A decade ago, Montreal was an unhappy place. The scars from the bitterly divisive 1995 referendum campaign had not yet healed ; angry tensions simmered. Storefronts were boarded up. The anglophones who had not already fled continued to leave in large numbers, taking their businesses with them. The city was widely viewed as in decline.
Today, Montreal is comparatively booming. The downtown core has been revitalized ; space is once again a hot commodity. Federalists are living in relative harmony with sovereigntists. And if anglophones haven’t returned, they have at least stopped leaving in droves. Yet it seems nationalist politicians and their allies are nostalgic for the angry 1990s. In the absence of another referendum - a slim prospect with a federalist provincial government in power and support for sovereignty stagnant - they appear determined to sow divisions another way.
The revival of Quebec’s perennial language debates began last year, as part of the province’s often unsettling "reasonable accommodation" debate. A couple of recent incidents have allowed it to pick up steam.
First, Le Journal de Montréal dispatched a reporter to apply for retail jobs during the Christmas rush, posing as a unilingual anglophone. When 15 of 100 stores agreed to hire her, the tabloid splashed it across its front page. The Parti Québécois took it from there. Its language critic, Pierre Curzi, along with Jean Dorion, president of the Montreal chapter of the Société St-Jean Baptiste, called for new restrictions to deter parents from sending their children to English-language daycare centres. PQ Leader Pauline Marois called for amendments to Bill 101 (the French Language Charter) to toughen the rules for small businesses. When Cultural Minister Christine St-Pierre indicated that the language law would be left as it is, hard-line nationalists managed to work themselves into a tizzy - most colourfully a group called the Young Patriots of Quebec, which protested by placing 101 pork tongues outside Ms. St-Pierre’s riding office.
Then, last week, University of Montreal professor and demographic expert Marc Termote accused the provincial government of "blocking" the release of his report for the province’s language watchdog agency on the decline of French-speaking residents in Montreal. This was all the incentive that Mario Dumont, demagogic leader of the Action Démocratique du Québec, needed to hop aboard his favourite hobby horse, the perils of immigration. While the Office québécois de la langue française said that it withheld the report pending last month’s release of linguistic census data by Statistics Canada, and that Prof. Termote’s research would be included in a broader language overview to be released in March, Mr. Dumont offered a different theory. The study, he suggested, had been withheld until after the government had rejected the ADQ’s call for an immigration freeze and had raised its immigration targets.
As if that weren’t enough, Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe got in on the act with some inflammatory rhetoric of his own. The federal labour code, he said, should be amended so that federally regulated companies in Quebec are subject to the same rules as those in Bill 101. Those federal politicians from Quebec who opposed such reforms, he pronounced, were "Uncle Toms."
It is understandable that, amid suggestions that within 10 years fewer than half of Montrealers will speak French at home, some Quebeckers are unnerved by the city’s new face. But that does not give nationalist politicians licence to twist those concerns into a full-throttle backlash. The knee-jerk proposals put forward this month almost uniformly lack sense ; it is especially unclear what tougher language laws for workplaces have to do with French being spoken in the home, which is most assuredly not the government’s jurisdiction. These ideas are being put forward, it seems, solely so that the government can reject them - offering opposition politicians wedge issues, the social consequences be damned.
It is unfortunate that, as usual, Montreal is the target of this nationalist and (in Mr. Dumont’s case) xenophobic fervour. The city’s lustre only recently restored, largely by the newcomers Mr. Dumont disparages, the agitators seem determined to return it to the darkness of the last decade.