For a long time, anglophones' and allophones' opinions have been all but irrelevant to the language debate that pervades Quebec politics. If some of them didn't like the language laws imposed upon them, too bad; if others didn't mind, fine. Their opinions really mattered only when the courts got involved.
But that's subtly changing.
Because of the low birth rate and the retirement of the boomers, Quebec is already feeling labour shortages. They'll worsen. Premier Jean Charest says that Quebec will have 700,000 jobs to fill by 2012.
That means attracting newcomers will become ever more important for the economy. It will be a tough challenge. In the most exhaustive study of its kind, the Conference Board of Canada in December assessed the "attractiveness" to newcomers of Canada's 27 census metropolitan regions with populations greater than 100,000. The top cities were, in descending order, Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver. Montreal ranked an appalling 14th, behind even Abbotsford, B.C.
The researchers used 45 differently weighted criteria for determining what newcomers might find appealing. These included local economic health, the number of doctors per capita, and average commuting time. It's significant that the criteria omitted language and political stability - Quebec's two big handicaps in drawing newcomers from either the rest of Canada or from abroad. Had they been included, you can be sure that Montreal's ranking would have been even worse.
All this to is say that Quebec needs to make changes in many areas if it to compete for precious manpower. Language is just one of them.
I'm not suggesting that Quebec loosen Bill 101. Most Quebecers know that keeping this Holy of Holies generally intact is essential for political stability. Many anglos and allos also sympathize with francophones' attempts to make French flourish, and send their children to French schools, when the law does not require them to.
But what anglos and allos do care about is the actual quality of the French that their children learn. This concern has rarely surfaced during the decades of debate over language.
Anyone who's interested in making Quebec more attractive to newcomers ought to take a look at a little-noted study published last month by the Office québécois de la langue française. The Office made the study public the same day last month as 17 other studies. Little wonder it was lost in the crowd.
The study focuses on the two main forms of French spoken in Quebec. One is the international French, as commonly spoken by, say, Quebec cabinet ministers and Radio-Canada journalists. The other is Québécois-style French, popularized by comedians. It is often hard for francophones from other countries to understand.
The Parti Québécois's highest body, the executive, attempted last month to get the party to "reorient the teaching of French toward the acquisition of a standard Québécois language" - and thus away from international French as the standard. The attempt failed, but the attitude that it represents is widespread.
The OQLF study, Les Québécois et la norme, by Jacques Maurais, polled 300 allophones and 300 anglophones. It found that 67 per cent of allos would prefer that their children learn to speak international French rather than Québécois French. Among anglos, 57 per cent prefer the international model.
Unfortunately, the study did not poll francophone immigrants, a group that Quebec is particularly eager to attract. Their support for the international model would, of course, be even higher.
The point is that most of the people Quebec needs to attract want their children to learn a kind of French that will open them to the world.
The school system does not appear to be accommodating this reasonable desire. A study in 2005 for the OQLF by Luc Ostiguy says that a significant number of teachers in training have such an "imperfect" grasp of spoken international French that they would be "incapable of assuming fully the role of linguistic role model."
The international model is curiously out of fashion. Journalist Denise Bombardier has asked, "How long will we treat those who respect the language and try to speak it well as snobs and elitists? Why is a real Québécois someone who massacres the grammar and swears like a wagon maker?"
It won't be easy to uproot the attitude she denounces. But it's one of the many things that will need to change if Quebec is to attract the talented newcomers our economy will so badly need.
To read the OQLF report, go to [www.oqlf.gouv.qc.ca/resources/sociolinguistique/index_indic.html->www.oqlf.gouv.qc.ca/resources/sociolinguistique/index_indic.html]
Quebec needs to teach better French
International french in schools would help attract more newcomers to the province