"If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs ... you'll be a man, my son." Those words are from Rudyard Kipling's poem If, which Premier Jean Charest quoted to delegates at the Quebec Liberal convention last month on the eve of his confidence vote.
In spite of the Liberals' need to appeal to francophone voters, Charest and his government have resisted the pressure to be stampeded by those calling for the strengthening of Bill 101.
And they're right, for two reasons. One is that, as the data from the 2006 census show, the position of French in Quebec is strong, and has been getting stronger. The use of French in the workplace has increased slightly. And for the first time in history, more allophones - people with mother tongues other than French or English - are adopting French rather than English as their home language.
The second reason is that the practical limits of what can be accomplished through coercive pro-French measures have been reached. New measures can always be imagined, but the small benefits for French that could be expected to result would not be worth the costs they would entail - financial, economic, social and political.
So instead, the Charest government has recently announced a number of language measures that, for the most part, are positive rather than negative, offering support for French rather than imposing restrictions on English and other languages.
Their objectives are to improve the teaching of French in schools, teach it to more immigrants before as well as after their arrival and increase its use by small businesses through persuasion.
This approach appears to have paid off politically for the government. Its language measures were announced during the polling period for the latest CROP-La Presse survey. The results showed that the government's satisfaction rating hit 61 per cent, the highest for any Quebec government in a CROP poll in at least 10 years. And the Parti Québécois, which should have benefited from any linguistic insecurity among francophones, declined slightly in popularity.
But the Liberals remain vulnerable on language. One reason is that, where former Liberal premier Robert Bourassa entrusted this most delicate file to his most sure-handed minister, Claude Ryan, Charest handed it to a political rookie who has often looked shaky.
This week, Culture Minister Christine St. Pierre hastily reacted to a newspaper story by promising to stop the government from continuing indefinitely to communicate with allophone immigrants in English.
This practice appears contrary to the spirit of the government's language policy, which is to integrate allophones into the French-speaking community. Pro-French hawks had already mounted what they called a "press-nine" campaign, against government telephone messages offering service in English if the caller pressed nine, which they said encouraged immigrants to believe they don't need to learn French.
But the practice conforms with the government's internal language policy, which allows the public administration to communicate in English with individuals at their request. (One of the people who has complained about the practice is Louise Beaudoin, the former PQ minister who introduced the policy that allows it.) And if immigrants at least initially prefer to communicate in English, it's usually because they need to.
St. Pierre promised to come up with a "mechanism" to stop the practice. But unless the government chooses simply to stop communicating with anybody in English, it might not be easy to determine which Quebecers aren't entitled to continue receive communications in English, and when they should no longer receive it.
The opposition parties, which were quick to decry the government's "laxity" in not halting a practice that has been allowed for the last 12 years, weren't much help.
So here's a suggestion for the "mechanism" that St-Pierre wants to introduce:
Welcome every new immigrant to Quebec with a gift of a telephone - on which there is no number nine.
Liberals are right to ignore calls for strengthening Bill 101
But the rookie language minister stumbled when she agreed to act on phone calls
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