Alarmism about the extinction of French is alive and well

On Nov. 13, the Journal de Montreal published a synopsis by journalist Marie-Lise Mormina about her investigation into the language customers were being greeted and served with in retail stores and restaurants. The full report, which was published the next day, brought Montreal’s ever-present language debate back to the forefront of the news cycle. Mormina concluded that francophones should be worried about the state of French in Quebec. However, this study’s only real contribution to the language debate is the reinforcement of alarmism surrounding the alleged extinction of French in the province.

All the stores Mormina investigated in Montreal were located in the downtown, Griffintown, and Old Port areas, which have large English populations because they are located within the  financial district and feature other major tourist attractions. Also, some stores were selected because they had a predominantly English website or social media presence. Therefore, she cannot conclude that most employees choose to greet customers exclusively in English when she specifically sought out anglophone stores. This sampling method is biased; all stores should have been chosen randomly. She did this to exaggerate the problem of the extinction of French.

According to Statistics Canada’s Focus on Geography Series, 41 per cent of Montreal employees spoke only French at work in 2016 while seven per cent spoke only English. Mormina’s report, on the other hand, states that 19 per cent of employees could not speak French which is much higher than seven per cent, even if assuming that employees that spoke only English in StatsCan’s survey could not speak French.

Clearly, the French language is not nearly as threatened as Mormina contends. She details the “distressing” situation in Victoria’s Secret downtown Montreal location, where multiple employees greeted her exclusively in English, speculating that their employees are “afraid” of speaking French because they might be reprimanded. Despite the magnitude of this allegation, on which she fails to elaborate, it is clear that Mormina is fishing for any morsel of information that could be magnified to support her argument. 

Nowhere in the synopsis does Mormina mention that all 24 businesses she visited on the north and south shores of Montreal greeted her exclusively in French. In fact, she does not highlight these businesses at all. She also omits the eight stores she visited in Griffintown. Instead, she only presents the results of the regions that only greeted her in English. 

She framed the article to incite fear-mongering, and unfortunately, many fell for it, including Quebec Premier Francois Legault and Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante. Legault retweeted Quebec Minister of Justice Simon Jolin-Barette’s post, in which he says that it is unacceptable to be unable to receive service in French. Plante’s tweet about the report reflects this same sentiment.

Mormina’s report has also inspired responses from other journalists. Josée Legault, a journalist from the Journal de Montreal, used the report to lament the state of French in Quebec. She titled her article “I won’t speak French,” even though none of the employees Mormina confronted are known to have said this. One said that they do not know how to speak French, which is quite different and fundamentally changes the nature of Mormina’s claims against Montreal’s anglophone and bilingual communities. While the first is a refusal to accommodate the French language, the latter emphasizes an inability to do so. This phrasing reflects the victimization narrative that French Quebecers use to justify their militant pursuit of French dominance.

The purpose of articles like Mormina’s is to shock, not to inform. Yes, Quebec is one of the only French-speaking region in North America, but catastrophizing the disappearance of French, especially when such claims are unjustified by the data presented, is erroneous at best. Quebec should focus on fostering cooperation between Montreal’s anglophone and francophone communities by not attacking the true linguistic minorities within Quebec with xenophobic ideas and practices. 

A previous version of this article stated that Quebec is the only French-speaking area in North America. In fact, Quebec is one of several French-speaking regions on the continent. The Tribune regrets this error.

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