Speak French and Die

The Language Debate in Quebec.

The language debate in Quebec (some would say the language struggle) is like a broken record that needs to be thrown out - not to be replaced by the latest CD version. Although the question of language and domination is a very real one in many parts of the world (e.g., Tibet), in Quebec it seems to have lost all focus. The defiant arrogance of its perpetrators is a continuing stumbling block to solving a problem that, in many respects, does not really exist.

After living and travelling in many parts of the world, I had come to learn how important it is to be able to speak other languages. This can only be appreciated when one has travelled and met other people from different countries and different cultures. There is a saying that the more languages you know the more persons you become. This saying contains more than a grain of truth. Unfortunately, this is where globalisation poses the biggest threat, not to mention the Internet: the levelling effects of both multinational corporations and our reliance on computer networks as a means of travel and experience are gradually killing our multiple personalities. Growing up as an anglophone in Montreal, my prejudices were naturally against French - language, customs, and people. However, this reaction is a very common one and can be found wherever politics impede the freedom to choose. In Hungary, for instance, similar narrow-minded attitudes were held toward Russian, to the extent that the vast majority of Hungarians knew only a handful of Russian words despite having learned it for eight years or so under the communist regime. Likewise, their views toward Russian people and customs were correspondingly negative. Upon my return to Quebec for a short visit, therefore, I was confronted with such comparable misguided notions left over from my youth. I began to see the senselessness of what once used to make sense. In a way, this was all precipitated by two events that happened on opposite sides of the new year. Prior to the end of the year, the English-language news carried a report of an anglophone who was insulted by a French police officer. As the story goes, the man had called the police asking for information concerning the definition of statutory rape. After speaking for about ten minutes to the man in English, the police officer then asked the man if he spoke French and subsequently told him he should do so. The English mass media cried foul, slashing open old wounds and inciting anti-French sentiment as best they could. Shortly after the new year another incident occurred, one which many hard-line anglophones attest happens regularly. A man was in a drugstore in the predominantly French-speaking area of the south shore of Montreal. The drugstore happened to be going through the worst of times: firstly, it was in the process of relocating from a neighbouring building; secondly, a massive ice storm had hit, cutting power and crippling most businesses in and around Montreal. Although the employee attempted to fulfill the customer's request as best she could, given the strained circumstances, that was not good enough for him and he kicked up a fuss. After failing repeatedly to appease him, the employee gave up and told him simply to "shut up and speak French." These two cases seem to be typical of the problems facing Quebec. Yet, in the first instance what the English media failed to look into when covering the story of the police officer was the fact that the officer in question had done his best to converse with the person in English. After trying to explain to someone for 10 minutes what statutory rape was - something that should only take a few minutes - my patience also would be wearing a little thin. As for the incident in the drugstore, treating others with condescending arrogance - in whatever language - is no way to get anything done. Still, hard-line anglophones, supported by a biased English media in Quebec, will go on at length about the prevailing intolerance of French-speaking Quebecers. If you dig a little deeper, however, most of the time this ostensible intolerance is merely the reflection of anglophone insolence. Personally, I have never come across a French Canadian spitting "speak French" to my face. Instead, I found that they readily switched to English when my French faltered. Indeed, I found that they were more tolerant and emphatic when they saw I had at least made an attempt to communicate (albeit very badly) in their own language. Furthermore, I found French Canadians were generally more tolerant of English than other language groups, much more so than the French in France, for instance. If English Canadians within Montreal feel they are being swamped by the French language, they should try to step outside of their enclave and see what it feels like for a French Canadian living in Canada, a country that is supposedly bilingual. Do they think that Canadians in the western provinces are as accommodating when someone speaks to them in French, demanding services in their own language? From this angle, the separatist aspirations of many people in Quebec is partially understandable. Again, much of this comes from travelling the world and seeing what goes on outside the confines of North America. Language is often the means by which people are able to maintain their sense of identity and, in some cases, their independence. Bosnia, China, Russia, Slovakia, Turkey - these are just some of the countries where minorities and their languages are subdued in order to assert political control. Even in Europe, language differences have been used to divide communities, as in the case of Belgium. Interestingly enough, when a French Canadian tells an anglophone to "speak French" they really don't care what language the other person speaks. Instead, that phrase is a very polite way of telling someone to either go to hell or do something with their gonads. And it's very effective. Anglophones in Montreal are very vulnerable and sensitive about language, and since the art of profanity is to wound with words, telling them to speak French is the perfect way of doing so. This is not to say that discrimination against English-speaking Canadians by French-speaking Quebecers doesn't exist. It does, as in any country where two linguistic groups share the same space. But the way in which English language media fans the flames of linguistic intolerance only confuses and complicates the issue. A case in point is how English language media paints a desperate economic picture of the province, one induced by French discrimination. Indeed, the outstanding belief among most English speaking Canadians is that business has been fleeing from the province solely because of the perceived hostile language environment in Quebec. Yet what the English media is actually doing is diverting blame for the region's economic woes by using language as a scapegoat. The exodus of big business from the region has little to do with language; rather, it's the result of a much bigger migration of capital from east to west. Proof of this can be seen in the demographic patterns of the US, and the huge urban/suburban sprawl underway on the west coast. It's also the result of delocalisation, the main effect of globalisation, in where jobs are relocated to poorer, Third World countries. A little tolerance and understanding, in the end, can go a long way to solving the problem of language in Quebec. Although an anglophone, I have to place the burden of responsibility (and guilt) on the shoulders of anglophones in Quebec. And even then, it's not all but a small minority of them, backed by a xenophobic media. By attempting to speak another language, no matter how badly, English-speaking Canadians would be pleasantly surprised at what they can achieve, for not only would it help ease tensions, it would also help them find a new base of support in their desire for Canadian unity. (John Horvath)