Archived - Open Letter - Profound misunderstanding

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Ottawa, July 20, 2012

I was disappointed by the reaction of a number of provincial and federal politicians when grants were announced for projects sponsored by groups from Quebec’s English-speaking community. The assumption behind the reactions was that these groups are promoting English at the expense of French. In my view, this is a misinterpretation that seems to reflect a profound misunderstanding of the nature of Quebec’s English-speaking minority communities.

There is a basic difference between the undeniable rise of English—an international language of communication used in industry, trade, research and tourism—and the very real needs of those who live in Quebec’s English-speaking communities. Leaders of these communities often say that the English language is not threatened in Quebec, but English-speaking communities are.

Thirty years ago, the late Gérald Godin understood this distinction. He was chairing a National Assembly parliamentary committee that was conducting a five-year review of the Charter of the French Language, and he stated quite clearly that Quebec’s Anglophone community was very much a minority and posed no threat to French. The threat, he said, came from elsewhere. Three decades later, the impact of globalization shows how right he was.

In the mid-1960s, it was a popular belief in Quebec that English-speaking Quebecers did not need community representation because they had the Bank of Montreal, Sun Life, The Montreal Star and the rest of the business community to defend them. Well, the Bank of Montreal became BMO to do more business in the U.S., Sun Life moved to Toronto, and The Montreal Star folded in 1979.

Since then, Quebec’s English-speaking community has changed and, like the province itself, has become more diverse. The community is now 60% bilingual—exceeding the proportion of bilingual Francophones in the province. Among those aged 18 to 34, 80% are bilingual. Yet I find that the image Francophones have of their fellow Quebecers is frozen in the past, and that any gain for the English-speaking community is too often seen as a loss for the French language.

Nearly 600,000 Anglophones live on the island of Montreal. The network of institutions established by the city’s English-speaking community over a century ago helps English Montrealers deal with today’s challenges, such as an aging population. The 300,000 English-speaking Quebecers living elsewhere in the province face a situation similar to that of French Canadians living outside Quebec. For example, in the Gaspé, in Québec City and in Sherbrooke, it is difficult to access health services in English despite the principles set out in the Charter of the French Language, the province’s legislated guarantees, the efforts made by the Quebec government and the goodwill of hospital staff. And this is just one example; the challenges extend well beyond health care.

Last week, the federal government’s announcement regarding funding for community development projects drew an angry response from certain quarters. Yet almost all these groups operate at least in part outside Montréal. The Quebec Community Groups Network may be headquartered in Montréal, but it is a network of community organizations across the province, including groups working in the healthcare field. What threat does the Network pose to the French language? Does anyone really think that the English Language Arts Network, the Youth Employment Services Foundation, the Quebec Community Newspapers Association, the Quebec Drama Federation, the Quebec Farmers’ Association and the African Canadian Development and Prevention Network are anti-French organizations working for the supremacy of English in Quebec society? The reality is that these organizations are working for the good of their community and for the good of Quebec. Many of them have succeeded in establishing lines of communication and cooperation with Francophone groups and organizations that share their goals. They deserve respect and support.

Graham Fraser
Commissioner of Official Languages

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