By Janice Kennedy, Ottawa Citizen - Hints of heroism pop up in the most surprising places. For some of us, one of those places would be over on the spectrum's far right -- terrain we rarely wander -- where Maxime Bernier makes his political home. There is just about nothing the ultra-libertarian Conservative MP has ever said that we've applauded.
"Mad Max" (as he's been called for his reckless indifference to political butt-covering, especially within his own party) went to war against a towering Quebec icon, emerging bloodied -- and unbowed. It began last week after he said the unsayable about Loi 101, the Charter of the French Language we Anglos persist in calling Bill 101, even though it became law nearly 34 years ago.
"We don't need Bill 101," he told an interviewer, "to protect the French language."
Which is heresy in Quebec. Especially from a French-speaking Quebecer. Especially one with nationalist credentials.
Up and down the province, scorn and condemnation rained down on Bernier, from media pundits to official federalists like culture minister Christine St-Pierre and official separatists like Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois (who's currently yakking about a beefed-up charter when the PQ regains power. Which should just about clean out those pesky remaining Anglos).
But Bernier was unbowed. "Yes, it's important that Quebec remain a predominantly French-language society," he responded this week in his blog. "But we should not try to reach this goal by restricting people's rights and freedom of choice."
That is either stubbornness, or a touch of heroism. With so little to brighten a cold and charmless February, I prefer to think the latter.
Bernier has done an important thing. (And I don't mean inadvertently providing more fodder to that minority of bigots across the country whose favourite pastime is Quebec-bashing, surely not his intention.) He has taken the gleaming icon that is Bill 101 and opened its box, pulled back its cover -- choose your metaphor -- and revealed the ugly realities inside.
Most inconvenient in a province where maintenance of the icon is a collective sacred duty.
St-Pierre and Marois can cheer three decades of life under Bill 101 (which has shamed the province with its tongue troopers and language cops), but for countless Quebecers -- not only Anglos -- it has been punitive, creating enormous hardship in everything from business to family life to educational opportunity.
Sure, Bill 101 has promoted French -- but at what cost? It denies, restricts, limits, disrupts, divides. It forbids, punishes, imposes, coerces. It threatens, monitors, bullies. And such inconvenient realities are good? Worthy celebrations of a great language and culture?
"Language is a very, very sensitive question in Quebec and Canada," pronounced minister St-Pierre, surely winning the 2011 "Duh" trophy. So it will always be, especially when our delicate linguistic balance must be achieved between a global powerhouse and a scrappy survivor almost alone in a vast sea of English. So there's no question that the French language in Quebec must be defended and encouraged. The question is how.
For Bernier, it involves positive thinking from the heart. "French will survive," he blogged, "if Quebecers cherish it and want to preserve it."
In short, it will survive if people themselves are determined it will. That would include even Anglos, who would happily support the language's promotion if they didn't feel they were also bashing themselves over the head.
In 1977, the PQ government enacted Bill 101 to make French "the normal and everyday language of work, instruction, communication, commerce and business," even promising "fairness and open-minded-ness." Very lofty, very inspiring.
Then it got down to business, and all the positive energy flew right out the window. Instead of proactive programs to encourage French, to improve its teaching in English schools, to make French schools more attractive to newcomers and French-speakers alike (with, among other things, improved classes in English, the global lingua franca) -- instead of fashioning incentives to make French the official and appreciated language in an atmosphere of communal harmony, the PQ opted instead for reactive vengeance. Centuries' worth of perceived wrongs, apparently, had to be redressed.
The Charter of the French Language became, in effect, a declaration against Anglos and English, painted as a virulent communicable disease.
Maxime Bernier, on the other hand, has not only defended freedom of choice, but actually acknowledged the historic contributions of the English community. No wonder he gets our vote for February's fleeting hero of the month.
French-speaking Quebecers are no less democratic or fair-minded than their confreres in the rest of Canada. But with Bill 101, they have been lulled into seeing only the shiny outside of the package, and none of the nastiness inside.
No law that is a truncheon should make its citizens' hearts burn proudly in their breasts, no matter how shrill its public defenders. No matter how iconic its status.
Janice Kennedy now appears Saturdays. E-mail: