Vive le Québec multilingue

Beyond the English-French debate

By: Oliver Warne, Web Developer

Living in Montreal certainly has its perks. The city is home to multiple world-renowned universities, Michelin star-worthy restaurants, countless museums, a great nightlife scene, and, perhaps most importantly, a mosaic of diverse cultural communities. The island has historically and continuously been a landing spot for immigrants from across the globe: Around 150 languages are spoken across the city, and over 200 religions practiced. Its multicultural and multilingual character is visible in the numerous cultural festivals celebrated throughout the island, from the energetic Carifiesta to the colourful and vibrant Holi, and it resounds in the array of languages spoken by its residents, from the grocery store to the metro.

Born in Montreal, I was raised to be bilingual. My parents, although anglophone, tried their best to speak both English and French with my sister and me so that we would grow up with the set of tools becoming progressively more important in Quebec. Being able to speak French was something I always took for granted; I didn’t learn it because I wanted to, but because I had to. Now as an adult, though I am much more appreciative of my grasp of the French language, I am equally plagued by an ever-increasing sense of dread as I watch some of my friends contemplate leaving this beautiful city due to its repressive language policies.

I do not blame those who wish to leave. Thanks to Quebec’s government, this province that so many of us call home is becoming increasingly hostile towards those who don’t speak French. Premier François Legault and his cabinet have introduced a slew of legislation that strangles the human rights of linguistic minorities in the province.

One of the Quebec government’s most recent—and perhaps egregious—acts was the adoption of Bill 96, an amendment made this past June to the already controversial Charter of the French Language (1977). The Bill, which many activists have vehemently opposed, limits the use of English in public services and courts of law, grants language inspectors powers of search and seizure without warrant, caps enrollment at English CEGEPS, and imposes stricter francization requirements for businesses with 25 to 49 employees. Under these new regulations, businesses must serve their customers in French, ensure all public signage in non-French languages is less prominent than its French translation, and present all hiring documents in French unless otherwise requested.

The effects of Bill 96 on language education at the CEGEP level threaten not just anglophone rights, but multilingualism’s ability to thrive in the province. Starting next fall, students without English eligibility certificates will have to take a French exam to graduate, meaning that their courseloads will be more French-heavy. Teachers and students at Vanier College, an English-language CEGEP, spoke to CBC recently about their fear that other language courses will slowly be pushed out of the curriculum, and those seeking to reconnect with heritage languages may not get the opportunities they once had.

The addition of required French courses at the CEGEP or junior college level is particularly detrimental to Indigenous students' access to higher education and academic success. The Bill will worsen the Quebec government’s continued neglect of Indigenous leaders’ calls for the decolonization of the Education Ministry’s pedagogical curriculum and preservation of Indigenous culture and languages. Because many Indigenous students are already bilingual (mother tongue and English), the burden of having to master a third language can be taxing and weaken their quality of education and academic performance.

The government’s introduction of Bill 96 reveals a glaring neglect of the province’s linguistic diversity. Despite how much the Quebec government likes to proclaim that the French language is under attack, they often do not tell the whole truth. Recent statistics show that the proportion of French speakers in Quebec fell between 2016 and 2021 from 79 per cent to 77.5 per cent, while the proportion of English speakers rose from 12 per cent to 13 per cent. These findings are the product of a biased census, in which people who identified English as their mother tongue were lumped together with people who have multiple mother tongues, including but not limited to French. This skewed the results to propagate the victimization of the French language. The census also focused overwhelmingly on Montreal residents, which tends to be more anglophone or multilingual than cities such as Quebec City, or suburban areas throughout the province. Recent research by Jean-Pierre Corbeil, a sociology professor at the University of Laval, however, concludes that the typical categories used to measure language identity—mother tongue and language spoken at home—insufficiently capture the multilingualism of linguistic environments such as Quebec. As most Montrealers know, the boundaries of language use are not so clearly divided in daily life.

By focusing on the false narrative that the French language is under threat by immigrants, Legault’s government ignores the actual socio-economic conditions required to learn a new language.

Jessie*, a master’s student in psychology who is originally from India, could not find the time to study French while balancing her academic responsibilities.

“I did French in high school, and I did it because I really loved the language, but that was six years ago and I lost most of it after finishing [high school],” Jessie said. “Here in Montreal, I tried picking French up again [but] during my master’s I simply didn’t have time to take classes.”

Learning a language can be a full-time job in and of itself, requiring long hours and hard work. When an international student or immigrant packs up their belongings, moves away from their family, and settles into a new environment, time constraints on learning a new language should not be added to the duress of survival. Bill 96’s language regulations on businesses exacerbate the barriers international students and immigrants face when job-searching, compounding financial and mental strains. Shruti Kumaran, a master’s student in physical therapy at McGill, who also moved here from India, has yet to find any part-time work in Montreal.

“My parents had to take a loan to help me pay my tuition [...] it’s ridiculous how expensive it is for international students, on top of having to pay for housing, food, and so on,” said Kumaran. “I wanted to work part-time here to help cover some of the costs, or at least to help pay my parents back, but I don’t speak French, which has made finding a job almost impossible. Part of me regrets moving here when I could have gone somewhere like Toronto… or Vancouver even.”

Newcomers’ relationship with French is also negatively influenced when attempts to engage with the language are met by xenophobic remarks and overt micro-aggressions.

“I was waiting for the bus once when I had an older lady approach me and she started talking to me in French,” said Jessie. “I told her ‘Anglais s’il vous plaît’ and ‘Je ne parle pas le français’. I was being very kind [...] she kept asking me why I’m not learning French [...] I said sorry and she just rolled her eyes and sighed, and gave me this disappointed look as if there was no point in talking to me.”

Unfortunately, this is not uncommon for non-French speakers to experience, and in a culture where our own government is actively trying to discourage multilingualism, incidents like Jessie’s may only become more frequent.

One of Jessie’s other French experiences with strangers demonstrates the alternative. Instead of treating others with a passive-aggressive air of linguistic superiority, the government should encourage the embrace multilingualism with patience and compassion.

“I remember once I had to call H&R Block, and the woman on the phone spoke in French to me,” Jessie said. “I speak very little French and she spoke very little English, yet we had this cute little moment of trying to communicate, and she was encouraging me in a very patient way which was a pleasant change.”

But as hopeful as this interaction was, Jessie is now planning on moving to Toronto, as they would need to pass a French exam to be able to practice counselling in Quebec.

In addition to Bill 96’s regulations, those who wish to move to Quebec permanently must obtain a Quebec Selection Certificate (CSQ), which is dished out by the Ministry of Immigration, Francisation and Integration. One of the requirements for obtaining a CSQ is, unsurprisingly, a demonstration of proficiency in the French language. With many choosing to settle in other provinces instead, sociologists and politicians alike have raised concerns about Quebec’s "brain drain", as talented and educated individuals who contribute to the province’s economy and society are leaving en masse to avoid the cultural asphyxiation caused by Quebec’s French legislation.

Nishanth Manickam, a third-year student at Concordia, was born and raised in Montreal. As his parents immigrated here from Sri Lanka and do not speak French, he fears that Bill 96 will make life in Quebec increasingly difficult for them.

“Both my parents and grandmother speak Tamil and a bit of English, but they’re not able to communicate or understand French,” Manickam said. “Bill 96 is kind of scary for them because they feel as if they will not be able to live in this province comfortably [...], especially in terms of legal proceedings and health care, they would prefer to have the freedom to choose which language they use. This fear has led to them wanting to move to Toronto with the rest of our family because they are more accepting of English speakers in Ontario.”

Nishanth’s family settled in Dollard-des-Ormeaux, home to a sizable Tamil community. The temple he frequents is close to his house, where he has come to know some of his neighbours. He worries that should he and his family move to Toronto to avoid the language laws here in Quebec, he will be alienated from his religious and cultural community in the neighbourhood.

“There are a lot of Tamil people in Toronto too, but it would feel like we’re starting all over and we’d lose touch with the community here that we’ve been a part of for so long,” Manickam said. “I make a quick visit to the temple every day before I go home. I sit outside in my car and pray and it’s something that means a lot to me. It gives me hope even when everything seems to be going wrong. From a young age, my parents have tried their best to make sure that I don’t lose touch with the Hindu and Tamil cultures and I feel like I’ll do the same with my children.”

Nishanth is just one of many who take pride in expressing their heritage across the vast multicultural landscape of Montreal. But, like many, he has serious concerns about the growing intolerance towards those who do not fit neatly into Quebec’s predetermined francophone identity.

Jessie, Shruti, and Nishanth’s experiences show that a coercive approach to “protecting” the French language like Bill 96 does not actually give non-French speakers the capacity to learn the French language healthily and productively, but rather pressures them into doing so by taking away their access to essential public services and job opportunities. This most often affects low-income immigrants and Indigenous peoples, forcing them to sacrifice their cultures and communities or establish their future elsewhere.

We should not buy into the government narrative that English and French are in competition for linguistic supremacy. The real-life linguistic habits of Montrealers cannot be categorized into strict unilingual boxes and, by doing so, we threaten to erase the multilingualism inherent to Montreal's history and interconnected society—in turn, forcing important community members out of the city. Non-French linguistic communities across the province do not degrade Quebec culture—they enrich it, and remain an integral part of what makes us Quebecers.

*Jessie’s name has been changed to preserve their anonymity.

Illustrations by Shireen Aamir, Design Editor