Having grown up a son of French and Tunisian immigrants in the West Island, a mostly English-speaking part of Montreal, I have had a curious experience with language. Although Bill 101, The Charter of the French Language, was at first necessary to preserve the French language in Quebec, current attempts to ‘promote’ the language, like the provincial government’s proposal to add French to English business signs, are simply useless. Laws like these wrongly present English as a threat to the French language—a misconception that has driven Quebec’s language policies for far too long. If the government wishes to promote French, it should promote more francophone artistic content rather than ratifying aggressive and useless laws.
From an early age, I witnessed the scapegoating of English by those seeking to protect French in Quebec. During my Bill 101-mandated time in a French elementary school, students would get in trouble if they were caught speaking English. At that time, I did not really think about it. It was only in high school that I realized that this rule did not protect French but purposefully targeted English: No Hispanophones or Arabophones got in trouble for speaking Spanish or Arabic. Quite the contrary: Languages such as these were celebrated during the multicultural festival. Unlike Spanish or Arabic, English was seen as the rival language to French, as if the two were fundamentally unable to coexist.
This culture of linguistic adversity I experienced in school is visible in Quebec’s language laws, which reflect a dismissiveness of the province’s English minority. With the most recent business sign law, the Quebec government—much like those who banned English in my school—again seems clueless about ways to promote French in Quebec without simultaneously conveying an inferiority complex to the English language.
When all is said and done, renaming businesses like Toys-R-Us will not protect or promote Francophone heritage in Quebec. Of course, every Quebec citizen has the right to be served in French, as it is the only official language. But it should be obvious to most that French is not threatened in France just because KFC is called KFC and not PFK. The same should stand in Quebec.
Instead of focusing on the false dichotomy of French versus English, the Quebec government should address the real issues facing French in the province. English is not the enemy: Budget cuts in culture are. Last year Quebec’s Ministry of Culture and Communications suffered a $2.5 million budget cut, which will undoubtedly affect the creation of new French artistic content. The fact that only an average of 8.4 per cent of films screened in the past five years in Quebec were Quebecois is surely not a sign of a thriving industry. Although 42 per cent of books sold in Quebec were published by Quebecois distributors, there needs to be more promotion of all forms of Quebecois art. More Quebecois artists need to be promoted locally, but also in the broader French-speaking world. On this front, Quebec could imitate France and demand that around 20 per cent of video streaming service content be produced locally. A truly living and vital language is one that is used in the creation of art, the backbone of culture.
It is long past time for Quebec to abandon its fruitless over-compensation in regulation of English, and instead look for cultural solutions to fully recognize the power and potential of its official language.