War of Words

Canada’s linguistic struggles have turned some victims vicious

So we may yet see another referendum in Quebec. On the campaign trail, the new Parti Québécois premier, Pauline Marois, deftly bowing to the 72 percent of Quebecers who are against secession, swore not to initiate a referendum herself, even as she bought off the hard-core sovereigntists with a promise to allow a citizen-initiated referendum, should 850,000 people sign a petition. Who knows. Could be worse. That’s politics and that’s Quebec. New parties, multiple vote-splittings, enormous public demonstrations, grand questions of the economic model, the social model, institutional renewal: accustomed as we are to picking governments on the basis of homophobic backbench tweets, the Rest of Canada could learn a thing or two from Quebec about vigorous, free-range democracy.

Nevertheless, one may be puzzled how 28 percent support for sovereignty could ever morph into 50 percent plus one, even in fantasy. But Marois’s rhetoric leaves no doubt about her strategy: ethnic nationalism. “We form a nation in our own right,” she proclaimed to a Montreal rally on August 30. “My only allegiance is to the people. It is this people which speaks French and has kept up the resistance for centuries that I will serve. For me it goes without saying. We have no excuses for being who we are.”

To ROCian ears, such a statement is so extreme as to seem almost unhinged. Try to imagine what would happen in British Columbia, Alberta or Ontario if a party leader before a cheering crowd were to proclaim that his or her sole allegiance were to the British-rooted anglo-Canadian majority, that it went without saying, that that leader made no apologies for it? Not in Arizona, not in Mississippi itself would such a leader escape without instantaneous crucifixion. But in the recent campaign Marois and her lieutenants were sounding off like this continually, even casually.

Speaking Up: A History of Language and Politics in Canada and Quebec, by Marcel Martel and Martin Pâquet, and translated by Patricia Dumas, offers some insight both into the causes of that mindset and into its internal logic. It is a frankly nationalist history of minority language policy in Quebec and the ROC, particularly since 1927. After a rocky start on historical context (see below), the book gets rolling in chapters 3 to 6 as it traces the resistance of French Canadians to assimilationist language policies (in the ROC) and to anglicizing socioeconomic forces (in Quebec).

The early decades of English-Canadian language policy are perhaps best thought of as a kind of Hesiodic Age of Beefsteak, when the sort of bigots who used to froth (still froth?) at bilingual cereal boxes were rampant over earth. As early as 1793, in the earliest assembly in Lower Canada, anti-French sentiment came to the fore, although as time passed the idea of anglicizing Lower Canada’s francophone population, as advocated by Lord Durham in the 1830s, was rejected as both impossible and irrelevant, so long as French Canadians accepted a subordinate economic position. In the ROC, meanwhile, cereal boxism had all the momentum. In defiance of section 133 of the British North America Act, Nova Scotia in 1864, Prince Edward Island in 1877, New Brunswick in 1871 (and for the next hundred years), Manitoba in 1890, Alberta in 1905, Ontario in 1912 and Saskatchewan in 1918 all acted to severely restrict or totally eliminate publicly funded French-language education. It is nothing short of a miracle that French survived in these areas over the following four or five generations. In the best traditions of British hypocrisy, such blatant bigotry was masked by the rhetoric of economy.

Meanwhile, through the 19th century, language and religion defined Quebec’s nascent national self-consciousness, but it was not until the early 1960s, when the birthrate dropped and anglicizing immigration soared, that the future of French became a cause of widespread anxiety. Simultaneously, rising political consciousness suggested that, unless the French language achieved economic dominance, post-war prosperity would spell anglicization. Given the glacial pace of response in earlier generations, it is amazing how quickly and effectively the generation of the Quiet Revolution acted to establish French as the official language of Quebec and roll back the adoption of English. Chapters 4 and 5, too detailed for summary here, describe the endless series of commissions, studies, reports, bills, manifestos and so forth, which culminated in the Charter of the French Language (Bill 101) in 1977. The book comes alive in these chapters and they are a welcome change from the depressing cereal boxism of chapters 2 and 3. Chapter 6, on developments since the adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, is duller: an era of court cases, minority rights, impassioned marginalia.

Overall, it must be said, the book is hard to read. Its lack of footnotes suggests a popular history, but its narrative tone is pure scholarship. And the translation is frequently unidiomatic and sometimes misleading.

Or perhaps I am being too hard on the translator, too charitable to the authors. Perhaps the latter do indeed hold that “the presence of two languages demonstrates the impossibility of co-existing on the same territory.” The historical fact of multi-ethnic communities, from Old Babylonia to Alexandria to the Hapsburg Empire (and, really, everything in between) may well be unfamiliar to them. I would stake little on the historical sense of authors who think that in 18th-century England “the nobility conversed mostly in French, but also in German,” while “the Presbyterian Scots conversed in Scottish Gaelic or broke into folkloric songs by the great poet Robert Burns,” or who ascribe to Edmund Burke as opposed to Charlemagne the “concept of heritage stemming from birthright.” From their account of Britain’s ruthless policy toward Ireland or Acadia one would never guess that ruthlessness was the norm in 18th-century foreign policy, from the Palatinate to Poland; neither was anti–Protestantism less common in France than anti-Catholicism in Great Britain.

Most of all, presumably it is simple ignorance that fails to mention what ethnic nationalism did to European culture and society in the period of 1808 to 1945. How can the depredations of the Canadian cereal boxists of the 19th century be understood except with reference to countless other proud oppressions, of Jew by Slav, of Slav by Magyar, of Magyar by Austrian, and so on ad infinitum? As national identities replaced feudal ones, much social injustice was erased; but still more was unleashed, and neither sort can fail to inform any intellectual conscience worth the name. Even apart from the body count, which after all made the Thirty Years War look like kindergarten, it will literally be centuries before western civilization recovers the unity, confidence, sense of purpose, love of beauty, joy in language and respect for physical courage characteristic of the cosmopolitan era that ethnic nationalism obliterated. Nary of word of this, nary an echo of this will be found in Speaking Up.

On the contrary, in its theoretical assumptions this book makes my blood run cold. We learn in the introduction that “one permanent feature in public policies has remained, rooted in the basic requirements of living together: the need to homogenize the population as a means of exercising power within a given territory … For the authorities, the efficient exercise of power requires that a population share common characteristics, including, potentially, the use of a given language.” In such a dog-eat-dog world of zero-sum identity politics, British assimilationists were acting quite naturally in desiring to crush colonial Quebec’s culture, and so were cereal boxists in trying to deracinate their francophone minorities; Quebec’s ethnic nationalists simply have fought and will fight fire with fire, led by Marois and Jean-François Lisée. But I hasten to assure the authors that, historically speaking, the will to homogenize is the exception, not the rule; that Canada’s cosmopolitan, rights-based regime, while out of step with the ethnic nationalisms of 1808–1945 (and beyond), is the normal human condition; that their assimilationist assumptions are, in short, equally preposterous and inhumane.