Reflections on the Quebec Election

How refreshing to hear a Quebec Premier championing the cause of bilingualism!! Philippe Couillard won handily in the Saguenay region, the home of Lucien Bouchard and a former PQ stronghold. Perhaps it is typical of his character to take the bull by the horns and address the real issues. When he mentioned that workers could benefit from using English in the workplace and that all parents in Quebec wanted their children to learn more English, he was excoriated by Marois as incapable of defending the French language. Ridiculous!!! What he said affirmed the strength of a French-speaking culture where official French unilingualism in Quebec has made French the norm and in no way threatened. Today, French is stronger than ever before, bolstered by the official bilingualism which the federal government and the Constitution have now entrenched throughout the rest of Canada, and which prevails in New Brunswick and Manitoba.

Quebec and Canada in 2014 are not what they were in the 1960’s. During “the quiet revolution” of the 1960’s, the enemy in Quebec was the Church, a conservative society resistant to change and allied with an anglophone élite. The rest of Canada was also emerging from a colonial past, dominated by “the old boys” and “links to the old country.” The “old country” then was Britain, and the culture was that of my Anglo-Saxon ancestors who had been earlier immigrants to colonial Canada. The 1960’s were our coming of age. The 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal brought anglophones and francophones together as never before and we, at least, fell in love with Quebec. We had a new flag, learned the French words to the national anthem and, before long, had a fluently bilingual prime minister who was intelligent, charismatic and cosmopolitan. Whatever one thought about his later politics, his style put Canada on the world map.

Like many, I bought totally into bilingualism. As a teacher in Africa with the French-speaking side of CUSO, my colleagues made me “an honorary Québécois,” although I spoke French with an awkward B.C. accent. Later, I enrolled my kids in French immersion. Today, there are thousands of children across Canada in French immersion, and long waiting lists for more. There are school boards for francophone parents, French-language television and radio stations across the country. The officer corps of the Canadian military is bilingual. Ottawa is a bilingual city. It is unthinkable that we would ever have a Prime Minister who was not comfortably fluent in French and English.

The 1995 Referendum was a traumatic experience for everyone. We had tried to encourage francophones to feel “chez-vous, chez-nous,” and felt hurt to be rebuffed. I will never forget how shocked I was by Lucien Bouchard railing against “les anglais” at his last rally in Lévis. Who were these enemy “anglais” oppressors? Not me. None of my French-speaking western Canadian relatives who teach French immersion. Not the civil service in Ottawa. Not the bilingual anglophones who conduct professional meetings in Montreal totally in French. Not Lucien Bouchard’s later wife, an American. His xenophobia was as odious then as have been its echoes in the recent Charter of Values.

As a judge, I met many Quebec counterparts who had no idea of the extent to which French has become prevalent outside of Quebec. When they heard about our French immersion programs, even in western Canada, they wanted English immersion for their own children. Philippe Couillard has spoken the truth, and most Quebecers know it. In a multicultural global village, bilingualism is an enormous economic advantage; multilingualism even more so. Welcome to the 21st Century.

This election has left me jubilant. Given where the province was in the 1960s, it may make sense that Quebec flirted with separatism and has now sent it packing. Our play at making constitutions that fell flat has left us equally gun-shy of further such efforts. Taking a long view, these may have been the growing pains of adolescence, necessary for our growth into maturity as a bilingual and multicultural country, made up of many nations and regions. But that is another story. It will be so nice to have Quebec back. We’ve missed you.

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  1. Ryan

    Very good read…! I agree, it is so nice to have Quebec back for the foreseeable future. I think separatism is dead and buried. Chantel Hebert said as much in a recent airing on the CBC, and I couldn’t agree more.


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