Canadian myths too

January 19th, 2009
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In our last post we discussed the pernicious effect of socio-political myths on Canadian unity, particularly how they aid the cause of Separatism. Unfortunately, the examples we discussed are not alone. Here are a few more.

A year ago there were successive front-page stories in the Journal de Montreal stating that “despite 30 years of Bill 101” it was still difficult for Francophones to be served in their language. Well, not exactly. The paper sent a journalist, posing as a unilingual Anglophone, to see if she could get a service job in downtown Montreal despite her linguistic deficiencies. (Again, William Johnson was the only journalist to write about this)

Of the 97 employers approached, 15 were willing to hire the young lady. A rep of the famed Office de la langue francaise was quoted saying “Downtown Montreal has a symbolic value. We have a problem if one is not able to be greeted and served in French.” Further, a gentleman reputed to be an “expert on the linguistic situation in Quebec” was quoted as saying “One says that we are in the process of losing control of the situation and that English is returning as the principle language downtown”.

What the story glossed over was the fact the mock-Anglophone was refused employment by most small, and in fact by all large employers (those explicitly governed by Bill 101). So we’re talking about a few mom and pop stores willing to employ a non-Francophone. The employers presumably know their clientele, and made the calculation that they could live with a unilingual staffer.

The corollary is of course that Francophones insulted by the lack of service in French could simply patronize other establishments. But rather than vote with their feet, the preference has generally been to legislate linguistic compliance. 

The line between achieving linguistic respect and expunging the minority language in Quebec has unfortunately often been blurred over the last 40 years. Creating myths like resurgent English in Montreal obviously doesn’t help matters.

Speaking of myths, two Quebec academics last year added to the list. They wrote in the Financial Post that Anglos hadn’t actually left Quebec since the 1970’s due to xenophobia, but rather were fleeing a lagging economy (sorry, I couldn’t find the actual article, only the commentary). They continue with (to me at least) a rather convoluted argument about lower land prices in Quebec compensating for fewer economic prospects.

I can only speak from experience here. Yes, the brutal economic prospects in Quebec were a good enough reason to leave; but being treated as a second-class citizen in your own hometown was the icing on the cake. Economics being equal then, I wouldn’t return to Montreal because of the ongoing language politics. Also, it’s worth mentioning that restrictive language policies have gone hand in glove with dirigiste economics to make Quebec a less attractive place to work and do business.

Academics can try to debunk the “myth” of the threatened Anglo but they’re up against some tough facts. A study last year showed that a full three-quarters of Anglo post-docs are leaving the province, including 74% of doctors. Similarly, 58% of Anglos who left Quebec between 1996 and 2001 had post-secondary degrees. Maybe there is something to the mobility argument then, but rather that more would leave if they could.

Finally, if there were any more “myths” about how Anglos are perceived in Quebec one need only look at a recent Radio Canada special. It seems that their New Years Eve bash featured a slew of racial slurs (about Mr. Obama), sexist stumbles and Anglo-bashing. Only the racism and sexism was deemed to require an apology. Producers were encouraged that even some “old-stock” Quebeckers (that would exclude me) were offended enough to complain.

For your benefit, I’ll quote some of the anti-Anglo comments that were deemed unworthy of comment or retraction. As reported by the Post these included some on the re-election of PM Stephen Harper: “Don’t give up, you bunch of in-breeds from English Canada, and keep electing you walking lobotomy”. Similarly, a co-host gratuitously mentioned Toronto, Winnipeg and “all your boring damned cities, where the bars close at four in the afternoon”.

Charming. I’d be willing to pay even more extra taxes to live in a place like that. Besides what these stories tell about the, in certain ways, changeless nature of Quebec society, it underscores the strength of the many inter-connected myths of that political culture. It also again asks the question why there is not the minimal amount of introspection there to acknowledge the myths, let alone challenge them.

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By John Weissenberger
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