An outbreak of gastro-enteritis is sweeping across Montreal and will likely spread to the rest of Quebec. Another virus that has hit the city in the last few days is the dreaded language disease that has infected our economic and emotional health for decades.
Gasoline giant Esso and its majority shareholder, Exxon Mobil, were attacked by anti-English xenophobes this week and backed off using its corporate signature On the Run, which brands their quickie-mart franchises world-wide. Esso, which was denounced as a "cultural predator," no less, didn't want to bother getting caught in a smear campaign or potential call for a boycott.
It has come to the point in Quebec where everyone will just throw in the towel rather than face this intimidation.
When Bill 101 was first adopted in 1977, only English trademark names, such as Dunkin' Donuts or Canadian Tire were permitted on outdoor signs. Most francophone Montrealers are not bothered by seeing some English here and there and wouldn't hesitate to run into an Esso On the Run to grab a coffee. It hasn't stopped them from shopping at Home Depot, Future Shop or Brick.
In 1993, Quebec's sign law was changed to fully allow English on outdoor commercial signs, as long as the French is predominant. At the time, attempts by the usual gang of suspects to stir the pot failed to rile up the majority of francophones who just didn't care, and the law passed.
Despite the change, English words on outdoor signs remain nonexistent today, even in the most predominantly English areas in Montreal. Finding an English-speaking toy at a Toys R Us, even in the West Island, is almost impossible. Very few retail stores dare to put up an English sign even inside the store. Unfortunately, many English-speaking Quebecers have already given up and would prefer to have their language hidden, than to upset the apple-cart.
This is largely due to the commonly held belief that any language turbulence in Quebec could rejuvenate separatist sentiment. That perhaps we are better off sacrificing some rights and visibility, to avoid a nationalist-driven wave toward Quebec sovereignty.
This fear, whether true or not, has completely marginalized Montreal's historic English- speaking community.
The language law prohibits immigrants, even from English speaking countries, from attending English schools in Quebec. Even though English schools have seen enrolment shrivel up in the last 30 years to the point where schools are being closed regularly, the prospect of making a peep to the government about changing the law to even partially widen enrolment would be considered a dangerous move that would set off the nationalists.
Despite the flight of capital, people and head offices, no economist or financial institution would dare hint that the language debate or threat of separation has crippled the economy or tax base of Montreal over the past 30 years, for fear of setting off nationalist reprisals.
As a result of this fear, in a provincial election, anglophones are hostage to the Liberal Party of Quebec. For the federal parties, it is more important to curry favour in Quebec with soft nationalist voters than to worry about the half-dozen or so ridings influenced by English- speaking voters. A number of years ago, Stephane Dion himself scolded anglophones for complaining about Bill 101, which he praised as vital legislation in ensuring that Quebec stays in Canada, proof to Quebecers that they can "protect" their language while remaining in the federation.
Even if this is true, is it worth it? Is it true that suppressing English promotes and enhances the French language? Does anyone have the energy to speak out anymore and question these things?
The best way to fight a virus is with an inoculation. The English community badly needs an outspoken lobby group to sharply counteract the effects of this one-sided debate. This way, we could at least get a healthy shot in the arm once in a while.
Robert Libman is a former Equality Party MNA and mayor of Cote St. Luc
Timid anglos throw in towel on language
English-speaking Quebecers give in rather than risk intimidation by majority