In Canada, an early election can be called by the leader of the ruling party, and naturally, this power is often wielded for strategic purposes. And so, Quebec premier Pauline Marois, elected to office a mere eighteen months ago, has called for a general election to be held on April 7. Marois leads the Parti Quebecois, which took power in September 2012 with a minority government, and is now gunning for a majority. This would allow the PQ to pass several controversial pieces of legislation that have met resistance by the opposition parties. One of these is Bill 14, which proposes additional restrictions on English-language education and the use of English in the workplace. Language politics are sure to be in the foreground during the election campaign, and if the PQ is re-elected with a majority, for the foreseeable future.
Quebec’s complex language issues contain enough substance to rivet the attention of language policy geeks as well as innocent bystanders, and for those of us who live or have lived in Quebec, they can be intensely emotionally resonant. The language debates raise a number of important questions, only some of which can be addressed empirically: What value is there in counteracting language loss? How can we know whether a language is truly under threat? Can the language policies of any single jurisdiction have a long-term effect on preserving a language or shifting linguistic demographics? Which individual freedoms are worth sacrificing in order to preserve a language? How much economic opportunity is worth sacrificing? Is preserving a language a necessary or sufficient condition of preserving a culture?
For those who are interested in the discussion, several radio commentaries have been recently broadcast on the language debates in Quebec:
NPR’s “All things considered” aired a brief interview with me (3/9/14) discussing the intended goals of Quebec’s language laws.
CBC’s “Ottawa morning” (2/28/14) solicited the comments of Montreal lawyer Michael Bergman on the legal reach of Quebec’s language laws into social media (the story begins at 3:15).
CBC’s “Q” presented an interview (3/11/14) with journalist Jerome Lussier about the current landscape of language politics in Quebec, and whether further language regulation would help or harm the preservation of French language and culture (the story begins at 4:40).
A point that is raised in all of the interviews is that Quebec is a heavily bilingual province, with increasing rates of bilingualism for both anglophones and francophones in Quebec over the last few decades. In fact, as revealed in a 2011 report from Statistics Canada, Quebec is by far the most bilingual province within Canada, despite the attempts of the Parti Quebecois to portray Quebec as a francophone province. Quebeckers of all language backgrounds currently have very strong incentives to learn both English and French (though about twice as many native English speakers in Quebec are proficient in French compared with the reverse). The PQ is inclined to see increasing rates of bilingualism among francophones as an ominous sign of a creeping ascendancy of English and a corresponding threat to French. But the current situation in Quebec raises the question of whether the French language in Quebec could be preserved through policies that promote sustainable bilingualism—a linguistic state that is, after all, achieved by a majority of the world’s population. What might such policies look like? It would be in the interest of all Quebeckers to have this conversation.