By DAVID JOHNSTON - While public hearings were being held last month in Quebec City on Bill 103, the language bill the National Assembly adopted in part last week as Bill 115, I appeared as a guest panellist on Je l'ai vu a la radio, Franco Nuovo's radio show on Radio-Canada out of Montreal.
The topic had been neatly summarized as a provocative question by producers of the show: Is Montreal the second-largest French city in the world, or is it the largest English city in Quebec?
Although Bill 103 was the "news peg" for the discussion, the bill itself was largely ignored. The real meat of the discussion was whether Montreal is becoming more English, or to be more precise, more "anglicized."
Ten years ago I would have said no, but no honest assessment of the past decade can conclude that Montreal is more French today than it was in the year 2000. English is gaining ground. But the challenge for legislators will be to see that the English rebound isn't the result of any shortcoming in language policies, nor any lack of respect for French among anglos.
By way of introduction on the radio show, I explained that I had done a five-part series for The Gazette, in 2009, on new growth in the anglophone community of Quebec, which is concentrated in Montreal. After 35 years of population loss through what has become known as the anglo exodus, the 2006 census showed a 5.5-per-cent increase in the English-speaking community from 2001 to 2006. This was first growth since the late 1960s. Most of it, significantly, came in the age-15-to-24 category. Young anglos aren't leaving Quebec
the way they used to; they speak better French now, and are better adapted to living and working in Montreal. We are also seeing more young anglos coming to Montreal from other provinces.
I am personally amazed by how much English I see and hear in Plateau Mont Royal these days. I'm also seeing the emergence of a new anglophone presence in the Villeray district, and gentrified anglo rebirth in St. Henri, and in Verdun, which some young anglos are now calling the new Plateau. Downtown, I see more anglos working in retail on Ste. Catherine St. than I remember 20 years ago. And I'm not just talking about those out-of-province university students in Second Cups and Starbucks, who struggle along with rudimentary French.
So yes, I said on the radio show, I do think Montreal is becoming more English. But it's not just that there are more anglos around, I added. It's also because there has been an increase this past decade in the ongoing exodus of francophones from the Island of Montreal to off-island suburbs.
Consider: The years 2001 to 2006 saw the Island of Montreal lose 47,650 more people of French mother tongue to off-island suburbs than it gained from those suburbs, compared with a net loss of 6,740 people of English mother tongue and 22,830 people of other mother tongues.
During those same five years, half of new francophone parents in the city of Montreal left the city, compared with a quarter of new anglophone parents, and a third of allophone parents. When you add it all up, you discover what the 2006 census found -that people of French mother tongue accounted for just 49.8 per cent of all people on the Island of Montreal by 2006.
To be sure, francophones are still a 2-to-1 majority in the metropolitan region as a whole. But in any city, the downtown core and surrounding inner-city neighbourhoods are important reference points, and English and anglos clearly have a higher profile in these areas than we did a decade ago.
Last spring, on the eve of the tabling of Bill 103, the Parti Quebecois came out with a study titled Le grand Montreal s'anglicise. The PQ has good reason to expect to form the next government, and it is very likely, if it does take power, that it will take new legislative action on the language front. Already, PQ leader Pauline Marois, who might or not might survive next spring's party confidence vote, is talking about revoking Bill 115. The party is also talking about extending Bill 101 to take away the right of francophones and immigrants to attend English CEGEPs, and to make French the language of work in companies with fewer than 49 employees, not just those with 50 or more.
The PQ is just looking for targets. What it's proposing would hurt anglo institutions and the anglo community in general more than it would improve the status of French.
The fact is that Bill 115 doesn't affect very many children. The underlying situation is not a threat to French, but is of importance to English-school vitality.
As for extending Bill 101 to CEGEPs, it's hard to see how forcing francophones and immigrants to study 14 years in French schools instead of 12 is going to make them more francophone. And on the issue of the francization of small firms, it's important to remember that both Liberal and Pequiste governments in the past have concluded that it is better to let small entrepreneurs grow in Quebec, and establish roots in the province, before folding them into the provisions of Bill 101. After all, it's easier for small companies that feel harassed to leave Quebec than it is for larger companies whose larger workforces are collectively less mobile.
One of my co-panellists on Je l'ai vu a la radio was Gerald Larose, the former labour leader who was appointed by the former Bouchard government to chair hearings in 2000-01 on the state of the French language. I noticed that he didn't say some of the same things you would have heard a decade ago from a language hawk like, say, Pierre Bourgault.
He didn't say that anglos are unwilling or unable to speak French. He didn't say that anglos control the Montreal economy and that this needs to change. He didn't say that we need a language law to force immigrants to go to French schools.
Clearly, the status of French has improved because of Bill 101 and the related social changes. But one of those changes, a byproduct, has been the creation of a more bilingual anglophone community whose young people are now less apt to leave. So if there are more anglos around making Montreal more English, at a certain point one has to accept this as normal, no?
But it's not just that. All over the world, cities are being transformed by globalization, and are evolving personalities that are distinct from those of the more homogeneous regions around them. Montreal is not unique in this respect. Look at Toronto and Vancouver. Large cities are where immigrants want to settle, and all over the world, urban economies are being influenced by the global economic and technological imperative of English. At a certain point, one has to accept this too as normal, no? To say you want to live on the margins of globalization is like saying you want to drop out of high school.
I think this was what Gaetan Frigon, former president of Loto-Quebec and of the Societe des alcools du Quebec, was referring to when he wrote in La Presse: "As a people, we are going to have to be mature enough to put aside the idea that English is the symbol of British domination, and embrace English by virtue of the fact that it has become the only international language."
Looking ahead, I can't say that I see demographic forces in Montreal changing any time soon. The next federal census, in 2011, I am now convinced, is going to show a second consecutive increase in the anglophone community. I think it will also show a continuing francophone flight to off-island suburbs. This needs to be said: Urban sprawl has probably become the biggest threat of all to French in Montreal.
And now we're on the cusp of a new francophone exodus -the exodus of francophone baby boomers from the workplace. This will aggravate the existing labour shortage, and make it easier for young people to find work in Montreal (anglos, too.)
During my appearance on Je l'ai vu a la radio, author and radio personality Georges Nicholson, another panellist, acknowledged that more anglos are able to function in French these days. But he asked me whether anglos are any more deeply connected to Quebec, as a result of their knowledge of French - whether, for example, they go to French theatre or read authors like Rejean Ducharme, Quebec's J.D. Salinger. I said no. Rejean Tremblay of La Presse maybe, but not Rejean Ducharme.
One thing that I didn't know then that I know now is that anglos are 12 times less likely to listen to French radio than francophones are to listen to English radio, according to Statistics Canada. There is still something of a one-way mirror separating the two solitudes in Montreal.
Louise Forestier, the singer-songwriter-actress sitting beside Nicholson on the panel, said she hardly ever sees anglos at French plays. But author Raphael Germain, sitting beside Forestier, said she knows plenty of young anglos who have a high level of Quebec cultural literacy.
A good example, I suppose, was the only other anglo on the panel, a native anglo Montreal musician named Paul Cargnello who sings in French as well as English. Nuovo asked him why an anglo, with such a big English market, would want to sing in French.
"The question isn't why, it's why not?" said Cargnello.
It just goes to show, you can't generalize. During the tense years in Montreal following the 1995 referendum, when there were hard feelings on both sides, I hardly ever spoke French to a bus driver, or to a retail clerk. I was angry over
a new exodus of my friends out of Quebec after 1995 and I thought we were beginning to see the end of anglo vitality in Montreal. I felt then that if I didn't use my English in Montreal, that I would be helping English disappear.
How differently things have turned out. Here we are, 15 years after the 1995 referendum, and I don't think there is any serious threat to English in Montreal -although it's a different story for anglo communities in many regions outside of the city. There will always be language squabbles in Quebec, for sure. We see this with Bill 115. But let's not lose sight of the bigger picture.
The bigger picture is the rise of new insecurities among francophones on the language front that are becoming more "existential" as the French mother-tongue presence on the Island of Montreal shrinks. These days I am surprised to find myself speaking French more deliberately to bus drivers and retail clerks. I want francophones to see that I recognize that I am living in Montreal, not Toronto or Boston.
Small courtesies on the language front, I think, are going to become more important over the next 10 years.
More English or less French?
English is enjoying a resurgence on the Island of Montreal as anglophones adapt and francophones flee to the suburbs