On Quebec and identity

By Julius Grey on February 26, 2009

Voices have been heard again in Montreal’s English Community calling for action if the Quebec government tries to overturn a successful Bill 104 challenge through use of the “notwithstanding clause”.  At the same time, criticism has been leveled against Quebec Ministers Kathleen Weil and Yolande James for not insisting more on the protection of English identity.  A new round of English complaints is unjustified, whatever happens to Bill 104, and the two ministers are clearly right in rejecting an exclusive English identity.

In the late 1970s, I reacted against the excesses of the original version of Bill 101 and along with many others took the law to court, for the most part successfully.  We ardently assumed an English Quebec identity and complained about discrimination and alienation from the mainstream because of the dominant nationalism.

In those days, this position could be defended.  Several provisions of Bill 101 were manifestly excessive.  There was a certain exclusionary atmosphere in which those not of purely “quebecois” descent were excluded from the public sector and their views and interests were given less weight.

In retrospect, we must realize that Quebec’s laws and attitudes often constituted the only resistance to a perceived threat to the survival of French and to a society in which most business was conducted in English and anglophones earned on the average substantially more than francophones.  However, in the 1970s and 1980s there were also genuine injustices against English speakers.  In addition, the pettiness of governments brought about a real threat to civil liberties and freedom of expression which necessitated a successful appeal to the United Nations against the use of the “notwithstanding” clause.

However one views the conflicts of the past, it is clear that they have little relevance today.

Most young anglophones are bilingual.  The incomes of the two language groups are roughly equal.  There is no perceptible linguistic tension in Montreal.  Quebec is surely not perfect, but anti-English attitudes are not part of the problem.  Despite widespread fears of injustice which emanate from both sides, it is simply not true that an upbringing in French or English seriously affects a person’s chances in life, so long as he can work in both languages.

Unfortunately, since about 1990, a portion of the English community has reacted to the successes of the early, moderate protests by becoming more radical.  This has discredited English organizations such as Alliance Quebec.  It has also led many of us to question the wisdom of retaining a single-minded English identity.  I, for one, no longer see myself as an English Quebecer, but simply as a Quebecer who is at home everywhere in the province.

We live in both French and English in a world of considerable integration, easy inter-marriage, and room for shades of identity or for identities that evolve with time.  Politics based on identity is inappropriate in a welcoming society.

It would be in the interest of both francophones and anglophones to integrate most of their schools and other institutions and to cease to be preoccupied by their origins.  Perhaps in the past Quebec appeared to be “them” and “we” were English.  Today, Quebec is “us”.

Certain issues concern all of us.  French is still in some danger, and all Quebecers have an interest in protecting it.  The language laws, as amended by the Courts are not only acceptable – they are in some respects necessary.  Quebec does have a special role with respect to culture, and it should continue to assume it.  This role is not limited to French culture.  It must be admitted that Quebec has maintained bilingual institutions and English culture at a very high level.  The necessary counterpart is to accept the primacy of French and to stop dividing citizens into rigid linguistic categories.  All Quebecers have an interest in opposing linguistic pettiness from either side.

I believe this is the path chosen by Kathleen Weil and Yolande James. Integration and solidarity with our fellow citizens is indeed vastly preferable to confrontation and discord.


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