A stealth declaration of national sovereignty


In 2006, the House of Commons passed a motion tabled by then-prime minister Stephen Harper, recognizing that "the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada." Harper thought he had done a clever end run around the separatists by endorsing a concept of Québécois nationhood that transcends geographical borders.

Embedded in his declaration was the assumption that one's Québécois identity is portable: that an English-speaking Québécois living in Calgary and a French-speaking Québécois living in Quebec City are co-nationalists. But this definition represents a misunderstanding of what nationhood means to ethnic Québécois.

Bluntly, Quebec francophones feel little to no affinity with francophones who leave Quebec, and although politicians may exploit the issue for political gain, ordinary Québécois don't much care whether or not language rights for francophones in other provinces are assiduously protected. It is well understood that Québécois identity is inextricably bound to Quebec soil.

Religion formed Québécois culture, but is no longer a social force. Other cultural markers have been diluted with time. Only language remains as the unassailable cultural fortress that protects Québécois from "la disparition" (disappearance). In this respect, literal deracination is the kiss of death. Québécois who leave Quebec may themselves remain robustly bilingual, but within a generation or two, they are no longer Québécois. Jack Kerouac, the defining voice of America's Beat Generation, became wholly American when he was but one generation removed from his francophone Quebec roots.

So language, and an obsession with its fragility, is the continual rallying cry of Quebec nationalists. In February, respected statistician Charles Castonguay published a book, Le français en chute libre (French in Free Fall), which sets out what look like alarming rates of decline in French as the primary language spoken at home, especially in Montreal, where virtually all Quebec Anglos and most of Quebec's immigrants live.

There is no indication that French in the public sphere is in decline. But it is almost taboo to question the need for panic. Rookie MP Emmanuella Lambropoulos found that out the hard way last November, when she raised doubts about the fragility of French in Quebec. Federal Official Languages Minister Mélanie Joly, members of the Bloc Québécois and even some Conservatives lambasted her. She walked back her words with abject apologies, but still had to resign from the official languages committee.

Here was the dual opportunity Quebec Premier François Legault had been waiting for: to steal the Parti Québécois' only defining issue without pushing for actual separation, and to take advantage of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's pre-election instinct to keep Quebecers in a Liberal-leaning state of mind.

As such, he introduced Bill 96, which will make the use of English an unprotected and infrequent privilege, rather than a right, in Quebec's public spaces, including workplaces, schools and in legal transactions. Legault's Bill 96 contains a controversial proposal to amend the Constitution Act, 1867 with two new clauses. One declares that Quebecers "form a nation." The other proclaims that, "French shall be the only official language of Quebec," and that it is "also the common language of the Quebec nation."

When Legault says "the Québécois form a nation," he most certainly does not mean what Harper meant in 2006. Make no mistake: Legault's ambition is geopolitical and refers - in his mind and for the solid majority of francophones who support it - to the descendants of the 90,000 French colonists who settled in New France between 1534 and 1763, and whose progeny now number about seven million Franco-Quebecers. But Trudeau is not alarmed.

If enacted, Bill 96 will jettison the concept of individual rights in favour of the "collective right." Legault intends to give more power to the Quebec Board of the French Language (OQLF) than it had before. For example, if passed, the OQLF will have the power to enter a business without a warrant and examine its computers to see if any language violations have occurred. Likewise, if an employee in an office observes an Anglo colleague talking to other Anglo colleagues or clients in English, he or she will have the ability to complain anonymously to the OQLF.

The bill would also create a new cabinet ministry of the French language, whose purpose will be to formulate language policy, and to ensure the government of Quebec is exemplary in its use of French. A commissioner of the French language will be installed, whose function will be to keep studying the state of French and reporting on it. (As we all know, institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution, and so this commissioner will indubitably find problems to report on.)

Businesses currently need a (expense-heavy) francization certificate if they have 50 or more employees; under Bill 96, it will be 25 employees. At the moment, an Anglo home owner can transfer ownership with English documents. If Bill 96 becomes law, the documents will be required to be in French. (I predict the Cree Nation in the north of Quebec, who have proven themselves adamantly anti-separatist in the past, will be exempt from all these regulations, which will keep them disinterested.)

Once an entire generation becomes completely proficient in French - and they will be required to be in order to graduate high school - questions will naturally arise in the Quebec legislature, such as: since everyone is proficient in French, why the need for Anglo institutions like English schools, hospitals and social services? To which the other provinces will say: why the need for our expense and cultural burden of official bilingualism when everyone here speaks English?

Then, Canada as we know it will be over. Bill 96 is a stealth declaration of national sovereignty. Trudeau père fought separatism with all his might and main to preserve and protect a united Canada. For post-national Trudeau fils, it's ... whatever. Autres temps, autres moeurs.