Bilingual Tensions in Canada

At a town hall on January 11th, 2017, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stoked controversy by choosing to answer a question about access to mental health services posed in English in French, stating that “since we’re in Quebec, I’ll respond in French.” Immediately, Trudeau was hit with a barrage of criticism and legal complaints from Quebecois organizations who felt that his refusal to answer a question posed in English in the same language was snobbish and disrespectful. Trudeau had committed a faux pas by upsetting the fragile peace between the English and French languages in Quebec.

Colonial History

Foreign observers might not realize that Quebec, now a Canadian province, was originally claimed by French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1534 and labeled Nouvelle-France (New France). Although Cartier’s initial settlement was abandoned by settlers fleeing disease and indigenous resistance, his compatriot Samuel de Champlain, a successive colonizer and fur trader, successfully established a French foothold in North America in 1608, which would develop into the city of Quebec. All of Canada would become a British possession in 1760 at the end of the Seven Years’ War, kicking off a conflict between an Anglophone majority and Francophone minority that would endure for over 200 years. Although the British Crown guaranteed the Catholic Francophone Quebecois freedom of worship in the Treaty of Paris, no such provisions were made for the preservation and use of the French language.

Relatively content with British rule and their guaranteed right to Catholic practice, French Canadians declined to assist their American neighbors to the south during the Revolutionary War and War of 1812 even though both were colonial subjects of the same Crown. But a continent apart from Europe and increasingly outnumbered by English settlers, they clung tightly to their Catholic faith and French language. As time went on, however, the Anglophone majority outside of Quebec began to crack down on the linguistic rights of French minority populations. Over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such provinces as New Brunswick, Manitoba, and Ontario instituted regulations suppressing the teaching of French in public schools either by cutting off public funds or, in the case of Ontario’s Regulation 17, limiting “the use of French as the language of instruction and communication to the first two years of elementary school.” As a result, Quebec soon became the only Canadian province in which the French-speaking minority did not face an aggressive campaign of Anglophone assimilationism.

Although both Canadian Anglophones and Francophones supported the Dominion of Canada’s entry into the First World War – the United Kingdom and France were military allies –  the war would greatly exacerbate Anglo-Franco tensions. Specifically, the 1917 Military Service Act, which established forced conscription to make up for casualties at the Battle of the Somme, sparked Canadien resentment, led to mass draft riots, and fanned the flames of Quebecois nationalism. Fearing a revolution like the 1916 Easter Rising, the Canadian federal government used force to suppress the riots, resulting in civilian casualties when soldiers opened fire on demonstrators.  

Nationalism on the rise

In 1960, the so-termed Quiet Revolution in Quebecois politics began. The Parti libéral du Québec (Quebec Liberal Party) swept into power in the Quebec National Assembly, ending a sixteen-year reign of domination by the conservative Union Nationale (National Union). The effective secularization of Quebec’s government, nationalization of certain industries, and creation of the province’s first-ever welfare state led to a dramatic increase in economic development and rekindled the dormant embers of Quebecois nationalism.

A militant Marxist-Leninist organization known as the Front de libération du Québec (Quebec Liberation Front, otherwise known as the FLQ) began a campaign of terror in 1963 aimed at the overthrow of the existing government of Quebec and violent separatism from the Dominion of Canada. Responsible for over 160 acts of violence, the FLQ bombed the Montreal Stock Exchange in 1969 and precipitated the 1970 October Crisis by kidnapping British Trade Commissioner James Cross. During hostage negotiations, an independent FLQ cell subsequently kidnapped and assassinated Quebec Labor Minister Pierre Laporte.

Pierre Trudeau, then Prime Minister of Canada (and father of current Canadian PM Justin Trudeau) invoked the War Measures Act, granting the federal government emergency powers to criminalize FLQ membership, suspend civil liberties, and detain approximately 450 Quebecois without charge.

Although the FLQ was ultimately unsuccessful in its attempts to forge an independent socialist Quebec, increased Quebecois nationalism and Anglo-Franco tension in Canada enabled the more moderate sovereigntist Parti Québécois (Quebec Party) to gain a majority in the Quebec assembly. Under the leadership of René Lévesque, the Parti Québécois advocated for souverainété-association (sovereignty-association), political autonomy for the province of Quebec while maintaining a free-trade zone and close economic ties with the rest of Canada. Central to the electoral success of the Parti Québécois was its promise to hold a referendum on sovereignty-association. The 1980 Quebec Referendum, in which a staggering 80% of provincial voters participated, was voted down by 59.56%. A subsequent referendum in 1995 was defeated by a hair-thin margin of 50.6%.

Official Bilingualism

Since 1969, the year of the Montreal Stock Exchange Bombing, French-English bilingualism has been the official policy of the Canadian national government. Per the 1969 Official Languages Act, all government services must be made equally available in both languages. Moreover, the Act was substantially amended in 1988 to also require that all official government communications and legal proceedings be in both French and English, that both languages be equally protected and taught in public schools, and that the Federal Court must hear complaints regarding violations.

This is why, for example, all of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s posts on Instagram (@justinpjtrudeau) have both English and French captions, why all traffic signs in bilingual regions of Canada are in both languages, and why some complain that the Act has closed off governmental jobs to a “bilingual elite” because fluency in both English and French is now required for many bureaucratic posts even though only 17.9% of Canadians are fluent in both.

So what exactly was so offensive about Justin Trudeau choosing to respond to an English question in French during a town hall in Quebec? For one, the Anglophone minority of the province perceived the language-switch as pandering to the French majority at the cost of excluding English-speakers despite the fact that the two languages are, at least theoretically, equal. Moreover, some Canadians actually filed complaints that Trudeau had violated the 1988 Official Languages Act by refusing to accommodate an English-speaking woman by responding in her own language. Ironically, it was Trudeau’s own father who is considered “the father of official bilingualism in Canada.”

There is evidence that, although restrictive, Canada’s policy of official bilingualism has been an important and popular safeguard for the country’s French-speaking minority. A Nielsen survey in 2016, for instance, found that 92% of Quebecois and over 80% of all Canadians supported the policy of official bilingualism, an increase from ten years prior.

However, with pro-independence political parties continuing to win seats in recent provincial elections, the debate is far from over. A new right-wing nationalist party, the Coalition Avenir Quebec (Coalition for Quebec’s Future) won a majority in the October 2018 election and formed government for the first time in the Quebec National Assembly. Commentators argue that the success of CAQ was the result of populist-nationalist rhetoric, Islamophobia (including opposition to a National Day against Islamophobia in commemoration of the 6 Muslim victims of a 2017 mosque shooting), and xenophobia. This marks a strong rightward shift from the Quebecois nationalism of decades past, which was championed by the recently-defeated Quebec Liberal Party as well as the Marxist FLQ. Ultimately, only time will tell whether the French and English-speaking communities of Canada continue to coexist, or whether this new rightist nationalist majority in Quebec’s provincial government is a harbinger of conflict to come.

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