Thursday, January 17, 2013

Minority Language Angst


This year Quebec is introducing world-leading improvements to how doctors deal with patients in end-of-life situations. But at the same time they are having their language police bully local authorities with less than 50% English-speaking taxpayers to force them to drop all English communication. That's Quebec for you - the Good, Bad and Ugly province. Quebec is the country of Je Me Reviens and Maitre Chez Nous. Yet I'm very fond of it. Over 40 odd years of regular travel there I've hardly ever had a bad time.

Its a place where the majority francophones have the most stable society, the highest per capita income and the best quality of life of all French speaking territories globally.  A civil society wherever in it you travel. A fun-loving place, probably the best in our Dominion to have a good time in. With gorgeous scenery, great food and fabulous sporting options. The region where ice hockey was invented. A jurisdiction with its indigenous people nowadays calmer than in just about anywhere else in North America.

How to explain the dichotomy of its suppression of the English minority's right to live in their own language at a time when Quebec's treatment of other minorities is as good as anywhere?  And how does one explain the government there thinking up ever newer ways to prevent both new immigrants and locally-born French from getting an English education? Quebec's official printed English is deteriorating to worse than you will see in Western Europe or Asia. This at a time when English is firmly in place as the global lingua franca.

 An answer may lie in the mindset of historical minority status. A nationwide company I once ran had quite a bit less than 30% of its sales in Quebec at a time when that was the expected ratio. We borrowed a senior trainer from our affiliate in France. It was our good fortune that he turned out to be an ethnic Occitan, a present-day regional minority there. After a month or so in the field with our guys, he diagnosed a 'minority complex'. This, he said, is a combination of resentment inherited from past generations and continuing distrust of the majority's motives. A common example is a suspicious response to a harmless question from a more senior representative of the majority. "How are you today?" gets "Why do you ask?".

I've even seen this attitude in a majority people, the Flemish in Belgium, towards their French-speaking Walloon fellow citizens. In the larger North-Western European world that abuts Flanders, French is the language of many people and was the language Belgium used with outsiders. For Francophone Quebeckers the language of their long-ago conquerors is the language all round them, even of Quebec's own Cree population in the North. Their sense of linguistic encirclement is very real.

This belief can sometimes look fascistic, especially when it is expressed as a wish that non-speakers go away. I see no special reason to believe that Quebec is sliding that way but, sadly, more than a generation of Canada giving national emphasis to French as a partner language seems to have done little to reassure many Quebecois that their linguistic future is secure. The still quite numerous English there, many of whose families go back to the earliest days, bear the brunt of their displeasure.

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