Most Quebecers, like other Canadians, are concerned about the economic recovery, health care and the H1N1 vaccine rollout … and maybe climate change on a slow news day. They might even be somewhat concerned about the country’s reputation being harmed by allegations that Canadians handed over prisoners to be tortured in Afghanistan.
What Quebecers are decidedly not concerned about, at the end of the first decade of the new century, is the language issue that dominated provincial public-policy debates for decades at the end of the previous century.
We’ve been in this conversation since 1974, when Robert Bourassa, in his first incarnation as premier, enacted Bill 22, declaring French to be Quebec’s official language. Then René Lévesque adopted Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language, requiring allophone children (i.e. children whose first language is neither English nor French) to attend French primary and secondary school, as well as francization of the work place, and making French as the language of outdoor signs. When the Supreme Court overturned the sign law in 1988, Bourassa invoked the notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights to override it, only to relent as he was leaving office.
Since then, we’ve enjoyed 15 years of peace on the language front, with only the occasional outbursts from the purs et durs, the language and sovereignty hardliners of the Parti Québécois.
Previous PQ leaders, notably Lucien Bouchard in government and André Boisclair in opposition, were more than prepared to let sleeping dogs lie. They wanted to put their leadership on the line in support of a moderate society, open to the world.
Not Pauline Marois, the current PQ leader. At a national council meeting last weekend, she not only permitted debate on two potentially explosive issues of language in education, she sparked it.
And so the PQ seriously discussed two bad ideas — one old and one new, that could destroy Quebec’s hard-won peace, or least truce, on the language issue.
The old bad idea has been kicking around for years, and has been advocated by the likes of former PQ leader Bernard Landry. It would force francophone and allophone students to attend CEGEPs (the province’s post-secondary network of junior colleges) in French. So while students would be old enough to vote by second year CEGEP, they wouldn’t be old enough to choose whether to attend college in French or English.
The PQ language hawks are once again advocating this position because a reported 40% of allophone high school graduates and, wait for it, 4% of francophone graduates, are doing their CEGEP in English at outstanding schools such as Dawson College in downtown Montreal and John Abbott on the West Island.
If the policy is adopted by a PQ policy convention in 2011 (and assuming the PQ actually wins the next election), students would no longer have the option of attending CEGEP in English or French. It would be a bad idea whose time had finally come.
The new bad idea is to force francophone and allophone infants and toddlers into French daycares, and it’s Marois herself who gave it impetus going into last week’s general council session, declaring that French was endangered in Montreal, and that some “electroshocks” were needed : “We should go in the direction of applying Bill 101 in child care centres.”
Quebec, with only 20% of day-care-age kids in the country, has 50% of the daycare space in Canada, because of a heavily subsidized program that costs parents only $7 a day (out of the real costs of $50 a day).
Daycare is an untouchable pillar of social policy and is considered a model for liberal policy-makers in the rest of Canada. For the PQ to propose turning daycares into language laboratories is indicative of a party returning to its militant roots in an attempt revive its slumbering, and shrinking, base.
But it’s quite shocking coming from Marois, who is clearly desperate for traction on something, anything. In another life, she was Quebec’s education minister — one of the best, on a short list of outstanding ones along with Paul Gerin-Lajoie and Claude Ryan. How sad to see her now hawking such bad, divisive ideas.
L. Ian MacDonald is editor of Policy Options.