Letter to the Editor - Le Devoir

Comparing French apples to English oranges

Rebuttal to Michel David’s column

Michel David’s January 27 column “La famille éclatée [a family divided]” in Le Devoir made for interesting reading. While I appreciate his mentioning my experience as a journalist and author in Quebec, I would like to clarify a few things.

First, I am delighted that he raised the issue of access to French schools in Yukon, a matter that is currently before the Supreme Court. I intervened in that case to support the Francophone community, just as I did when the Commission scolaire francophone de la Colombie-Britannique took the British Columbia government to court. Successive Commissioners of Official Languages have intervened in cases that helped pave the way for the French schools we have now, schools that are managed by French school boards, in every province and territory. Dyane Adam, my predecessor, also intervened in the Montfort case to preserve the only French-language teaching hospital west of Quebec, which is now the hub of a French health care network.

I was somewhat surprised at the debate that arose when I suggested that the government establish an agency that would be responsible for monitoring and assessing the needs of Quebec’s English-speaking community. That observation, which I have been making for years now, was also the subject of public debate following the publication of an interview with Guillaume Bourgault‑Côté in Le Devoir in 2012. My opinion is still the same.

Mr. David claims that I am comparing apples to oranges. Of course, if you compare the services that are available to English-speaking Montrealers to those available to French-speaking Reginans, the comparison doesn’t hold water. There are 600,000 Anglophones in Montréal. That community has built and maintained a large number of major institutions.

However, away from the Island of Montréal, the situation changes for English-speaking Quebecers. In my duties as Commissioner of Official Languages, I have visited English-speaking communities in the Gaspé, on the Lower North Shore, in the Lower St. Lawrence, in Québec City, in the Eastern Townships, in the Laurentians and in the Outaouais. Of course, I have also visited French-speaking communities in every province and territory.

On a more fundamental note, I have been hearing for several days now that there is no need to improve communication between the Government of Quebec and the province’s English-speaking communities, with the argument being that these communities are much better off than French-speaking communities outside Quebec. I have trouble accepting that argument.

Let’s leave the matter of comparisons aside. As the saying goes, comparisons are odious. Let’s look at the facts.

The 300,000 English-speaking Quebecers outside Montréal, scattered across the province, face major challenges that are poorly understood by the French-speaking majority, as Mr. David’s column shows. However, as the Institut national de santé publique du Québec noted in a 2012 study on the socio-economic status of English-speaking Quebecers, with very few exceptions, the population is aging and there is a higher rate of unemployment and a higher incidence of poverty. English-speaking seniors in regional areas who are more and more in need of services are finding them less and less accessible.

English-language schools face a particular challenge. In some regions, half of their students come from exogamous families and speak French at home. In addition, nearly a fifth of rights holders—those who, under the Charter of the French Language, have the right to attend English schools—are enrolled in French schools because their parents want them to be able to work in French in Quebec.

Mr. David seems to suggest that, after having spent a decade in Quebec, I should have understood the English-speaking community’s unique and privileged status. He forgets that for seven years, I lived in Québec City as a member of its English-speaking community, which is still very much a minority community today. That experience opened my eyes even more to what life is like in a minority setting. I especially understand the joys and challenges of a small community struggling with issues that are sometimes not understood by the majority.

Graham Fraser, Commissioner of Official Languages

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