Last December, when Statistics Canada released the first data on language from the 2006 census, so-called defenders of French couldn't wait to sound the alarm over them.
Within hours, communiqués bemoaning a slight and quite irrelevant decline in the proportion of francophones in one part of the Montreal region (the island itself) were posted on the websites of groups such as the Mouvement Montréal Français.
The far more significant finding that more allophones now were adopting French than English was downplayed, when it wasn't ignored entirely, by people who had been preoccupied with these language transfers as long as they were the one demographic factor still favouring English.
This week, StatsCan released a second batch of census data on language, more specifically the language of work. And the news for French in Quebec was so good across the board that even the stories and headlines in the French-language media were positive.
Not only had French not lost ground in the workplace since the previous census in 2001, as some had feared, it had actually gained a bit overall, mostly at the expense of English, even in the areas of most concern.
The reported use of French at work had increased among immigrants in general, allophones in particular and especially among recent immigrants. It had remained stable on the island of Montreal despite the slight decrease in the proportion of francophones living there, bolstered by the 270,000 workers who cross the bridges and the tunnel to the city every working day. Even among anglophones, it had increased.
The progress had been slight, increases of a few percentage points in most cases. But there had been progress nonetheless. In an open economy dependent upon trade with the rest of North America, the French language was holding its own in the workplace.
This should have been cause for rejoicing on the part of anyone sincerely concerned about the status of French rather than looking for justification to tighten legislative restrictions on the use of English.
But the response from the so-called defenders of French was silence. Although they were available if reporters sought them out, there was still nothing about the latest census data on their websites more than 24 hours after it was released. Apparently, good news is no news.
And even if good news can't be ignored entirely, it can be forgotten quickly. A Liberal partisan named France Boucher has seen to that.
Boucher is a former longtime Liberal ministerial aide appointed by the Charest government in 2005 as chair of the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF), the government board that applies the language legislation. She is not the first partisan appointee entrusted with the delicate task of controlling the language bureaucracy. But she might be the most politically clumsy.
The good news about French in the workplace hadn't had time to sink in yet when it was overshadowed by a controversy created by Boucher. Yesterday, she released a report of her own on the language situation, which had already been discredited by her handling of it.
First she had been accused of trying to suppress a study showing that people whose mother tongue is French are now in the minority on Montreal island (which StatsCan had already reported). Then it appeared that she was holding back that study and several others to release them on the same day, to bury any bad news in the heap and limiting any political damage to the government.
And finally, on the eve of its publication, it was disclosed that her report had not been approved by the usual academic review, and that the chair of the review panel had resigned to protest against the working conditions that Boucher had imposed on it. Among other things, she had let its members see the report only briefly in a meeting and forbade them from taking away either the report or any notes they made.
The panel did not comment on the contents of the report. But people were bound to suspect a cover-up on Boucher's part, and that whatever she said about the situation of French, it must actually be worse.
Sovereignists are experts in finding the worst
Good news for the French language is always played down