The return of language politics

Big mistake. Editorials in all major newspapers in Montreal have denounced the nomination, politicians of all parties have weighed in, and polls show that three out of four Quebecers find it unacceptable.

CH — boycott des produits Molson

All quiet on the Quebec front? After the rout suffered by the Bloc Québécois on May 2 and the descent of the Parti Québécois into self-inflicted oblivion, that’s what the casual observer of Quebec politics might believe. Although sovereignists have little to do with it, language politics is back.
The latest and most visible language flare-up is the nomination of a unilingual anglophone as “interim head coach” to rescue the Montreal Canadiens after a pitiful start to a long season.
Big mistake. Editorials in all major newspapers in Montreal have denounced the nomination, politicians of all parties have weighed in, and polls show that three out of four Quebecers find it unacceptable.
Most commentators concur that the Canadiens are not just another hockey team. They are an institution that belongs to the people of Quebec, so it matters that the team’s point man be able to talk directly to the average Quebec fan.
Since the 1950s, with one brief exception, all Canadiens coaches have been able at least to string together a few well-worn clichés in French to satisfy this minimal requirement, but in his introductory news conference, Randy Cunneyworth couldn’t even say a simple bonjour.
And this is not the only reason language politics will be a topic of choice for dinner-table conversations in Québec over the holidays.
This fall there have been several other linguistic snafus in key francophone institutions, notably the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec and the Banque nationale. Cases also emerged in Ottawa, where unilingual anglophones were nominated for auditor general, Supreme Court justices, and the Prime Minister’s director of communications.
What’s all the fuss about? After all, competence comes first, doesn’t it?
Yes, but aside from winning games, the Canadiens coach is expected to be the public face of an organization that benefits hugely from the francophone public’s visceral identification with the team. In these conditions, being able to address this public in its own language is good business and should be considered a required competence for the job on day one. The club and Molson’s should have known better. They are now in a huge public relations mess, with no games won yet.
At the Caisse de dépôt, the outcry has been about the nomination of a unilingual anglophone vice-president for human resources. I find it hard to understand that a person in such a position can be considered “competent” without the ability to communicate with his personnel in the organization’s language.
In a bilingual institution such as the Supreme Court, being able to understand all pleas directly, to read all the original jurisprudence, and being familiar with the scholarly literature in both official languages should be considered a core competency for all justices, regardless of what language they first learned.
The same is true for the auditor general, who in addition to being a first-rate accountant, should be able to communicate in both official languages, as Sheila Fraser was outstandingly able to do.
All these new nominees have vowed to improve their second language to a level they judge essential for their new function. They all could say, as Randy Cunneyworth did after his first practice: “I have the utmost respect for the language here and I am very aware of how important it is to try and learn the language.”
In another prominent francophone institution, my own university, departments routinely conduct job interviews in English with candidates who also ostensibly have the “utmost respect for the language here.” Sometimes we get lucky, sometimes not, but I often wonder how my colleagues at McGill or the University of Toronto would treat a candidate unable to make a short presentation in English.
In all these cases, if all agree that language proficiency is a key part of the job in a francophone or bilingual institution, why isn’t it a requirement from day one, and why do candidates believe they can do the job without that basic competency? This is what tends to rile Quebecers and to make these case so politically sensitive.
So what? The PQ is down and almost out, right? Yes, but polls show that the defence of the French language is the one issue for which a clear majority of francophones trust the PQ ahead of all others. If that issue comes back to the front burner for good, so will the PQ . . . assuming it gets its own act together.
Pierre Martin is a professor of political science at the Université de Montréal.

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Pierre Martin est professeur titulaire au Département de science politique de l’Université de Montréal et directeur de la Chaire d’études politiques et économiques américaines (CÉPÉA). Il est également membre du Groupe d’étude et de recherche sur la sécurité internationale (GERSI)

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