Language Virus, Quebec

To withstand comparisons

The language virus has broken out in Quebec again. It is a recurrent sickness.

Tolérance des Québécois / Sondage sur le racisme des Québécois

“It has been my lot to run the whole gamut of prejudices.. In 1896 I was excommunicated by the Roman priests, and in 1917 by Protestant parsons.”

Sir Wilfrid Laurier
The language virus has broken out in Quebec again. It is a recurrent sickness. Charest Minister Christine St-Pierre, in an effort to pander to nationalists, announced that phone messages in government ministries and agencies will be changed so that the message “press 9 for English” will come at the end of about one minute of French instructions rather than at the beginning. Somehow this was a “threat” to the viability of French. At the very least, according to the government, it may have violated provisions of the language law. That law supposedly guarantees English services in the areas of justice, health, social services and education. Certainly Revenue Quebec has no trouble speaking English when demanding tax dollars to support an ever expanding Quebec nanny-state filled with programs that no voters demanded and no suffrage affirmed.

Earlier, a columnist writing in a French weekly was upset that he had been receiving erroneous calls on his cellphone. He wasn’t bothered by the nuisance so much as the fact that so many of the callers were English. He thinks Pauline Marois should do something about what he perceives to be the declining state of French in Quebec.
The cherry on the cake was the coalition that included the Mouvement Montrealais Français, Imperatif Français and the Societé St-Jean Baptiste which objected to the merger of a West Island French hospital with the English MUHC so that it could continue operating. The objection was based on language. As 940 Montreal’s Jim Duff put so well, he presumes that the opponents’ attitude is that it “is better to die in French than live in English”. Morons, he called them. 

Morons indeed. But sadly this sickness abroad in our land today cannot be dismissed too cavalierly. It is a matter that goes to basic civil rights. That is the message and metaphor. The politics of division and discord, the words of nullification and interposition, manifest that what the nationalists want for themselves in Quebec, Canada and indeed in North America, they will not freely accord the minorities with equally valid acquired rights living within their midst. 

Their position does not withstand comparisons. Neither comparisons to what is just nor even comparisons to Quebec’s own history. And for those in elective office to submit to the bullying tactics of the “swollen envy of pygmy minds” , to borrow from Mark Twain, is sadder still. They merely feed the insecurities of Quebecers who have been taught to be riddled by a self-doubt fuelled by a jealousy of others’ self-belief by those nationalists who have made so much political capital over the past 40 years. 

In the final analysis, Quebec does not belong to the purveyors of prejudice. It belongs to all those who remember that from Louis-Joseph Papineau’s emancipation of all minorities in 1837, 20 years before Britain’s; through Louis Lafontaine’s experiments in responsible government in 1856 that were the first in the British Empire; to Laurier’s internationalist and inclusive vision at the turn of the 20th century; through Jean Marchand’s heroic struggles for labour at Lac Megantic; to Jean Lesage’s “Révolution tranquille” that produced the “équipe de tonnerre” arguably the finest cabinet in modern times; through René Levesque’s dedication to liberal pluralism and democracy in his fight for independence; and finally to Pierre-Elliott Trudeau’s guarantee of the sovereignty of the individual in the Charter of Rights, the best of Quebec has belonged to those who are loyal to the ideal of the supremacy of the rights of man as the organizing principles of society. That hallmark has given Quebec a “tradition progressiste politique nonpareil” in North America at the same time that we have also suffered through periods of “la grande noirceur”. It is those progressive traditions we must celebrate and remember. For neither founding culture has a moral high ground in these culture wars. Both arrived as conquering imperialists. Both still have to make peace with the past.

 This progressive strain is what makes Quebec distinct. It is only on that foundation that we can hope to rebuild this province. Not on some misplaced fidelity to “sang et langue”. And certainly not out of the fear-mongering of extremists who see cabals of anglos and ethnics around every corner that they consider have no right to a say in Quebec’s future in either official language.

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Beryl Wajsman14 articles

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Beryl Wajsman is president of the Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal, publisher of BARRICADES Magazine, and host of Corus Radio’s “The Last Angry Man” on the New 940Montreal. He can be reached at:

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