Minorities in Canada : We are tous Québécois

English Quebeckers learn to live and love in French


Jan 6th 2005

MONTREAL - TRADITIONALLY, the English-speaking minority in Quebec kept itself pretty much to itself, in the leafy western suburbs of Montreal or the farming towns to its south. The Anglos had little interest in mixing with the province's French-speaking majority and little ability to do so: most spoke French poorly and infrequently, if at all. So goes the stereotype of the Anglo-Quebecker in the province's (French-language) literature, film and television.
If this was once accurate, it is no longer so. Now more than two-thirds of Quebec's 750,000 English-speakers can also speak French-double the proportion of the 1970s. Even in those rich ghettos in western Montreal, French is spoken almost as much as English. "The stereotype has evolved from a real man to a straw man," jokes Jack Jedwab of Montreal's Association for Canadian Studies and the author of a recent government report on Quebec's English-speakers. The report noted other signs of integration. As Anglos learn to speak French younger and better, frequently choosing to study in French schools, there has been a surge in marriage (or at least coupling) outside the community. Now, 40% of them have non-anglophone partners, and a quarter have paired with French-speakers.
Closer contact has eased tensions between what were once known as "the two solitudes" who share Quebec. Even the most militant English-speakers-dubbed the "angryphones"-seem less outraged by the provincial government's efforts to promote French. However, several court challenges to Law 101, the province's strict language law, remain pending.
Passed in 1977, this law has made French the first language of government, business and education. Only children who have a parent who was educated in English in Canada can attend an English-speaking public school; all others, including immigrants from Britain, must study in French-or in private schools. Law 101 has in turn created an economic incentive to learn French. Without it, a young anglophone is twice as likely to be unemployed; if he has a job, he can expect to earn only 65% as much as a bilingual colleague.
The result: many of the province's traditional English institutions are declining, and some are dying. Since the 1970s, enrolment in English-speaking schools has fallen by 60%. Dozens have closed their doors, or switched to French. Six more in the Montreal area are due to close in September. Quebec's only English-language daily newspaper, Montreal's Gazette, is in similar straits. In the early 1980s, its Saturday edition sold 280,000 copies; now it sells 163,000. English universities are faring better, because they face no language restrictions. They are recruiting French-Canadians keen to study in English.
All of this has implications for Quebec's politics. Since its rise in the 1960s, the fortunes of the secessionist movement in the province have risen and fallen in unison with tensions over language. When the separatist Parti Québécois (PQ) was first elected to the provincial government in the 1970s, English was still the language of power and public conversation-even though French-speakers outnumbered those of English by six to one. One of the PQ's first acts was to push through Law 101. Within five years, 100,000 English-speakers and many businesses left the province. Many of those who stayed have learnt French. They have been joined by English-speaking migrants from Asian countries and the Caribbean, whose children now speak French, if compulsorily.
With linguistic tension much reduced, the sovereignty movement will need a new cause around which to rally, says Deirdre Meintel, an anthropologist at the University of Montreal who specialises in minorities. Quebec provides her with rich material: both English- and French-speakers are both a majority and a minority depending on whether the reference point is Canada, North America or just the province. Perhaps that explains why most francophone Quebeckers still feel French is threatened in the province and English secure, while anglophones say the opposite. Even so, according to Ms Meintel, Anglophone openness to French is reciprocated in less "francophone chauvinism" and a more inclusive society. "You can be Québécois now without having spoken French all your life," she says. "You can still have an accent." So the language issue itself is now neither grave nor acute.

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