Commentary, Opinion

Quebec’s businesses and linguistic minorities need protection during COVID-19

Since gaining a majority government in the 2018 election, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ)  has advanced a nationalistic agenda for the province, with one of their principal initiatives being the reinforcement of the primacy of the French language. Most recently, a report found that 40 per cent of Quebec businesses prefer employees who are fluent in English, agitating party officials such as French Language Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette. In response, he pledged to implement a series of stringent measures to protect the French language, particularly in Montreal, where the rate of companies that prefer English fluency stands at 63 per cent. Among these proposed measures is Bill 104, a measure that compels government bodies and crown corporations to deliver written communications exclusively in French. However, it is clear that such policies would harm businesses and minority populations, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is difficult to believe that the French language could be under threat in a province where nearly 95 per cent of people speak the language fluently. Jolin-Barrette argued that stronger measures are necessary to maintain French as Quebec’s official language of business, but the statistics that he cited to illustrate this need were misleading. He created a false equivalence between a business requiring a knowledge of English as opposed to merely preferring it. The survey found that only nine per cent of Quebec businesses turned down a candidate because they could not speak English. Although these studies are reminders that bilingualism is an asset for employees in a globalized economy, they are not sufficient evidence to suggest that French is at risk of being replaced as the primary language of business in the province.

The legislation that Jolin-Barrette is suggesting would be detrimental to a provincial economy that has already been devastated by COVID-19. Quebec was hit harder than any other province by the pandemic, causing a record deficit in the provincial government’s budget. With the economic situation still so dire, the CAQ should instead focus its attention on rebuilding businesses, not hampering them with bureaucratic measures such as legislating which languages they communicate or advertise in.

Moreover, the CAQ’s policy of cutting English services to promote the French language could have serious consequences for McGill students. Restricting these services to historic anglophone communities, which Premier François Legault defined as individuals whose parents attended English schools in Quebec, would exclude many members of McGill’s English-speaking community. This could make it difficult for them to understand notices from government agencies such as Hydro-Québec or health services. 

Indeed, the CAQ’s language politics have already had serious consequences during the pandemic. Despite promising that historic anglophone communities could continue to receive English services, certain COVID-19 information pamphlets were distributed exclusively in French throughout the province, putting those who do not have access to online information at risk. 

The policy of denying many English speakers access to English services markedly differs from the treatment of linguistic minority populations in other parts of the country. Consider Ontario’s French Language Services Act, which protects the right of citizens to receive government services in French. The Act applies to counties and districts with francophone populations of at least 10 per cent, as well as any cities with a population of five thousand or more francophones. This means that native francophones in Toronto can receive services in French even though they comprise only 1.3 per cent of the city’s population. By contrast, 13 per cent of Montrealers speak English as a first language, yet not all of them can be counted as part of the historic anglophone community that is to be exempted from the CAQ’s measures.

Bill 101 has already ensured the primacy of the French language in Quebec. Ignoring demographic realities, hampering economic growth, and reducing English services is unfair and dangerous, especially during this current time of crisis. The French language is already protected and the CAQ must shift its priorities to protecting all of its citizens and their livelihoods. 

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