientist Jack Jedwab agrees the linguistic climate is far more manageable than it was in times past, but also sees potential for language troubles ahead. "There's always an ongoing language debate in Quebec. It's part of our culture. It has been for decades and will be for the future, as unforeseeable as that might be. You're just not going to find a permanent consensus on this issue."

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