The core argument for sovereignty is that it is essential for the survival of the French language.
It is this argument that [flamboyant lawyer Guy Bertrand freshens in a book->9228] that will be in the stores next week, Guide d'accès à l'indépendence: Pour la survie du Québec français. In it, the author convincingly re-establishes his sovereignist credentials after having strayed into federalist ranks in the 1990s.
Bertrand starts from the premise the French language here is fragile. Despite Bill 101's successes, he's right.
Even with the recent uptick in the rate of births (1.6 per woman), we're still far from the rate needed to simply replace the population (2.1). Demographers say to make up for the deficit in babies, Quebec would have to take in 70,000 to 80,000 immigrants per year. That's too much for this society - look at the backlash that the current level of immigrants (44,000) is provoking.
More allophone newcomers than ever might be joining the francophone mainstream, but old-stock francophones will always be at the emotional centre of the movement to promote the language. And their numbers will likely melt. The dean of Quebec demographers, Jacques Henripin, says - if present trends hold - only 3 million or 4 million pure-laine francophones will remain in 2100, down from just under 6 million today.
So, yes, Bertrand is tackling a subject that is second to none for its social, cultural and political ramifications.
But he grossly distorts the problem. He focuses on Montreal Island as a harbinger of Quebec's language future. He stresses the 2001 census (which provides the latest language stats) shows only 56.4 per cent of islanders speak French at home. Meanwhile, he says, pressure from English is rising. "How can one be indifferent to this situation that has all the signs of a catastrophe for the long-term future of French?"
Such alarm rests on tricks.
First, Bertrand overlooks the fact, reversing decades of decline, this level is actually slightly better than the 55.6 per cent of the previous 1996 census. When the 2001 census was published, even the Parti Québécois's language minister, Diane Lemieux, observed French "is in a pretty stable situation."
Second, and more important, Bertrand uses the scare tactic of focusing solely on the island. If he had looked at the Montreal metropolitan region - home to half of all "Montrealers" - readers would know residents speaking French at home had gone from 80.8 per cent in 1971 to 83.1 per cent in 2001. Some catastrophe in the making.
Meanwhile, English actually shrank from 14.7 to 10.5 per cent.
Bertrand's panacea - independence - is no solution to the decline of French.
The reason for the slow growth of French on the island is the flight of residents - overwhelmingly francophone - to off-island suburbs. Quebec could slow that trend tomorrow with urban sprawl-prevention measures. It does not need to wait for independence.
There are more flaws in Bertrand's argument. Not only is sovereignty unnecessary for French to flourish, it could be harmful.
The graph shows the effect of Quebec's two sovereignty-related crises on migration - the 1976 election of the PQ and the constitutional debacle of the 1990s. International immigration tanked while the exodus of residents boomed.
In each case, migration did not return to the former level for about a decade.
The realization of sovereignty would clearly cause a far deeper, lengthier decline. Quebec cannot afford that. Even without the added problem of political uncertainty, demographers say the workforce will start shrinking within a decade, thus making Quebec less attractive to investors. Sovereignty would intensify this phenomenon. Fewer immigrants who might have joined Quebec's francophone ranks will come.
The share of francophones in Quebec's population would increase (as others left). But the absolute number of francophones would shrink fast.
The status of French on this English-speaking continent is sometimes likened to an ice cube melting in a glass of water. But - to extend the metaphor - Canada is like a Thermos. It might not keep the ice from melting forever, but it sure delays the process.
Yes, natural demographic trends might make French more marginal. But sovereignty would only accelerate things. Quebec needs to search for a real solution.
Sovereignty would hurt - not help - the future of French
Immigration to a separate Quebec would plummet